Down In The Scrum With Women’s Rugby Union

This week our Society Editor, Tilly Judges, speaks to First Rugby Union Women’s Team captain Emma Winstanley about Varsity, stereotypes and what the rest of the year holds for the women’s team.

This Varsity for the first time the Women’s Rugby Union team play at Headingley Stadium.  The team described it as “a huge move forward for not only our girls but for women in sports everywhere”.

After female sporting achievements this year such as the Women’s Football World Cup breaking television records these women playing at Headingley Stadium comes at perfect timing as the profile of women in sports is on the rise. 

Team Captain Emma Winstanley emphasised that this had been “heavily pushed” for years, with various challenges along the way, as the women’s team were told they’d have to rent out Headingley Stadium themselves by the University. Finally, after a year’s delay, due to construction on the stadium last year, the Women’s team have been given the opportunity to headline Varsity with the men.

“A huge move forward for not only our girls but for women in sports everywhere”

After the 51-5 defeat the men’s Rugby Union faced last year, Emma thinks that the women’s game will be much closer as the University of Leeds as they hope to beat Leeds Beckett again. Both teams are sure to be in fighting spirit as, if winning Varsity wasn’t incentive enough, Emma reveals the teams know each other off the pitch as well as on, which increases the stakes of the competition every year. 

With the women playing at Headingley Stadium this varsity this means that at least this year spectators will get their moneys worth, with the game being played at both ends. As we can hope to watch the girls achieve the much-needed points this Varsity. 

Team Captain Emma Winstanley arrived how you’d expect a rugby player to, with a black eye and tape covering a gash in her left eyebrow. Demonstrating how she and the entire society are bringing a whole new meaning to ‘playing like a girl’. 

Unsurprisingly this isn’t the only stereotype that these girls face when it comes to being a woman who plays rugby. Emma states that people either “look at you like you’ve got three heads and run away or laugh in your face”. 

As well as the popular belief we’ve probably all heard, that everyone woman who plays rugby is gay and butch. Emma laughed at these stereotypes, as she highlighted that Women’s Rugby at Leeds is a place for everyone, with a mix of sexual orientations and different types of girls, like any other society at the University.

Image: Clare Redman

Emma told me about the main plan for Women’s Rugby Union at Leeds this year which is to keep growing as a club and increasing interest in their sport. Their Facebook page is essential to this, as it is currently revealing the various values of the society, with empowerment as one of their key values. They believe that rugby encourages their girls to be the best they can be through building their confidence and supporting each other.

People either “look at you like you’ve got three heads and run away or laugh in your face”

These attitudes are vital in a male-dominated sport, as with increasing the profile of women’s sports comes with greater visibility. England Rugby Player Leanne Riley says that she rarely checks social media due to the various old-fashioned attitudes of people who think that women’s rugby isn’t a ‘real’ sport. These attitudes unsurprisingly aren’t limited to Rugby as Megan Rapinoe, Captain of the United States Football Team, faced a flood of abuse following her team’s World Cup win. 

It is these attitudes that create the negative stereotypes that Emma and her teammates have experienced whilst playing rugby at university however, these girls and those around the world are playing an important role in fighting against these misconceptions. 

From Leeds Varsity to worldwide competitions increasing the profile of women’s sport is essential in order to increase the number of girls playing Rugby. 

Although Captain Emma Winstanley has played rugby for four years, she is one of a handful as only thirteen out of the six Women’s Rugby players at Leeds this year have played rugby before. 

By increasing the audience that women’s sports reach we can create more female sports players as role models for younger girls. Which will in turn hopefully increase the amount of those playing sports in the coming years.

For any girls that want to be involved in the sport, you don’t need to worry about initiation being as the stories you’ve heard about Men’s Rugby. The Women’s Rugby team caters for girls who like to drink and for those who don’t, with classic Leeds socials such as Otley Runs, as well as socials that don’t involve alcohol. 

Emma herself enjoys a cider and black at the pub, which she calls a ‘girly twist on a pint’. The wide range of orders from the team at the pub is reflective of the girls themselves. 

The variety of girls and interests is evident, as the Leeds Women’s Rugby Union Team refuse to be anything that we might expect them to be, except girls that love rugby. Keep an eye out for their various other events throughout the year such as their danceathon for charity. Not forgetting the Christie Cup where they’ll battle against the University of Manchester and Liverpool in March to be the best female rugby players in the north.

If you’re looking to get involved with the Rugby Union Women’s team and the opportunity to play at Headingley Stadium in next year’s Varsity attend their Give it a Try on the 7th October at Sports Park Weetwood and visit their Facebook page for updates throughout the year.

Image: Clare Redman