Joanne O'Riordan: Women’s Barbarians grab chance to shine on big stage

Twickenham game in front of a record crowd showed what possibilities could lie in store

Barbarians’ Sene Naoupu in action against South Africa during the Killik Cup game at Twickenham. Photograph: Craig Mercer/Inpho

Barbarians’ Sene Naoupu in action against South Africa during the Killik Cup game at Twickenham. Photograph: Craig Mercer/Inpho

 

Sometimes things happen by pure fluke. Sometimes things are destined to be. Other times, it’s merely a case of right place right time.

For the Barbarians women’s rugby side, Saturday’s accidental attendance record-breaking game showed the need to give women the respect they deserve.

With the men’s and women’s Barbarians teams getting ready for a doubleheader in Twickenham – the men playing Manu Samoa and the women playing South Africa – it was clear the tone mightn’t have been great from the off.

Sure, fans and media alike were happy to get two games of rugby in for one. If ever there’s a GAA/Camogie/ladies football doubleheader on, my attitude is ‘what’s an extra hour and a half of my life’. And then disaster struck.

Covid cases among the men’s team meant they had to pull out of their game for health reasons. Joe Tekori was set to make his final appearance for Samoa, Rob Kearney was set to make his last appearance in rugby one week before his wedding. So, while their fanfare was cancelled, the women’s team had an opportunity like no other.

But this being rugby, there were mini PR disasters along the way, starting with the England Rugby and Barbarians’ FC statement put out concerning tickets.

“A full automatic refund will be made to all ticket holders,” read the statement issued just minutes later, “however, fans are encouraged to attend the Barbarians’ Women & Springbok Women’s XV.”

So, was technically the ticket income was for the men’s teams, or is there something else amiss.

And then came the following statement from England Rugby.

“Under the terms and conditions, tickets were sold for the men’s fixture with men’s tickets put on sale before the women’s fixture was confirmed.”

The men’s game was organised in April, clearing up any notion that this was a proper organised doubleheader. Spoiler alert – the women’s game was probably an afterthought. It was so chaotic the women’s game was brought forward to the men’s 2.30pm slot. A lot of Ubers, panic and confusion, the women’s sides showed up ready for road.

None of that chaos stopped history from being made. Accidentally, women’s rugby had a primetime slot on the BBC, had fans pre-packed into a stadium for various reasons, and on top of that, excellent and positive rugby was played.

The scoreline wasn’t a flattering look, but I think everyone with half a rugby brain can acknowledge South Africa are a raw developing team. Sure, another team would’ve added to a star-studded lineup, but the sheer star quality and firepower of the Barbarians indicated there is serious talent in women’s rugby, and if all pooled together correctly and frequently, we could have some potentially incredible coaches, pundits and female administrators within the game.

Ugly stuff

The question is now is whether World Rugby and the respective federations build on it. We’ve seen some level of commitment from the Welsh Rugby Union offering a limited number of contracts to its XVs players. We have seen the RFU, through trial and error, finally, get the women’s game up and going, developing strong grassroots for their leagues and building their national team platform.

But this year we have also seen some incredibly ugly stuff. Australian women’s rugby has been left behind due to Covid, leaving fans and players alike frustrated that Australia weren’t involved in the November Test series due to players worrying about full-time work commitments.

Added to that, very little has been circulated around the Aon University sevens, probably Rugby Australia’s best initiative in the women’s game, with a piece on ESPN expressing concern the series is about to be cancelled.

We certainly don’t need to look Down Under to see how administrative problems, lack of communication and genuine personnel issues can affect a team.

From the heights of the glory years in the mid-2010s, Ireland have experienced the most sensational come down in recent times, with the fallout leading to current and former players expressing frustration over Anthony Eddy, who questioned if the team were at fault for not qualifying for the World Cup.

So, while women rugby players continue to shine, despite every obstacle thrown at them, and while Saturday’s events were either begrudgingly done or a series of unfortunate events disguised as a significant blessing, one thing is sure.

If World Rugby and the local federations build it, the people will come. Instead of feeling grateful and happy over the 29,000 who went to a women’s rugby match after chaos ensued, use it as an opportunity to build for the future. World Rugby are planning big things, and kudos to them, but let’s keep the motivation up, and the plans and desire will hopefully follow.

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