Women's Rugby - hear it roar. - Green and Gold Rugby
Rugby Sevens

Women’s Rugby – hear it roar.

Women’s Rugby – hear it roar.

Considering it is the off-season there has been a hell of a lot going on in Australian Rugby this last 24 hours.  And for those looking for rugby to move away from its traditional ‘old boys’ ties, those changes have been significant for their female focus. Rugby Australia seems to be making a concerted effort to raise the profile of women’s rugby with some significant announcements of late.

Leadership:

Firstly we had the announcement of Raelene Castle as the new Chief Executive Officer of Rugby Australia. The former head of NZ Netball and the Canterbury Bulldogs is clearly an appointment of significant merit.  Her extensive sports administration background is unmatched in previous ARU CEOs and an acknowledgement of the uniqueness of the Australian sporting landscape and it’s divergence from, for instance, the legal and banking world.

But Castle’s gender cannot discounted as it is a demonstration of a change in the direction of rugby in this nation. Forget the fact she is the first CEO in the history of Australian Rugby to live outside of Northern Sydney, Castle is tangible proof of the organisation’s willingness to look beyond the traditional rugby heartlands and explore new markets.

With Castle to sit on the Board of the ARU, it means that the gender balance will sit at 50-50, an important achievement for a modern day sporting body (well…any corporate entity). As Managing Director, Castle will work with the Board already featuring Elizabeth Broderick, Pip Marlow and Ann Sherry.

Pathways:

Hot on the heels of Castle’s appointment, and in fairness a legacy of the Bill Pulver era, a new Women’s National XVs competition was launched – the Super W – to reinstate and reinvigorate a pathway to the Wallaroos. Something that has been lacking for a number of years.

Super W will run at the same time as Super Rugby and feature teams from Queensland, NSW, ACT, Victoria and Western Australia. Run as a six week program, with a final in April, the new competition may conflict with local club competitions but the long term gains should be notable.

It seems likely the event has been rushed as a response to the introduction of Women’s AFL, cricket and NRL competitions, however that does not take away from the opportunity it provides to entice and develop future Wallaroos.

To further add to the appeal of the competition, Rugby Australia has announced their intent to bid for the 2021 Women’s Rugby World Cup which will raise the profile of the game, and Super W, even further.  Given the promising signs shown by our Wallaroos in this year’s event in Ireland, despite almost nil resources and a limited preparation, it provides hope for the growth of the game across the country.

Charlotte Caslick Dubai Sevens 2015 - Credit Martin Seras Lima

Fan favourite Charlotte Caslick (Photo credit: Martin Seras Lima)

The significance of 7s:

While part of me still feels Rugby Australia has failed to fully tap into the value and appeal of our Women’s 7s team, the shortened version of the game remains a focal point in the sports strategic future.

In a couple of months’ time we will see the Sydney 7s kick off at Allianz Stadium which will include a leg of the Women’s World Series for the first time. After what can only be described as a successful cameo last year, Pulver and the ARU lobbied hard for an expanded format in 2018. In the end they got their way, an outcome no doubt influenced by increasing profile of our Rio Gold medallists.

Then there was the inaugural AON National 7s competition which had an absolutely belter of a debut earlier this season. The tournament itself, brought together on a shoe string budget and featuring teams in non-traditional markets such as Adelaide and Tasmania, produced excellent rugby throughout. More importantly the standard improved as the tournament progressed despite the University of Queensland winning undefeated. The talent showcased, and enhanced, will stand the national team in good stead with the Commonwealth Games and World Cup on the horizon.

So the structures are there, and developing, but if there was ever any evidence required of the standing of the game it came at the annual RUPA Awards lunch where Charlotte Caslick won the People’s Choice Australian Player of the Year. That’s not just 7s Player of the Year or Women’s Player of the Year. That is the most popular Australian Rugby player this year. Caslick won the award, historically, from two of the highest paid players in the game in Israel Folau and Kurtley Beale.

What Caslick, and the rest of the Aussie 7s stars, deserve  is a domestic stage to show their wares . Where their growing fan base can see their skills and abilities up close and personal. Previously they were basically locked into Sydney and would only play in overseas tournaments. Now front and centre at the Sydney 7s, together with the AON National 7s competition, plus the inaugural Super 7s to be played in Brisbane among some of the best international 7s teams in the world the week before Sydney next year, these stars of our game can start to reach the fans across the country.

Lily Dick of University of Queensland makes a break

Lily Dick was one of many stars to emerge from the AON National 7s.


 

We are in the midst of a dawning of a new age of women’s sport, with all codes finally realising the need to provide competition opportunities for the ‘other’ half of the population. The key will be to distinguish what is purely ‘dollar seeking content’ and which is a legitimate strategy to drive increased participation and pathways in the game.

