A MODERN day land army of Yorkshire women and girls is leading a sporting grassroots revolution that is changing the once gnarly, masculine face of rugby union.
A sport for so long associated with cauliflower-eared, knuckle-dragging leviathans is increasingly in touch with its feminine side thanks to a combination of the success of the England women’s team and the dedication of volunteers across the Broad Acres.
There are currently 1,000 women and girls playing rugby union in Yorkshire, a five-fold increase on 2011 when the county boasted just 186 female participants, and the growth in popularity shows no sign of slowing down, much to the delight of Charlie Roberts, chairwoman of women’s and girls’ rugby union in the county.
“There has been a huge team effort by a lot of people at grassroots level to get women’s and girls’ rugby in Yorkshire to where it is right now,” said Ms Roberts, who become involved with the Yorkshire RFU three and a half years ago.
“When I started there was little meaningful support for us from the governing body and it is through grit and pure determination that we are now being taken seriously.”
Nowhere is the accelerated growth of the girls’ game more apparent than at Sandal, who had 50 players in action at under-13, under-15 and under-18 levels last Sunday, just a year after the girls section was launched by coaches Andy Bevan and Sharon Yoxall.
Sandal’s emergence as a sporting success story has been achieved more by the commitment of a dedicated group of coaches and parents than direct intervention from the governing body.
“The driving force for us was the hunger to play rugby, either union or league, from the girls we work with in schools in the area,” said Mr Bevan, whose company Wakefield Sports Academy provides expert support to PE departments in the city’s schools.
“We had delivered a few coaching sessions at Crofton Academy and from there we put seven girls forward for the RFU’s England Rugby Players’ Development Programme. Five of them were selected, and they were all keen to carry on playing outside school so we went to Sandal and haven’t looked back since.
“We started with nine under-15s and then added an under-18s team; now we also have a thriving under-13s team, which already has 18 players just six weeks after they trained together for the first time.”
Ms Yoxall, a learning mentor at Crofton Academy and a Grade 2-qualified coach, said playing rugby union had had a dramatic effect on the lives of some of the Sandal players.
“The girls love it, both the physical nature of rugby and the camaraderie that comes with being involved in a club,” she said. “Playing rugby has improved the girls’ attitude to learning and their attendance and behaviour in school. As coaches we feel privileged to be involved with such a great group of girls.”
The RFU launched an ambitious three-year strategy for the female game in September 2014 on the back of the England Women’s timely World Cup success. That strategy aims to have 25,000 women and girls playing contact rugby by 2017.
Like all governing bodies, the RFU faces pressure to meet participation targets that help determine levels of funding for grassroots sport from Sport England, and the girls’ and women’s game is providing a fertile recruitment ground, especially in Yorkshire.
“At the end of 2013 we had just 15 women’s and girls’ teams in Yorkshire but that number is now up to 40 and by the end of this year it will be over 50,” said Peter Taylor, the RFU’s women’s development officer for the North region.
“The increase demonstrates the priority that the girls’ and women’s game has.”
The Yorkshire Senior Women, Girls U-18s and Under-15s teams were all unbeaten in last year’s county matches and the England selectors are increasingly looking northwards for the country’s top rugby union talent.
While the boys’ game has traditionally been strongest in public schools, the growth of girls rugby union has largely come from with the state sector – all 50 girls who played for Sandal last weekend are pupils at local comprehensives – but the independents are now waking up to the appeal of rugby union for girls.
“The support of schoolteachers is really important if we are to build the girls’ game, as is the backing of the RFU, who have to do more to help us promote it in the public eye,” added Ms Roberts.
“We are very proud of what we have achieved in Yorkshire, it’s a real movement that has a momentum all of its own.
“This is a fantastic time for girls and women across the county to become involved in this great team sport.”