It’s an interesting time in the growth of rugby. There is a lot of opinion of how the game should grow, where money should be allocated, who should reap most of the spoils... We are not immune to this in North America.
The attention that's on the sport at the moment is due not only to the recent World Cup but also to recent discussions of salary caps, World Rugby’s attempt to blur the lines between Tier One and Tier Two Rugby, and the unfortunate lack of funding for women's rugby.
We are at a crossroads with Women’s Rugby. Despite popularity increasing in recent seasons, and male supporters and players backing the women’s style of play, it’s not getting the respect it’s due from governing bodies, sponsors and tournament organizers. I’m baffled as to why this is, given that general consensus is that Women’s Rugby is fast and equally as entertaining as men’s.
Unless it’s a matter of the old chestnut that rugby is a man’s domain.
There is no argument that rugby has historically been a man’s sport, concerning supporters and players alike. But in recent years, more women are filling the stands and cheering just as loud as men. More club-level teams field a women’s side. More touch rugby organizations for kids have girls on their teams from really young ages. Every professional side has a women’s line of supporter gear. I would be willing to bet this is a fairly new phenomenon. A decade old maybe?
In Rugby United, the club managers are equally represented by the sexes. The women backing the hashtag are knowledgeable and are most often familiar with rugby beyond their own club or country, and they are respected by [most] fellow Rugby United correspondents and followers.
There are amazingly knowledgeable female commentators in the sport as well, notably Sonja McLaughlin who has been talking rugby professionally since before the professional era, and who has rightly earned the respect of ‘rugby men’ the world over.
There is massive growth in social media, with Rugby United boasting half a million followers of the sport, discussing every aspect of the game; Tier One, Tier Two, Women, Men, Sevens, Northern Hemisphere vs Southern, and much more.
Along with the growth in talking up our sport, you have more bloggers and writers of all ilk. Professional writers and commentators who grew up knowing (and often playing) the game, amateur writers and players who have great fan-based insight, and of course there are also frustrated wannabe journalists with an opinion or ten. In each category there are both men and women, though there are fewer women writing about rugby than men. Yet....even though the majority appear to want to raise the profile of Women's Rugby, and are angry when funding is pulled and women players struggle, there's a disconnect. Women can maybe play the sport, as long as they don't talk about it.
I’m not a professional writer, nor am I an ex-player. I didn’t grow up with the game. I’m not a coach or a ref or a season-ticket holder. However, it shouldn't really affect my legitimacy as a stakeholder; as the game of rugby has grown, so has my interest. My interest in Rugby Canada getting a proper foothold on international rugby is high. My hope that more Canadian players get recognized on the world scene is tremendous. My wish to share with international followers that our brand of rugby is just as passionate here in Canada is fervent. And my ability to get the word about rugby players and news from Canada is great, considering the numbers I can potentially reach by sharing information in our vast Rugby United network.
Why isn’t this a good or even a great thing? Is it because I am not paid to do it and I don’t hold a degree in Rugby 101? Or is it something else?
I watch a hell of a lot of rugby. I read a hell of a lot more. I listen to the professionals, from players to commentators and administrators. I have learned all I know from someone who genuinely has a Rugby Brain and who knows just as much about the game as Eddie Butler or Nick Mullins (sincerely). So I feel I can consider myself a bit knowledgeable on the subject.
But just a bit.
I never said I was THE authority on rugby in Canada. I leave that to Patrick Johnston who is an utmost figure on the scene, and who is known for shining a light on the great aspects of Canadian Rugby as well as the blights, and who calls a spade a spade.
Neither though am I simply a superfan or a (ugh) groupie.
What I prefer to be is someone with half a brain who knows a fair bit about our game and who has a rapport with a tremendous group of players and who has come to be known moderately well by Rugby Canada as someone who holds both the organization and the players up.
I am not a reporter. I am not also a fan who hops on and off the bandwagon at will as soon as the scoreboard is not reflecting wins. I am someone who is genuinely interested in the growth of the sport, the increasing popularity of Sevens and Women’s Rugby, Canada’s role within that growth, the players from all walks who contribute to that growth, and the men and women who work their tails off to try to get rugby a foothold in a very difficult market.
I am not ashamed to support our players and buoy them up even when the losses outweigh the wins. I’m not their coach; they work hard and they deserve recognition for that, even if they’re bound for a raging lecture because they forced three errors. Neither am I ashamed to support the organization. Rugby Canada is trying to grow rugby. Obviously they aren’t trying to alienate followers or players. If only there were greater resources they would please more people. But I am not about to criticize them because to put them down simply wouldn’t achieve anything.
I'm also interested in the professional side of the sport because let’s face it: if you’re reading this it’s likely you think as I do that it’s a hell of a game (or even the best game). I would much rather watch 80 minutes of rugby than 90 minutes of soccer or 60 of hockey. To that end, I have favourite players in Canada but also worldwide who I have come to respect and who I consider great ambassadors of the sport.
Does that make me a groupie?
And if so, what does that mean? Am I considered less legitimate because I am female? Would I just be called an ardent supporter if I were male, or would I still be called a groupie because I won’t tear a strip off Rugby Canada for their poor showing in the last year?
The criticism of late feels reflective of the struggles women’s rugby is facing regarding their own legitimacy within the sport. We are trying to tear down the hierarchies that exist but not all are treated equal. Perhaps all the pudding-burners should stay home and leave it to the menfolk, then?
I’m not bitter, despite the last comment (oh and I can’t wait for the backlash). But I have been frustrated lately. There are turkeys out there of both sex who think they know what they're talking about and yet miss the mark. There are critics of Rugby United who don't think we've made any positive difference in the world of rugby (really?). Yet there are a group of us who have invested a great deal in caring about this sport. Even a few women.
I do actually consider myself most fortunate. The forums afforded me to offer insight and commentary on games and players have been among the most rewarding aspects of my involvement with Rugby United. I am incredibly honoured by the players who follow and support us back, and to those who banter with us, and greater still trust us with their opinions. I’m proud to be part of the growth of rugby. I’m even more proud of the kind of support I offer to the game. And I don’t plan to change my approach.
You can’t appreciate everyone’s point of view, this is true. But you can respect it. The wide range of opinion will only make for a more knowledgeable fan base on all levels. We all make the rugby world go 'round.
Rugby is unique. We all know this. It’s like no other sport. And we all play it; men, women, tall, short, prop, winger, on wheels or fast boots. We all bring gifts to the game and contribute to the magic that it is.
So, to the vast tapestry of rugby players and supporters, cheers.
- Karen Gasbarino-Knutt (@gasbarnut12)
(Photo: Mark Knutt, Pan American Games, 2015)