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11 August 2014

“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. 

By media mole

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.

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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.