Some good news in Aussie rugby: women leading the way
Led by girls and young women, the ruck-and-maul and rougher-than-rough sport of rugby union is looking to regain its relevance in Australia.
The Wallabies lost nine of their 13 test matches last year — the worst performance in 60 years — and none of the Super Rugby franchises was a serious contender for the title.
Hit by dwindling attendance and poor performances by its men's teams, Rugby Australia has found one bright spot: an increase in female participation after the women's sevens team won the first Olympic gold medal offered in the sport at Rio de Janeiro in 2016.
"We need to make sure that our female communities are given the opportunity to be put forward and promoted, and to be talked about positively," Rugby Australia chief executive Raelene Castle said in a recent speech. "Sport has really put Australia on the world map in so many ways. We really do punch above our weight and it continues to be a really important part of Australian society."
Castle herself is a pioneer in female executives leading sports teams or leagues. Before her appointment as CEO of Rugby Australia, she led Netball New Zealand for seven years, then became the first female executive of a National Rugby League club, the Canterbury Bulldogs. She is one of the few female executives in charge of a major sport in Australia.
LEADING THE WAY
Women's rugby is indeed punching above its weight. Late last year, Castle said she was "energized and excited" by the growth of women's rugby: Castle said more than 60,000 women and girls played some form of rugby in Australia, from non-contact seven-a-side teams to the traditional 15-a-side format. The number of females playing the game has more than doubled over the past three years, most noticeably in schools.
In 2017, more than 56,000 Australian students took part in Rugby Australia's Get into Rugby program, with 40 percent of those girls.
Castle said females make up around 13 percent of the total playing population in Australia, a figure which is projected to rise to 20-25 percent by 2021.
Last year, Rugby Australia launched the Super W league — the first national competition for women's 15-a-side teams.
Cobie-Jane Morgan was a member of the victorious New South Wales team in that inaugural competition. She also played in two World Cup teams for Australia and spent four years on the World Sevens circuit, so she has seen the growth from both sides.
"The girls winning in Rio was huge for rugby," Morgan told The Associated Press. "Ten years ago, touch footballers made up our women's open side. From that growth a lot of young girls went on to learn spatial awareness, and from there to Sevens."
Morgan also points out that although Australia won the Sevens gold at Rio, it was another Australian, Cheryl Soon, now McAfee, who helped lay the groundwork for the sport's inclusion on the Olympic program. Soon, who played on the Australian Sevens team that won the 2009 world title, was a member of an International Rugby Board committee that worked with the IOC to have the sport added in Rio, and it will be there again next year in Tokyo.
"It was a very special moment," McAfee, who now lives in the U.S. with her family, told CNN in an interview in 2016 after Australia won the gold. "I was overwhelmed. We built the foundation seven years ago and it was like this little piece of the house we have been putting together."
The increase in female participation and the success of its women's teams have been a perfect antidote to the poor form of the Wallabies this past year.
When the Wallabies lost to England at Twickenham in November, it was the Australian men's team's ninth test loss in 13 tests, a winning ratio of just 30 percent and its worst success rate since 1958.
The loss also marked a sixth defeat in a row to England, which is coached by former Wallabies coach Eddie Jones. It was the first time in 109 years the Australians have lost that many matches in a row to England.
The losses also heaped pressure on Wallabies coach Michael Cheika ahead of the Rugby World Cup, although he is expected to lead the team at the tournament in Japan beginning in late September.
CONTROVERSY ON FIELD AND OFF
One male player — probably its best — created controversy for the Australian men's team. Israel Folau's public anti-gay stance and opposition to same-sex marriage came in for heavy criticism. Among the comments were: "God's plan for gay people was 'HELL.'"
It hasn't been all good news in women's rugby, either. The captain of national team, Liz Patu, was banned for six weeks after admitting to biting an opponent on the arm during a domestic match earlier this month.
Women's rugby in Australia can enhance its position in the next two years, in 2020 at the Summer Olympics when the Sevens side tries to repeat as gold medalists. And in 2021 when the 15-a-side team plays in the Women's World Cup in New Zealand.
Morgan hopes to be at the 2021 World Cup, which would be her third. But she points excitedly to the four test matches the Wallaroos, as the women's team is known, will play this year — two against Japan in Australia, and two against New Zealand which will be played as doubleheaders with men's test matches in Perth and Auckland, New Zealand.
"We are getting a lot of exposure, which is different from the past," Morgan says. "With the sevens, we can feed off that, and with the Olympics and World Cup, there is heaps going on for us."