“Oh, shit the bed!” the young woman screams after being tackled hard, hitting the sodden pitch. We’re halfway through the rugby game, Hackney Ladies are winning but facing the Cuffley’s tough attack. Their line of defence is ruthless and intimidating to watch. The ball thrown between the opposition causes me to lose track every so often. It suddenly falls during a pass; Hackney’s left-wing snatches it, sprints down the pitch away from others recovering from the recent play and onlookers screaming for her to run. She scores; it’s a try.
The match was a roller coaster that left me reeling with jealousy. Growing up with a rugby-obsessed father who dragged his daughters to games every season, I am always impressed when I see women tackling the male-dominated sport – and a little envious, too. In 2016, World Rugby recorded over 2 million rugby players within England, only 18,000 are women. With programmes such as “This Girl Can”, O2 Touch Rugby and “This is England” by Woman’s Rugby, there has been an increase in women’s participation in rugby, and in the 2014/15 season, there were approximately 17,656 female players registered to the sport: an increase of only 433 players, but an increase, nonetheless.
Hackney Ladies, which has expanded to a second ladies’ team in 2018, is entirely run by volunteers. Their captain is Justine, a Canadian P.E. teacher who moved to London three years ago. She tells me it was the sense of community and friendships that drew her to the sport: “There is something about the game and comparing bruises after that help rugby teams form strong bonds and friendships.”
Justine loves the diversity in the club: “I think Hackney is diverse for a rugby team; we have players who grew up in Hackney or other parts of London and the UK as well as players from around the world. We also have a massive age range with active players from 17 years old all the way up to 50.”
Whilst watching the women play, their passion and willpower to win the game is undeniable (they do win by the way, 65-31). As Justine said: “I think on the pitch when it’s game time you need to get into a certain head space to be aggressive and competitive and perform well.”
“Hackney RFC is not your stereotypical rugby club,” Justine said. “We don’t have a clubhouse, none of our teams wears blazers after the game, nobody is going to dump a pint on your head”– something which I remember watching during my undergraduate days. She added that they are “all in it to play sport, have fun, and build relationships”, which is clearly the case whilst they play together.
As the Six Nations kicked off at the beginning of February, the majority of televised matches are for the men’s teams, even though the Women’s Six Nations started at the same time. Whilst you could have caught the male England vs Ireland game on ITV, the female game was not covered by media at all and England won against Ireland 51-7.
Despite the lack of coverage, Justine is excited for the future of rugby: “It is an exciting time for women’s sport and specifically rugby in the UK is growing rapidly.”
She is also excited for women’s England Six Nations team, saying: “The England squad is made up largely of professionals. We are seeing more and more women represented in sports media and on television” even if she acknowledges women are continuously fighting still to play the sport.
Hackney Ladies Rugby team was recently promoted and are currently sitting second in their new league this season – they are definitely one to watch throughout the rest of the year. As Justine said, “London can be a difficult place to make friends and find community”, but to find friends who are strong and passionate is “really a testament to the work put in throughout the season by our players and coaches”.
To watch this team on one Sunday afternoon in a freezing Stamford Park made me feel empowered. Although I wasn’t playing, I felt empowered by these women. They are not just rugby players but architects, doctors, engineers, and police officers. There are women who work in the charity sector, some write code or develop software. As Justine said, these women “are all my hero’s” and I have to agree with her.
If you are interested in playing rugby, Hackney Rugby Club always welcome new players – all skill and any gender. The team train every Wednesday at Mabley Green at 7:30pm. For more information you can email firstname.lastname@example.org or find them on Instagram @hackneygladies.