As recent reports indicate, Rugby Australia’s recent dramatic growth in school participation, escalating them from cellar dwellers to the top 10 in just a year, is a positive sign of a restoration of the building blocks for our sport. The fact that almost half of all of these participants were young girls highlights the need for these new initiatives.

It hasn’t been said much on this site of late, but kudos to Rugby Australia on their strategy and focus on boosting female participation and engagement. Long may it continue.

  • nmpcart

    Excellent writeup Reg. There is definitely huge potential amongst girls – just go along to girls touch football competitions and you will see a lot of prospective talent. As always, getting into the schools is key – if it were my decision I would focus a lot of development efforts on girls in high schools (all high schools, not just private girls schools) to get them over their fear of tackling and get them involved. Set up some inter-school competitions based around the schools who let the development personnel in and get some of the state 7s girls involved to provide that ‘look at what you can achieve’ impact. A lot of the guys at the co-ed schools will notice and be interested so there is the spillover benefit there as well.

  • Patrick

    Good news on both counts indeed.

  • dsb

    Well said and well written. We just now need to bring Western Australia back into the fold in a meaningful and positive way.

  • Pearcewreck

    Awesome Post Reg.
    This is some of the best news in years!!!
    Great way for Rugby to finish the year.
    Looking forward to next year.

  • Woolfe

    Hopefully the National Team will be changing their name to the Social Justice Wallabies/Wallaroos, that’ll pack em through the gates.

    • RugbyReg

      thanks for your input.

  • Xaviera

    As Reg notes, everything has come together this week, but the reality is, plenty has been done in the background prior. Let’s also not forget that’s it’s only a few short years ago that the ARU decided to resource a professional women’s 7s team, and look where we are now. Call it a tipping point, but the pace of change of female rugby is increasing, all to the good. It really is very exciting.

    I’d also like to point out that plenty elsewhere are saying rugby has been lagging and that rugby was beaten to a women’s competition by the AFL and NRL. Yeah, nah. We had the first women’s full time professional team (our 7s), plus we’ve had the Uni 7s (as noted above), as well as NRC teams for the women (albeit limited). So despite being depicted by some as dinosaurs, we’re actually setting the trend. One of the reasons for the Buildcorp fallout recently was there was such a high expectation that a national competition would be launched this year, so when it didn’t, disappointment manifested itself in the barney that followed. Given the recent announcement, that seems to have been addressed. We also have a 50:50 board, again as Reg noted, and that is HUGE! Worth pointing out too the calibre of the women on the board – zero tokenism there – they are mighty impressive people and although being a Rugby Australia/ARU board member in recent times has been tricky, it’s actually a Board with plenty of grunt, as shown by the appointment of the new CEO. It has an element of risk, but with the need for change, it’s a decision that makes a lot of sense.

    Final comment is the recent Game On stats, and the associated VIVA7s (now Foxtel Touch 7s – NOT a name change I support!). This is a widespread program and involves a LOT of public schools, and a LOT of girls, so now the challenge is to build the bridge between school and pathway, and make the most of the enthusiasm these athletes have for our game. Exciting times indeed.

  • Alister Smith

    I would like to see the board look at a bit more diversity in the backgrounds of their members. The fact that the board will now have numerative equality in terms of male and female probably makes it pretty unique in terms of Australian boards but when you look at the backgrounds and experience of the board members in total there is a little “sameness” in some aspects. Mostly lawyers and bankers. It’s excellent to see someone with real sport administration experience on the board and I am sure Raelene Castle will bring a lot. The Bulldogs experience probably wasn’t all good but I think she did some tremendous work there early on and turned around a basket case though later with changes at board level etc it seemed to become more difficult continue or maintain the things that she achieved and that may be part of the reason she is no longer there.

    What I am a little concerned about is the overall direction of Rugby Australia. For me its not or shouldn’t be ALL about the Wallabies (or Wallaroos or any of the top representative teams from 7s etc). I would like to see a real focus on re-building and extending the base of rugby in this country rather than an exclusive focus on the apex. I didn’t come to rugby through a traditional pathway of GPS school etc. I attended a small Catholic high school in a country area with limited exposure to the game but we had one teacher who had played for NSW country and was interested enough to enter us into (I think) the Waratah Shield. I then played for a college team at a country University and for a number of country clubs and grades (mainly lower grades) in Brisbane. The thing is I guess that there are a lot of potential kids out there like i was who sort of accidentally fell into the game and who went on to really enjoy it and become very much involved in it and hopefully contributed to it as players, coaches and spectators. And they are all over the country but they have to have some exposure to it somehow.

