By Rachel Steinberg
As British sport began a weekend-long social media boycott, England’s women’s rugby team found themselves in darkness.
The Red Roses’ hotly-anticipated Friday friendly against France was cut short after the floodlights in Villeneuve d’Ascq suddenly shut off in the 63rd minute, prematurely ending what had been a thrilling rematch of last weekend’s Six Nations final.
Captain Sarah Hunter was quick to stress it could have happened to a team of either gender, but for many women’s rugby fans, it was at least symbolically another example of their game getting short shrift.
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Harlequins captain Rachael Burford is on a mission to ensure the future feels more optimistic, working on the forefront to elevate the women’s game worldwide, from governance to grassroots – and she is starting by going straight to the source: girls.
“It’s really important for us that we don’t just set everything out as administrators or people at the top of the business,” the England international said. “We need to find out what’s happening on the ground.
“Have we actually asked the young generation what it is that they love, what it is that they don’t like, what do they need help with?”
So, as part of her global Girls Rugby Club, Burford, 34, has drafted a starting XV of young female rugby leaders from across the UK.
Have we actually asked the young generation what it is that they love, what it is that they don’t like, what do they need help with?
The first cohort, announced in April, comprises girls aged nine to 18 who will act as an advisory council while also receiving mentorship, learning opportunities and a chance to connect with like-minded peers.
“We just had a meeting now talking about what clothing impacts them, you know, not suitable for them to be wearing as girls,” Burford said. “How do they want their coaches to approach them around menstrual cycles?
“We want to really understand how girls think and feel, so then we can help support and put that information out there, so that all the rugby clubs around the world who have girls’ rugby can access this information to better support their players and their club environment.
“We need to hear from them because I might have an idea, and I might have an opinion, but I’m not 14 anymore and things have moved on and they have changed.”
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In 2019, World Rugby counted 2.7m female players around the world, as well as a promising 28 per cent increase in registered female players in its member unions between 2017-2018, the first year of the organisation’s women’s development action plan.
Two weeks ago, the RFU announced plans to increase female participation by 50 per cent, from 40,000 to 60,000 players by 2025, and increase female fans and followers to a 40 per cent interest share.
“We’ve got to look at schools,” Burford said about hitting those targets. “I think where there is option for boys at school at the moment there isn’t for girls. I think that’s a massive way you can help introduce new players into the game.
“[But] then what’s the relationship after that with clubs, etc. locally to recruit and retain those girls who are picking up the ball and starting?”
I think where there is option for boys at school at the moment there isn’t for girls. I think that’s a massive way you can help introduce new players into the game.
The Chatham native, who earned 84 caps for England, has long been an outspoken advocate for women’s rugby, and in 2016 became the first female professional player on the Rugby Players Association players’ board.
In March, she was named head of women’s rugby at International Rugby Players, the sport’s global athletes’ body, and one of Burford’s first priorities, like with her young XV, is to directly solicit input from those she’s been appointed to serve.
“Everyone can think they know what’s happening in Ireland or France [but]…certainly with the women’s game, it’s not one shoe fits all,” Burford said
Burford could soon be joined on the global governance stage by Rugby Americas North’s Cristina Flores, or Asia Rugby’s Ada Milby, who are both hoping to fill a vacant seat on World Rugby’s Executive Committee in a May 12 election.
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Only one of the group’s current members, former American ice hockey Olympian Angela Ruggiero, is a woman and Burford would love to see one of her young XV occupy a seat someday.
So, what is her advice to girls dreaming of changing the game from the top?
“Being in a room, that’s one thing, but then being able to challenge is another, and talk is another,” Burford said.
“But if you have the belief and the confidence, because you’ve done the research, because you’ve done the work, you should back yourself.”
Just like she has.
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