It’s just over two years since England’s women’s rugby team celebrated an emphatic 21-9 World Cup final victory over Canada – and the Red Roses have ensured that they have made their moment in the spotlight.
Since that win, there has been a remarkable 70% rise in women’s active participation in rugby from grass roots levels, to universities, colleges and schools.
In 2014 there were 15,000 registered participants playing every week – two years later, that figure has risen by 11,000 as the Rugby Football Union’s four-year development plan bears fruit.
From the outset, the RFU’s director of rugby development Steve Grainger had a clear vision: to take the team’s achievements and use them as a foundation to build success through at grassroots level, making sure that being future success becomes the norm for women’s rugby.
And thanks to funding and continuous support from Sport England, they are achieving that – and more.
“We set ourselves an ambitious target when launching our strategy in 2014,” Grainger said.
“We have created more playing opportunities in schools, clubs and universities, increased investment in facilities and strengthened our coaching base. We are also grateful to Sport England, whose financial support has contributed significantly to this growth.”
Rebecca Freeman arrived at the University of Essex in 2014 having never even picked up a rugby ball before. Now in the third year of her studies, she is one of the most established players in the university’s first-team squad.
When asked what had attracted her in the first place, one of the first things she points out is the feeling of togetherness.
“At one of the first come and try sessions, there were about 50-60 girls there, playing the sport for the first time, I was stunned.”
“Every year the team is always so tight-knit. When everyone’s so committed and wants us to do well, it just happens naturally,” she explained.
“We socialise together weekly, we train twice a week and play once a week, we’ve always got each other’s backs and that’s something I love more than anything, the passion and the will to do well.
“We currently have one women’s rugby team so I think that plays a massive part of the togetherness between us all, but with current interest in playing we are exploring the possibility of maybe expanding to a second team and who knows, even a third.”
Looking back to 2014, she says the post-World Cup buzz generated a recruitment drive for newcomers to be part of a new era for the sport.
“At one of the first come and try sessions, there were about 50-60 girls there, playing the sport for the first time, I was stunned,” she said.
“It was such a great atmosphere because of the number of girls that had never played before and we all just clicked, which is something that has happened during freshers’ week every year since I have been here.
“The interest is ever-growing and now we have 45-50 girls who are fully signed up with memberships for our team.”
Even before the success of 2014, one year earlier the RFU had launched an initiative to get as many men and women as possible playing touch rugby without the commitment of the physical side in the game.
“This year rugby at Essex is RFU accredited, which means more opportunities for the sport here. We have just launched O2 Touch which is especially for those who want to play weekly without the commitment of training, or don’t want to take part in contact,” she said.
“The RFU have played a great part in the development during freshers’ week – we had a development day where two coaches came down to help us develop our skills and learn the basics. Their guidance and experience is priceless to use girls wanting to learn all the time.”
There are currently eight O2 Touch regional centres across the country, with the RFU looking to expand even more over the next couple of years, if the participation rate continues.
With the future of women’s rugby looking stronger than ever, Rebecca says she expects her involvement in the sport to continue beyond her graduation next year.
“I basically live for rugby and I will continue to, for sure.”
“I’ve fallen in love with Rugby, my team, we are a family,” she explained.
“These last three years would definitely not have been the same without it and it’s made me grow and mature as a person and has 100% improved my confidence, I basically live for rugby and I will continue to, for sure.”
Go back a few years, and Rebecca was the one being encouraged to play – now she is the one doing the encouraging each season to inspire women to get involved.
Her responsibilities with the university team are to make the new players feel welcome and use her own experience to help convince them that rugby could be their sport.
“This year has been lots of fun for me as the team’s web and communications officer – in the run-up to freshers’ week I’ve been posting endlessly trying to recruit as many new players as possible. We managed to sign up around 120 girls for try-outs and taster sessions.
“One thing we did this year to encourage new people to join besides taster sessions was through social media. I posted quotes from exec girls saying what the club means to them, which was really nice, as it’s not always about the sport but the friends you make doing it.”
It’s clear that women’s rugby is built around passion, commitment and hard work and – unsurprisingly – togetherness.
The success of the Red Roses has inspired women of all ages to take part in rugby, in a variety of ways and on many different levels.
For more derails about the O2 Touch initiative, click here. Feature image courtesy of EO1 via Flikr Creative Commons.