21 May 13
The J.P. Morgan Premiership Rugby 7s Cup took place at Old Reigations RFC on Saturday 18th May and was a day full of fast-running, thrilling rugby.
I watched the last England Ladies Autumn International game against New Zealand at Gary Street's old rugby club, Aston Old Edwardians in Birmingham. I had just bought a pint of beer and a packet of crisps after watching, with bated breath, the men's England game against New Zealand, when Gary Street appeared on the television. The room went mad, his old team mates cheered and chanted at the screen! It was crazy to think that this man on the television had once stood where I was stood in anticipation, ready to watch his team go on to beat New Zealand. I looked around, the 'old boys'- who had been at the club for years - sat in the corner discussing tactics, while the members, players and fans stood at the bar. In that moment, this rugby club where I grew up epitomised the rugby society, people coming together to watch great sport, creating an electric atmosphere - but I was one of few women in the club actually watching the game.
This historical game for the Ladies made it three wins out of three in the Autumn Internationals and a fifth win in six games against their World Cup rivals, New Zealand. So with the successes piling up and the trophy cupboard overflowing, why is it that Women's Rugby is not celebrated as much as it should be? I met up with Gary Street to ask why.
"Women's sport in general gets a lot less attention. However, within the last 12 months it has improved greatly. We had huge coverage for the game against New Zealand and 14,000 people stayed to watch, which I never thought would happen. We have had coverage through the Sunday Times and the Guardian and have been on the Chris Evans radio show, so the exposure we are getting is increasing constantly. We sold out for our World Cup final at the Twickenham Stoop, which I never thought I would witness for a women's international game."
Stereotypically, Rugby is known as a 'man's sport'. So are there any prejudices towards Women's Rugby? And do you think the sport is taken seriously?
"There is far less than there used to be. People thought that women had no place playing rugby and weren't good at playing, but the likes of Emily Scarratt and Maggie Alphonsi are changing these views. They are two examples of world class athletes who have changed the myth of women's physicality. People watch the team play and it dispels any views that the women don't have rugby skills. So yes, it is definitely taken seriously. Last June we integrated with the RFU which helped. The first thing you see when you walk into Rugby House is a life size photograph of England flay-half banner of Katy McLean on the wall. There's no gimmick, the game is for senior men, women and all age groups and it is taken very seriously. But the level of success we have had has helped enormously.
The world of women's rugby seems to be constantly changing. How much has it changed since you have been involved?
I have been involved in women's rugby since 1992, so in 20 years I have witnessed a lot of changes. The skill levels have gone through the roof and the individual programmes that we put into place six or so years ago have helped. The fitness levels have also gone through the roof; take Maggie Alphonsi - she can bench press 50k over her body weight. That standard of physical preparation and skill has changed everything really.
The world of women's rugby seems to have changed greatly. But would you say that the general public's views have changed?
The respect levels have definitely changed. People can see the amount of work we put in, not just on the pitch but off it with the whole organisation of the game. We have a huge network of coaches and staff. It's now a big sport.
You've experienced men's and women's rugby, so how different are the two? And is it now strange to be involved with women's rugby after being a part of a men's club for so long?
That is a million dollar question really! There's a lot more questioning in women's rugby and as a coach I would say it's more challenging. All the players want to know the details - why you're doing it, how you're doing it what you're doing it for, whereas the men just get on with it. They challenge your ideas in the sessions which is a great thing. Good coaching is about dialogue, not monologue. There are definitely different challenges that come with whoever you coach. Good coaches understand how to adapt their coaching.
The women are trying to balance playing rugby and a career; do you find this affects their commitment to the game?
It doesn't affect their commitment to the game. . They aren't professional rugby players but they certainly treat it as a professional career. They juggle both, some even give up on their careers or put them on hold, but luckily we have a fantastic team that work around the girls. Their commitment is incredible and it makes me extremely proud as a coach. It makes me want to work harder for them as they have made a lot of sacrifices to play international rugby. People forget this, I've had people come up to me who watched the New Zealand game telling me it was brilliant and that I must be so pleased that they are becoming professional players. This is not the case, they are all amateur players who work full time, and so their performance is staggering really.
The priority at the moment for England Women is Sevens and winning the world cup Sevens, do you think winning this will change people's views of women's rugby? Are you confident for the Six Nations since the line-up change?
This Six Nations will be really challenging. We have withdrawn 17 of our players who were in the line-up against New Zealand because our main priority is winning the World Cup 7's since, profile wise; it will be huge for us. We've had a lot of success over the years but winning the World Cup 7's will be the next step for us and will be key going forwards. It will give the team the confidence to become the World Champions. But this Six Nations will be a huge opportunity for our younger players to make their mark. We're confident we will do well but the most important thing is performance, and this will be a great learning curve for our younger players.
How are you getting ready for the World Cup after narrowly missing out on the title previously?
Winning 3 games out of 3 in the Autumn Internationals against New Zealand was extremely beneficial for us. Before the last World Cup, we had not played against New Zealand enough, which made it difficult for our players to adapt. So after the World Cup review, we wanted to play them more often in order to know more about them and how they play, which is what we have done. By the time World Cup 2014 starts we would have played them 9 times.
So take a moment, if someone asked you "Hey, can you name the team that are European Champions, had a white-wash over New Zealand in the Autumn Internationals, are Six Nations Cup holders after winning the last seven consecutive titles and hold many other records?" Truthfully now, would you say the Women's England Rugby team? With all these successes that other sports teams could only dream of, it seems mad that we haven't been praising this team from the very off. So will women's rugby ever be a hugely popular sport?
"If we keep being successful, we will gain more media interest, sponsor interest and so on. The game is constantly growing and will continue to do so."
Gary Street seems to think so.