Updated: Friday, 10th July 2020 @ 2:49pm

Women rule the roost in Manchester rugby but need more RFU funding to thrive

Women rule the roost in Manchester rugby but need more RFU funding to thrive

| By Eleanor Simmons

There's no denying that the popularity of women's rugby is on an unstoppable rise. RFU figures show that participation figures in England have risen by 10,000 in the last two years.

Of course the astronomical achievements of the GB team at the Olympics is largely responsible, but this success didn't come out of the blue.

The England women's rugby team have dominated the sport since 2002 when they came second in the World Cup, which was to be the case for the next two Championships until they clinched the title in 2014.

Those top class teams were chosen from a wealth of strength and depth in women's rugby which had been gathering momentum since the nineties.

So it can't just be our national teams and their global titles that lie behind the sport's unprecedented increase in numbers on an amateur level. There's something about rugby that women love, and down at Manchester Ladies rugby club, they have a theory of their own.

Their belief is not only that rugby is a great sport, with a great social scene, the chance to keep fit and to learn new skills – that goes without saying – but also that girls in particular are incredibly good at it.

Rugby, and the skills it requires, are suited to women specifically. The Manchester Ladies aren't just gracing the scene of the men's game, raising their token arm for the under-represented gender in the typically male-dominated sport. They're actually out-performing them.

Rugby is becoming women's territory just as much as it is men's.

And Bryan Fisher, the coach at Manchester Ladies, should know – he’s been at Manchester Rugby club for thirty years, and he believes that women are better at rugby than men.

He told MM: “The thing with women is that you can coach them and they grasp it very quickly. Women and young girls play the game at lesser speed, but technically you are seeing more proficiency.”

Not only that, he argues, but they are nicer to work with. “I find that coaching women is so much easier than men.”

Given the choice, Bryan would rather coach women - and that's what he does.

“The only major difference as far as I’m concerned is the physicality. Women have more finesse, and I think at the end of the day, of the two, I would rather prefer to see that really.”

So maybe it's that women have gradually been discovering their particular aptitude for their own type of rugby – a rugby more refined, that can't fall back on the same levels of force as the men's game. Perhaps this is a realisation that has long been coming, and thanks to Rio's rugby sevens extravaganza, it's started to catch on around the country.

New recruit at Manchester Ladies, Sue Gerrard, found that she excelled at the combination of mental and physical challenges.

“It’s a really physical game but it’s also a really mental game so it tests you in both ways … In a sport which is so which is so predominantly physical, to have that extra with the mental edge, I think that’s really interesting.”

Still though, the girls face an uphill struggle. Especially in Manchester, where they have it tougher than in the south of England, where there's a much richer choice of rugby clubs.

Bryan admits that typically, rugby has always been a southern sport. The counties below Birmingham have many more teams and as a result, more competitive leagues, while in the north, local clubs have traditionally been more sparsely spread- making it harder to get a game and further to go to get one.

The league that the Manchester Ladies are in requires them to travel to games in Darlington, Carlisle, and Sunderland. That means travel-time of up to ten hours in a single day, which is a lot of time to give up for a casual hobby.

Bryan knows that something needs to be done.

“I think that something that the RFU need to examine, and put more resources into the north of England to generate some of the clubs, because I think a lot of the clubs would take it on board. And by resources I mean money, you’ve got to put that in at the end of the day, I think the results will justify the means.”

Against these odds though, women's rugby at Manchester is absolutely booming. Manchester Ladies are regularly seeing high turnouts, and they aren't the only ones. The Stockport-based team is one of several clubs in Greater Manchester, including Broughton Park, Altrincham, and Didsbury Toc, where the newly established women's team is attracting the local open university students.

Amber Smith, 22, has been a member of the club since she was 12, and has seen the numbers steadily rise since then: “When I started on the girls team there was probably about five or six girls coming, whereas now you are getting numbers in the twenties and thirties, an under 18's as well as a women’s team, it has massively improved in popularity.”

A larger part of the reason that players at Manchester Ladies are making these sacrifices to play at any cost is simply because the atmosphere at the club is so great.

The Olympics may have helped to get them down to the club in the first place, but it's the friendly and inclusive attitude of the members that makes them want to stick around.

Sue Gerrard has found exactly that: “Everybody’s really friendly and it’s really easy to get into it because everybody makes you feel really good.

"Obviously I’ve just started but the girls are really supportive and it’s a team spirit that you feel, which I think is really important - I think it’s all about the team.”

Ferne Loh – who used to play in Singapore, where in the entire country there’s only three teams, making for a tiny league – thinks that Manchester has a huge amount to offer.

She said: “I think Manchester is one of the better places definitely. There’s definitely more of equality with the women as and men’s team. In Hull, where I used to live, there were sometimes problems with them men’s team being overly dominant, so I think Manchester on the grand scheme of things is really good for women’s rugby.”

For their coach Bryan, the ladies are an asset to to the city, and even without extra funding the Manchester Ladies are going from strength to strength.

The expansion of the womens' side, which now has three teams, is batting away at the stereotypes which have been disintegrating for years to the point where they feel almost non-existent at Manchester.

The success and prominence of the national teams have of course had an effect on the increase in women playing rugby, but for the girls at Manchester, their motivations are much closer to home.

At a club where everyone is welcome and the newbies mix with the old-timers in one big group, it's pretty clear that the root of their popularity lies in an attitude and an outlook that has been mustering for much longer than any medals at Rio.