Joanne O’Riordan: Against all odds, women are making waves in sport

Rugby’s Linda Djougang continues to overachieve in spite of limited resources

Linda Djougang wants you to know her name. A registered nurse, the Cameroon-born Irish rugby international has made waves in her respective fields. And somehow, she doesn't get the respect she deserves.

Women's sport and, of course, Irish rugby are at a crossroads. Covid has decimated resources. In fact, the IRFU, the governing body for rugby in Ireland, announced in April that due to the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic, they had to create a massive redundancy programme that will see up to 20 non-playing members of staff lose their jobs. In addition, the union revealed last October there was a deficit of €35.7 million.

It has been four years since that dramatic Women’s World Cup in Ireland that saw the home team finish fifth, embroiled in controversy about the IRFU’s lack of support for its women’s teams, with some players literally paying to represent their country on what should have been the most glamorous stage of all.

Since then, there has been disappointment after disappointment, with an ever-greater debate on the future of international rugby. The Women's Six Nations competition has been dominated by two sides. Throughout the history of the competition, there have been only three winners. England have won 16 titles, France have won six, and the rest have won two, with Ireland only breaking the status quo in the last decade.

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Contracts

England are a professional side, their rugby union making them professional in 2018/2019. France are semi-professional. Ten Scotland players had contracts with the Scottish Rugby Union (SRU) for the 2020 season, with some offered financial support and others the beneficiaries of an agreement between the SRU and their employers to give them time to train and compete.

Italy and Wales get their expenses paid, while Ireland get per diems – a set amount of money for every day they play.

This is quite the norm when it comes to women’s sports, especially here in Ireland. It was only four years ago when, on April 4th, 2017, the Irish women’s football team was involved in a much-publicised protest which drew worldwide attention. The reason? The Irish women’s national team were forced to share tracksuits with underage boys’ teams and change in the toilets after games. The team had repeatedly tried to reach out to the FAI through the Professional Footballers’ Association of Ireland, but all pleas and concerns fell on deaf ears.

In recent times Djougang has gone from the front row to the front line working as a nurse during the Covid-19 pandemic

One year on from 20x20, a campaign started in 2017 and running until 2020 promoting and highlighting women’s sports and various issues within it, we still see disparities across both genders in sport.

Last year, the Ladies Gaelic Football Association twice changed the venue for the Cork v Galway All-Ireland semi-final, eventually ending up at the last minute in Croke Park, where TG4 couldn't broadcast.

Women’s sport has always played second fiddle and, due to Covid-19, fears are genuine for the future. Last year we all saw how, when sport was cancelled, the return to sport was dominated by its male counterpart.

Inequalities

Dr Ali Bowes is a sociologist in sport at Nottingham Trent University whose research highlights the inequalities that exist for women in sport. These are just some of the findings from her recently published paper, The impact of the Covid-19 lockdown on elite sportswomen:

Only 16 per cent identified being an athlete as their sole, full-time work; 47 per cent identified as students, 32 per cent were in other, full-time employment and 5 per cent identified as being in multiple occupations. Despite the low numbers of full-time athletes, 77 per cent had competed at an international level, with 22 per cent at a national level and 1 per cent at a regional level.

Only 57 per cent of the athletes involved in the study received some form of financial reimbursement for their involvement. Of that cohort, 54 per cent received less than £5,000 for competing in sport, with only 15 per cent receiving an approximate salary that totalled £20,000 or more.

But, none of this has managed to stop Linda Djougang from representing her adopted country. Djougang arrived in Ireland when she was just nine years old with her family. She came with no English, speaking French as her first language. Djougang has since represented Leinster and Ireland in national and international competition. She won two Women’s Interprovincial Championships with Leinster and was a part of the history-making Leinster squad that faced Harlequins at Twickenham Stadium in December 2019. She also scored one of the province’s four tries at the home of English rugby.

In recent times Djougang has gone from the front row to the front line working as a nurse during the Covid-19 pandemic. She is now part of the emerging group of international players just five years on from when she took up the sport for the first time.

Linda Djougang is the perfect example of how women have continued to push barriers and break glass ceilings while overachieving with limited resources. Our “new normal” must continue to support, fund and directly help women like her. Maybe then you’ll know her name.