Sports Gazette

by sports journalism students at St Mary's University, London

“It was seen as a bit freakish, and it wasn’t for women” Gary Street on rugby fever extending to the women’s game

Posted on 6 November 2019 by Muireann Duffy

Harlequin women’s joint head-coach, Gary Street has seen the landscape of rugby change dramatically. 

With 27 years of experience in the women’s game, he’s seen the sport transition from the days when it was an anomaly, to what it is now, focused on ability rather than gender.

“Probably one of the biggest things, when I thought the world was changing a little bit is, last year at a game, I saw in the crowd there was a bunch of like 18-year-old lads, and they went and bought jerseys in the shop and waited to get them signed by Debs McCormack, our Scottish International.

“I don’t think that would have happened ten years ago, and that was a bit of a game changer for me” adds Gary.

Changing people’s perceptions of women’s rugby has been gradual, but the World Cup winning coach insists the stereotype of rugby being a man’s game is slowly ebbing away:

“[In the past] it was seen as a bit freakish, and it wasn’t for women. There were some questions you’d get asked constantly, like ‘What do you do if they get hurt?’, from mainly blokes who just didn’t really get it.

“There are still pockets of ignorant people, but I’m seeing more and more now that it’s becoming normal. It’s not seen as different, it’s just another sport that girls play.”

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A large part of normalising women’s rugby comes down to the visibility of the game. The old saying “if she can’t see it, she can’t be it” still rings true. 

“I remember the first time [the English Women’s team] ever got invited to a Six Nations launch and it was very much ‘girls stand over there’. Now there’s a whole queue of [media] who want to speak to the women players.

“The fact that we’ve got some really bright rugby females, like Maggie Alphonsi [ITV], who are going into punditry and the media is really important. People will ask ‘Who is she?’, then they’ll see she was a Rugby World Cup winner in 2014, and maybe then they go and look to see what the women’s rugby scene is like.

“I think that is really important, to keep getting those messages out there- that women play at the top level. The more visibility we get, the more women we’ll get into the game and the game will keep growing” says Street.

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Support for women’s rugby at club level has been going from strength to strength in recent years, with Harlequins expecting between seven and eight thousand spectators at their Tyrrell’s Premier 15’s clash against Wasps in December.

“I didn’t think that in my lifetime women’s club rugby would come this far, but it has and it’s brilliant and I think it’s only going to get better. 

“We have to make people who come to games really want to come back and we’ll do that by making sure that the rugby product is good” says Gary.

Responsibility for the rugby product lies with Gary and his joint head-coach Karen Findlay, but the support of the entire club is paramount in developing the women’s team:

“We’re very fortunate at Harlequin’s to have the resources that we have. I have the exact same resources as I had when I was England coach; strength and conditioners, performance analysts, medical team. 

“I thought that would be a long way off in a club setting, but that’s what Harlequin’s have put on the table and we’ve attracted some brilliant internationals due to the infrastructure.”

Eager to continue to expand the game, England Rugby established ‘Inner Warrior’; country-wide camps aimed at showing women the basics of rugby and offering them a way into the sport.

But if finding your Inner Warrior doesn’t sound like it’s for you, but you do want to get stuck in, Gary’s advice is simple: 

“Every rugby club, if they have a women’s section, would love for people to show up and see where they’re at. Just get yourself to a club and see how you get on.”