The Irish women’s rugby team – the multiple Six Nations winning side that also managed to take home a Grand Slam in 2013 – is competing this week in the Women’s Rugby World Cup. Forget booking flights and expensive trips Down Under, this one is taking place right under our noses, at a time and in a place we can easily attend. And it’s time we did.
We learned this year that teenage boys in Ireland are 42% fitter than their female friends; that girls who play sport have significantly better body confidence and mental wellbeing than their friends who don’t; and that only 46% of girls aged between 16 and 20 play any sport.
We have research on girls and sport coming out our ears, although it strikes me that perhaps the focus on sport as a healthy activity rather than a fun one may be where some of the problem lies. Teenage girls are sick to the teeth of being told what’s good and bad for them by everyone from their parents to sneaky corporations marketing bikini bodies and diet drinks at them. It’s time to show them, like boys, that sport could be worth doing for the fun, for the friendships, and, maybe even for the money. Of course, in order to do that, the money has to be there for them too.
From an early age, boys hero-worship some of the wealthiest people on the planet, footballers earning thousands of pounds a week. They emulate their haircuts, wear their jerseys, buy their football boots. They show up once or twice a week at a sports ground to kick a ball around under supervision, but more than that, they spend their spare moments kicking balls against walls, practicing ball control by competing with the dog, and doing it for fun.
If rugby is their thing, there are plenty of homegrown heroes to adore. In Limerick there is hardly a small boy whose parents haven’t managed to get a snap of him with Paul O’Connell. The poor man is barely able to go to the shop. In Cork, Peter O’Mahony and Donncha O’Callaghan are plagued to pose for photos with kids whenever they appear in public. These guys have the skills, the jerseys, and the endorsement deals to make what they do seriously attractive as a long-term life plan.
Despite the lack of official financial benefit to being a GAA player (the ‘good job in the bank’ is probably not a big seller for your eight year old), GAA players enjoy the same adoration.
But you can’t be what you can’t see, and unfortunately, it’s a little difficult for girls to hero worship female players when they’ve never heard of them, don’t see them in ad campaigns, and haven’t been to their matches. It’s also difficult for women’s sport to match up to the razzle dazzle of men’s events when they don’t have the take at the turnstiles. Sport needs money, and in the absence of huge sponsorship deals, women’s sporting organisations need your euros to help develop them.
The Irish women’s soccer team – again, more successful than the men’s team in recent years – recently raised eyebrows by revealing their treatment as second hand citizens by the FAI. The stories among women’s GAA teams are legendary (Cork’s infamous dual players Briege Corkery and Rena Buckley, who have more All Irelands between them than any male players living or dead, have been known to play two matches in two different codes on the same day), while the England women’s rugby team is competing, at good odds, in this World Cup, knowing that they are all out of a job upon their return home.
Women’s sport needs resources, and that has to start with supporters.
So when will you get a better opportunity to show girls what sport can be, and what they can be? Take them to a match. Take them to a women’s match. Take them to see world class rugby, at home, in a tournament where an Irish team has a really good chance of winning.
The Women’s Rugby World Cup matches take place at the UCD Bowl and Queen’s University Belfast between 9th and 26th August.