    I don’t want to be too negative on the recent decisions re: the Super W teams. I think its fine really but 6 months ago we risked p&ssing off a major sponsor because there was no money for it and because we were going to “build women’s rugby from the ground up”. Six months later we take the top down approach and put a provincial level comp in place while at the same time we have removed a pathway to provincial rugby for an established junior base in Perth and WA. Really I think the biggest thing we got wrong with the Rebels in the first place was to start top down. Couldn’t we have gone to SANZAAR and said we don’t want a team in Melbourne just yet. Give us 5 years to pump some resources in a Victorian schools competition and building up the state and metropolitan senior competitions in Victoria and then we will be ready to enter a side in 2018 after we’ve established/extended a base (i know there was a good quality comp in Melbourne already but obviously not enough to supply any more than a couple of potential players when it first began.

    I am concerned that, regardless of who the CEO is, we have on the board ONLY players that have played at the elite level and therefore ONLY understand the game from that perspective. While I donl’t know any of the other applicants I think one of the biggest assets that Raelene Castle has (and the one that made her a better choice than Phil Kearns) is that she has experience in similar roles but brings an entirely new perspective. But I think that it may be her experience at Netball NZ that will be the most useful – looking across the whole game and making those hard changes that allow us to keep the best of what we have (good club rugby and GPS schools etc) but is able to broaden that. And I think that RA needs a new Chair as well. The current one, like the previous CEO, is too marred by their previous decisions and has not displayed, IMO, good judgement or the ability to be able to operate a transparent, inclusive organisation. Someone like Phil Kearns may be better in that role but I think we also need someone representing the areas where growth in rugby needs to come from.

    • Patrick

      Definitely good points and I think we are a bit let down by our former players in the administration in this regard.

  • Tommy Brady

    Let me begin by wishing all parties here every success. However, I find it fascinating that given the current state of the code, Rugby Australia have decided that a Kiwi woman with limited experience of Australian sport, no previous background in rugby administration and no connection with Australian rugby should be handed the crucial CEO role and tasked with getting the game back in order – on many fronts.

    This certainly feels a politically correct move. How supportive Australia’s professional franchises, rugby districts, clubs, administrators, coaches, players and supporters will be of the expected attempts to change in the coming 24 months will be a matter of tremendous intrigue. I wish all parties success. The game in Australia needs it.

    • RugbyReg

      so you think someone with experience in Australian sport and a background in rugby administration should be the CEO? Kinda limits the gene pool a bit.

      • Tommy Brady

        Your question Reg is a fair one. However, these are not normal times for rugby in Australia and is it really the environment to appoint someone without the deep fundamental knowledge of the workings of the sport to turn it around? 2017 was a poor year for rugby in Australia and it followed a disappointing 2016. Rugby in Australia is regressing and the issues confronting the sport are complex and not easily fixed. There must be an end to the blood-letting that damaged the sport this year and new strategies must be formed to move the game forward. Players need to be appeased, fans need to be won back, sponsors need to be reassured, media support must be rediscovered and youth development systems re-designed. I have no doubt Raelene Castle can accomplish all that – but Rugby Australia does not have the luxury of time here and missteps along the way could be costly.

        The biggest question has to be simply this… Does Raelene Castle have the required respect, credibility and support across the code in Australia to draw up necessary change, deliver necessary change and then most importantly – execute necessary change? I hope she can because evidence over the past 2 years says change is urgently needed. Her time in the role will be a short one if she cannot.

        • Alister Smith

          I don’t necessarily disagree with what you are saying overall Tom but the problem that I see with selecting someone from within Australian rugby at the moment is that they will come from one side of the market or the other and there are few if any unifying voices. You have blokes like Brett Papworth from Sydney clubs who talk a lot about grass roots but they perhaps limit that view of grassroots to metropolitan Sydney and Brisbane ignoring country area and non-traditional area like Perth, Melbourne or Adelaide etc. You have the modern former elite players who cane up through a GPS school and were then channeled through academies with limited or more limited involvement in clubs. You have older group of players who perhaps played all but 3-4 of a clubs games when the Reds and Waratahs and Wallabies might have played a half a dozen games during the season and the rest was club. The potential benefit of Raelene Castle is that she has experience managing a sport at a national level but she isn’t tied to any of the existing entrenched groups in the sport

          One person who perhaps rises above this is Rod McQueen – wouldn’t mind seeing him come in as Chairman

    • Patrick

      I downvoted but you changed my mind. It’s a fair question, but I am just SO BLOODY RELIEVED that they have hired someone who:
      – has run a professional sporting organisation *other* than rugby;
      – does not live in North Sydney
      – never played for Randwick or Shore

Rugby Sevens
@RugbyReg

The original prop in a prop's body, but thankfully I have the rugby mind of a prop as well.

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