The Ireland team line-up ahead of the IRB Women's Rugby World Cup match against Kazakhstan on August 9, 2014 in Paris, France. Photo: Getty Images
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“The most action I've got in weeks”: play cliché bingo with the Irish Indy on women's rugby

Advice to reporters: when sent to explain why the stereotypes about something are wrong, it’s best not to do your best to reinforce those stereotypes. 

The Irish rugby union team beat Kazakhstan 40-5 on 9 August, ensuring a place in the semi-finals of the World Cup.

If you didn't hear about this, then there's a good reason for that - it was Ireland's women's rugby union team. Women playing a team sport need a final, let alone a semi-final, to even get close to the press coverage of a men's team knocked out in the qualifying stages. But getting to the semi-finals of the World Cup is a damned impressive achievement whichever way you look at it, and this mole applauds the team for it.

However, the Irish Sunday Independent clearly felt it had to fill its readers in on this newfangled "rugby" all the ladies are apparently playing. Intrepid reporter Niamh Horan's dispatch from a day training with the women's rugby squad of Railway Union FC is pretty remarkable.

"I never play a game without my tan", says the headline, and it gets more worse from there:

As I bent over with a blonde's hand slipping around the top of my thigh, I pondered how there are worse ways to burn 
calories on a sleepy Thursday evening.

Now usually I'd make someone buy me dinner before getting into this position.

But here I was, getting my first taste of the world of women's rugby.

I was sandwiched - cheek to cheek - between two other girls, so I had to turn around to see her demonstrate how she would cling to a girl's shorts just below her crotch.

This could well be the most action I've gotten in weeks.

Minutes earlier, I had arrived with full hair and make-up for a post match night out, expecting a few raised eyebrows from my new-found team mates.

"Most of the girls are like that," Shirley continues. "Our scrum half, Jessica, never goes on the pitch without her blonde hair done, a full face of make-up and her nails perfectly manicured.

"You should see some of the guys," she smiles, nodding on the pitch towards the lads' team - some who look like they've just strutted off a catwalk. "We call them The Spice Boys," she chuckles before someone catches her eye.

Put that on," someone said, throwing a jersey my way. I stretch around to check it out in front of my new gang: "Does my bum look big in this?"

Women rugby players - as in other sports with a gender divide - can struggle to earn respect for their skill, and recognition for their achievements. After spending so long building up the feminine credentials of the women on the Railway Union FC team, Horan does go on to talk to staff about the mixed-gender coaching at the club and the differences between the men's and women's game... but it's after that weird, almost erotic opening. 

As anyone who's ever seen a roller derby before will know, there's no inherent contradiction between femininity and playing a sport to win - and perhaps manicured nails might even prove advantageous in a scrum - but Horan's piece both emphasises sexist stereotypes while doing nothing to undo the damage they do to women athletes. Railway Union FC even went so far as to publish a statement on its Facebook page calling out the article:

We were requested by the IRFU to facilitate a journalist from the Sunday Independent who wanted to do a training session and a feature on women's rugby in light of Ireland's world cup heroics. We are disappointed that what could have been a hugely positive article promoting women's rugby in Ireland at time of such achievement internationally has been reduced to stereotyping. The article in no way reflects our sport, its values and the values of our club and our members. Our club's primary goal is always the promotion of rugby, regardless of gender, and we support all teams in the club equally."

Perhaps Horan could have expected this reaction from the response to the innuendo in her parting question:

Before I left, I couldn't resist asking the question: any rugby threesomes then?

"We don't get up to that sort here," I was told bluntly.

The girls, it appears, are able to conduct themselves better off the pitch too.

I'm a mole, innit.

Photo: Getty
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After Richmond Park, Labour MPs are haunted by a familiar ghost

Labour MPs in big cities fear the Liberal Democrats, while in the north, they fear Ukip. 

The Liberal Democrats’ victory in Richmond Park has Conservatives nervous, and rightly so. Not only did Sarah Olney take the votes of soft Conservatives who backed a Remain vote on 23 June, she also benefited from tactical voting from Labour voters.

