If you imagine a rugby player, you may construct a view of someone who is tough and assertive. Was your mental image also of a woman? When discussing the stereotyped traits of rugby players through a lens of gender, many people seem to associate toughness and assertiveness with masculinity. I sat down with Rhiannon Fox-Rothell, Myrtille Genot, and Lucy Hellawell from the St Andrews Women’s Rugby team to discuss how the sport celebrates femininity, contrary to these negative presumptions.
How did you first get into rugby?
Rhiannon: I’ve played since I was a kid. My family encouraged me to try the sport.
Myrtille: [Lucy and I] both started playing when we first got to university.
Rugby is a sport known for its relentlessness, have you sustained any notable injuries?
Rhiannon: Our first priority is that players are safe. It’s when someone panics that they put themselves in a position to get injured.
Myrtille: Yeah, at times it’s been rough, but if you play properly you have as much a chance of getting injured as any other sport.
Lucy: I agree. If you execute plays properly, you won’t get hurt. The only time I got injured, I didn’t know what I was doing.
Do you think that women’s rugby as a sport has a stereotype associated with it? If so, how do you think women’s rugby is seen?
Myrtille: So many people have said to me, ‘I didn’t know girls play rugby.’ There certainly are stereotypes about aggressiveness and violence, but those traits aren’t for men only. We’re not delicate because we’re girls. I really wish people understood that everyone can play.
Rhiannon: Yeah, a lot of people also tell me ‘I can’t do it because I’m too weak and too small,’ but there are positions for all body types in this sport.
Lucy: When I tell people that I play rugby, they think it’s cool and want to join, but they also recognise these stereotypes. We combat that by committing to our training and being a positive community.
What has participating in this sport offered you, and how has it affected you?
Myrtille: Rugby has defined my time at university. I can’t imagine being here and not playing. It’s a close knit-community. Immediately you are a part of a team and a family, from the start.
Lucy: It was important for me to join rugby at the beginning as well because it made me feel at home in St Andrews the fastest of anything I did. The sense of unity was so new and so inspiring. I work on the pitch for the people around me. It’s even made me feel more assertive.
Rhiannon: For me, this team is a group of inclusive girls who you can come to with any issue. We focus on empowering women off the pitch. We also try to do outreach and volunteering for women charities like Women for Women, and in general, we try to work towards positivity.
How else does rugby affect female empowerment?
Rhiannon: Body confidence. Some people see their muscles as flaws, but I see them as empowering.
Myrtille: The nature of the sport itself gives you confidence. I feel like I am willing to go out there and take a battering for these girls. That takes confidence. And in another sense, my body feels like less of a thing that is meant to be looked at and more of a powerful, useful thing.
Lucy: When I feel like I am really using my body, it helps with my confidence off the field.
How do girls on the rugby team bond?
Rhiannon: Everyone on and off the pitch works for each other. We do our best as individuals and as a team. Seeing other girls putting their bodies on the line and feeling myself putting my body on the line is a huge bonding experience.
Myrtille: The atmosphere is always changing, year by year. The only thing that stays the same is our dedication to each other and the sport.
Lucy: I feel pride when we’re getting ready and coming off the pitch because each of us gave it our all. It’s special when players ask one another to push themselves further; it demonstrates a team mindset.
If you could change one thing about your experience as a rugby player, what would that be?
Lucy: I would like to not be as worried about doing things wrong earlier. If I had dropped my inhibitions faster when I first joined, I would’ve progressed faster.
Myrtille: When I came in, it was clear that women’s rugby was not equivalent to men’s rugby. We’ve made a lot of progress, but there’s still a ways to go. It’s frustrating to get to the point where talking about this is normalised. But I’m not going to get tired of talking until things are fair.
Lucy: It feels like you have to fight for respect. If you look at the varsity pictures on the walls, they’re always of boys. The women’s rugby pictures are all at the back; a literal representation of how our sport is seen in comparison to men’s, just shrugged to the side. I don’t think that this issue is specific to women’s rugby, but to women’s sport. In my first year, women’s varsity was played in halftime of men’s varsity. It was the first year that women’s rugby was included in the Varsity match.
Rhiannon: It’s impressive that now we are no longer a halftime show at Varsity, but there is still a lot of narrow-mindedness. If you think about it, our sport has been at St Andrews for decades, and only four years ago we started participating in Varsity. With men’s sport, it’s just a sport. When I played when I was younger, people had to be worried about me hitting the boys because I was seen as a girl in a man’s world. It’s defined by a gender, but it should be defined by skill.
Rhiannon, what was your experience playing rugby as a child like?
Rhiannon: I played against boys from ages three to ten, but at younger levels, they don’t do age checks. Boys would play up when their ages weren’t qualifying. When I was at school, we had a rugby team and one of the PE teachers wouldn’t let me play because she was afraid that I would get hurt since boys were breaking the age rules. But when we got to the pitch, the first tackle was made by me and the boy got hurt.
My favourite part of watching rugby is any time a player is lifted into the air. Is there a specific person who gets lifted up in the air? Can you explain that a little?
Rhiannon: Yeah! It’s called a line out. As soon as the ball is out of touch, the hooker, and that’s exactly what you thought we said, throws the ball in. Then the two teams lift someone in the air to retain the ball. It’s like a reset. If you’re the team throwing it in, you can try to deceive the other team.
The St Andrews women’s rugby team would like to invite readers to Tartan Touch: an initiative to get people to play rugby. Non-contact rugby is on Saturdays 12:30-1:30 at the Sports Centre, and the initiative offers beginners a chance to try rugby. The team would also like to acknowledge the support of Gary Anderson and all of their coaching staff for their commitment to the team.
Interested in joining? Contact: