Saints Rugby and the changing nature of women’s sport


DSC_8957Despite the fact that we are in 2016 and we are supposedly freer and more equal than even before, women’s sport is often kept out of the spotlight. In fact, it is often marginalised and subject to derision and ridicule. Often women are judged as lesser than their male counterparts in the sport and those that take part are often insulted.

One only needs to look at the responses to EA Sports official Twitter announcement in the summer that female teams would be included in their FIFA 16 game, released last September. Needless to say the comments were largely focused on the women’s physical appearance in the game and were ridiculous. They are professional athletes, just the same as men, and therefore deserve to be treated with just as much respect.

It surprised me to be honest, especially considering the Women’s Football World Cup in the summer. There was a lot of support in England for the tournament as the English team did far better than ever before and the television coverage offered by the BBC allowed more people to see it, hopefully increasing participation down the road. That support and pride that people took in the team seemed to be completely juxtaposed by the debase comments. I am completely aware those making the comments were not representative of all Britain but the point still remains – this is 2016 and we should behave in a better way and show women the respect they deserve.

With the Women’s Six Nations underway I was hoping that there would be some good coverage of their tournament this year. Sadly they only seem to be offering highlights within the coverage of the men’s games. The BBC are in the process of making major cuts and the Sport part of their network has taken a huge hit, so I could understand them not showing the games, especially with BBC Three closing down as a television channel and relocating online. However, they now share coverage with ITV and ITV have multiple channels and therefore it is bemusing and disappointing that there is such minimal coverage. If the sport is going to grow then it needs to be broadcast to a wider audience and this tournament, along with the split TV deal, provides the perfect platform for that.

Women’s rugby is often subject of derision, largely by men, with those that play often labelled as butch, masculine and other terms that are neither true nor fair. This stigma that is attached to the sport would decline further if they get more coverage on a wider scale but it does appear to be improving.

St Andrews is probably not the best place to test the notion that the discrimination is decreasing. This University is often termed the ‘Bubble’ where we live a vacuum that often seems distinctly removed from the rest of the world. Therefore the treatment the women’s team get here could well be different due to the nature of St Andrews than it would be at another major Scottish University or in the rest of the UK. Despite that, I was still interested to speak to the team and learn about their treatment and if it had changed.

Talking to Fiona Cooper, the women’s captain, and some of her teammates it is clear to see that the stigma is declining but there are still issues. She recounted to me a recent experience of hers where an orthodontist she contacted to get a mouth guard seemed aghast that a ‘pretty little thing’ like her was playing a sport like Rugby. That comment is an isolated example though and the general treatment they get is improving and their equality within the Rugby club here is at an all-time high.

It was not too long ago that the University women’s team trained and played at the Madras school fields and their fixtures and performance seemed distinctly removed from that of the men’s side. That has changed since the appointment of David Ross as Director of Rugby at the University, with the women’s team now training and playing on the same pitches as the men’s team and the general feeling around the teams is that it is now a club, encompassing both teams, rather than just rugby teams within the University sport programme. Last season saw the women’s team win the Scottish 1A title with a string of impressive performances but this season has not gone quite as well.

They suffered two defeats in their first six games, meaning the title is probably out of reach for this season. That can largely be put down to a problem that has plagued the club in recent years. Most of the girls that come to the University and take up Rugby are complete beginners and therefore by the time they are at the peak of their game and are playing as a great team with experience together under their belts, it is almost time for several of them to graduate, meaning the team is often reset and has to start from scratch again.

This should not be too much of an issue next year though, as the current squad is quite young and is developing at a great rate. Although they will lose some players in the summer due to their graduation, the vast majority will be retained for next year and that will be of huge benefit to the club and their prospects for next season. This will hopefully be bolstered by recruitment efforts in Hong Kong, where rugby is quite big and developing quickly, and Canada, where girls are often offered the opportunity to play in high school.

The highlight of the season for the Saints Women’s team was their Varsity game at Murrayfield, the home of Scottish Rugby, against the University of Edinburgh. Edinburgh are widely regarded as the best women’s team in the UK and they currently have five Scotland under-20 internationals who all have bright futures predicted for them. Although they tasted defeat in that game it was a fantastic experience for them and the experience will put them in good stead for the future.

Now on to the game played last week at University Park. The bright weather that started the day set the scene for the game against the University of Stirling. Director of Rugby David Ross told me before the game that he expected a tough encounter as Stirling, much like St Andrews, have undergone a significant restructuring of their women’s rugby and they are a team on the rise and therefore would be tricky to beat. Stirling began the game by kicking from right to left and they made a great start.

Saints had all the early possession from the kick-off but seemed unable to get out of their own 22 and move forward. That pressure from Stirling resulted in a knockon by Saints and therefore a Stirling scrum. Direct from the scrum their number eight made a powerful run and whilst she was stopped, their fullback was not and she scored after just five minutes. From the kick-off Stirling were able to secure possession again and they scored another try just a couple of minutes later and whilst it was not converted, they looked dominant. By the time the clock reached the 10 minute mark, Stirling had further extended their lead with a try that Saints will be disappointed with.

A few missed tackles allowed them space and freedom to score a third try and this time they converted it to make the score 17-0. Saints, much as they did in the Varsity game back in September, had made a slow start but as the first half went on they managed to pull themselves back into the game before the break. Some scrappy play from both sides presented an opportunity for Saints and we managed to touch down and score a try through captain Fiona Cooper, but missed the conversion, leaving the score at 17-5. The next ten minutes saw the game settle down for both sides, with both playing some great stuff and showcasing the great talents that they both have. An amazing line break from outside centre India Roche capped off some great recycling of the ball by the Saints backline and pulled the score back to 17-12 and both sides seemed evenly matched as we got into the second half of the first half.

A converted try for Stirling after 32 minutes saw momentum shift back their way again but Saints were to have the last say in the first half. A period of pressure in its closing stages saw Saints probe and push at the Stirling backline and eventually a gap opened up for Roche, who again excelled and powered through to score again, making it 24-17 at the break and looking like it could go either way in the second period. That late try in the first half seemed to boost Saints at the start of the second half and it was India Roche that scored again early on to level the scores. She showed a great turn of pace and some great footwork to break through four tackles and score her hat-trick during the game and the captain got the conversion to make it 24-24 just into the second half.

Saints were showing some much improved defence at the start of the period, repelling attacks where they would have struggled in the first half. However, the game started to unravel for them about ten minutes later. A mistake at the breakdown saw Stirling steal possession and score their fifth try of that game to go back into the lead and then six minutes later they were to score again. A 22 drop out for Saints was caught by the Stirling full back and she broke through all the tackles in front of her to score a try and it was converted, leaving Stirling 36-24 ahead with twenty minutes to play.

Those two tries seemed to stun the Saints and take the game out of their reach but their opponents were far from finished. Stirling showed some impressive stamina to score another four tries in the last fifteen minutes as Saints’ defensive effort fell apart and the final score ended with Saints losing their second successive game in the league, eventually going down 58- 24. The results sees Stirling move up to second in the league ahead of Saints but our team will have the change for some revenge on March 2nd, as they make the trip to face Stirling in the return fixture. Whilst the result did not go the way Saints wanted it to, they showed real heart, desire and commitment and if this is only the beginning for this group of players, the signs are bright. They are part of the changing face of women’s rugby and it is certainly something brilliant to be a part of.


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