Although Richmond Park is the fifth most pro-Remain constituency won by a Conservative at the 2015 election, the more significant number – for the Liberal Democrats at least – is 15: that’s the number of Tory-held seats they could win if they reduced the Labour vote by the same amount they managed in Richmond Park.

The Tories have two Brexit headaches, electorally speaking. The first is the direct loss of voters who backed David Cameron in 2015 and a Remain vote in 2016 to the Liberal Democrats. The second is that Brexit appears to have made Liberal Democrat candidates palatable to Labour voters who backed the party as the anti-Conservative option in seats where Labour is generally weak from 1992 to 2010, but stayed at home or voted Labour in 2015.

Although local council by-elections are not as dramatic as parliamentary ones, they offer clues as to how national elections may play out, and it’s worth noting that Richmond Park wasn’t the only place where the Liberal Democrats saw a dramatic surge in the party’s fortunes. They also made a dramatic gain in Chichester, which voted to leave.

(That’s the other factor to remember in the “Leave/Remain” divide. In Liberal-Conservative battlegrounds where the majority of voters opted to leave, the third-placed Labour and Green vote tends to be heavily pro-Remain.)

But it’s not just Conservatives with the Liberal Democrats in second who have cause to be nervous.  Labour MPs outside of England's big cities have long been nervous that Ukip will do to them what the SNP did to their Scottish colleagues in 2015. That Ukip is now in second place in many seats that Labour once considered safe only adds to the sense of unease.

In a lot of seats, the closeness of Ukip is overstated. As one MP, who has the Conservatives in second place observed, “All that’s happened is you used to have five or six no-hopers, and all of that vote has gone to Ukip, so colleagues are nervous”. That’s true, to an extent. But it’s worth noting that the same thing could be said for the Liberal Democrats in Conservative seats in 1992. All they had done was to coagulate most of the “anyone but the Conservative” vote under their banner. In 1997, they took Conservative votes – and with it, picked up 28 formerly Tory seats.

Also nervous are the party’s London MPs, albeit for different reasons. They fear that Remain voters will desert them for the Liberal Democrats. (It’s worth noting that Catherine West, who sits for the most pro-Remain seat in the country, has already told constituents that she will vote against Article 50, as has David Lammy, another North London MP.)

A particular cause for alarm is that most of the party’s high command – Jeremy Corbyn, Emily Thornberry, Diane Abbott, and Keir Starmer – all sit for seats that were heavily pro-Remain. Thornberry, in particular, has the particularly dangerous combination of a seat that voted Remain in June but has flirted with the Liberal Democrats in the past, with the shadow foreign secretary finishing just 484 votes ahead of Bridget Fox, the Liberal Democrat candidate, in 2005.

Are they right to be worried? That the referendum allowed the Liberal Democrats to reconfigure the politics of Richmond Park adds credence to a YouGov poll that showed a pro-Brexit Labour party finishing third behind a pro-second referendum Liberal Democrat party, should Labour go into the next election backing Brexit and the Liberal Democrats opt to oppose it.

The difficulty for Labour is the calculation for the Liberal Democrats is easy. They are an unabashedly pro-European party, from their activists to their MPs, and the 22 per cent of voters who back a referendum re-run are a significantly larger group than the eight per cent of the vote that Nick Clegg’s Liberal Democrats got in 2015.

The calculus is more fraught for Labour. In terms of the straight Conservative battle, their best hope is to put the referendum question to bed and focus on issues which don’t divide their coalition in two, as immigration does. But for separate reasons, neither Ukip nor the Liberal Democrats will be keen to let them.

At every point, the referendum question poses difficulties for Labour. Even when neither Ukip nor the Liberal Democrats take seats from them directly, they can hurt them badly, allowing the Conservatives to come through the middle.

The big problem is that the stance that makes sense in terms of maintaining party unity is to try to run on a ticket of moving past the referendum and focussing on the party’s core issues of social justice, better public services and redistribution.

But the trouble with that approach is that it’s alarmingly similar to the one favoured by Kezia Dugdale and Scottish Labour in 2016, who tried to make the election about public services, not the constitution. They came third, behind a Conservative party that ran on an explicitly pro-Union platform. The possibility of an English sequel should not be ruled out.  

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.