The Queensland Rugby Union has decided not to allow players under the age of 18 to participate in this year’s Women’s Brisbane Premier Grade competition, and the decision has baffled numerous Queensland clubs, threatening to harm the efforts and development of women’s 15’s rugby in Queensland.
Queensland rugby clubs recently received a memorandum from the Queensland Rugby Union citing the exposure of ‘novices’ to ‘representative players up to the level and including for Australia’ as the main reason for the now strict enforcement of its ruling. Furthermore, in the same statement, the Queensland Rugby Union identified 7’s as the pathway for female players under the age of 18 into 15 a-side rugby.
Previously, when clubs had players under the age of 18 deemed good enough to play at the Premier grade level, as part of the club’s duty of care, players had to undergo and pass a thorough examination by a ARU level 2 accredited coach and also provide written consent from their parents to be able to participate. Although clearly providing a precedent in the years since 2013 (the year the recent document was backdated to) that has allowed underage players to play, the Queensland Rugby Union’s recent ruling no longer provides even an opportunity for an exemption from the rule for worthy underage female players.
According to reports from a number of the clubs involved, the Queensland Rugby Union’s failure to adequately consult them prior to the ruling has been a major sticking point, with no adequate explanation for the removal of the prior validation process of underage players being provided at all.
The Queensland Rugby Union’s position on 7’s being a ‘safer’ version of the game is debatable at best, particularly when comparing the roles of back line or loose forward players, where an argument could be made that the risks are proportionately the same across both versions of the games.
The one dimensional ploy of forcing female rugby players to follow the 7’s pathway is exclusive in nature, as the strategy only caters to a specific body type and aerobic capability to meaningfully participate in the game at the underage level. The approach marginalises females who do not fit into the category and goes against the ‘game for all body types’ philosophy that has made the sport of rugby union so unique and despite its recent troubles, maintained its relevancy on the greater Australian sports landscape.
The bigger concern for the women’s game, that has enough obstacles to overcome as it is, is how the ruling potentially opens up more opportunities for rival codes (like Rugby League) to further cut into the ever decreasing player pool, women’s rugby union already has to pull from.
Whilst the counter argument can be made and understood for under age female players wanting to play in the front row, the strict enforcement of the rule wreaks of double standards when there have been numerous male players since 2013, who have played Premier rugby whilst being underage and there is even a recent case of a 17 year old not only playing Premier rugby and but also in the National Rugby Championship (NRC) competition in 2014.
The double standard can also extend further when analysing both the male and female Premier grade competitions, taking into account the scenario when Super XV full time professional players return back to club land and play against opposition not currently in a recognised professional system and/or who are not of age. Theoretically, those male ‘novices’ are arguably at the same level if not more of a risk than their female counterparts, coming up against representative players who are not only more experienced but also exceedingly better trained and prepared than the females who occupy the same realm on the other side of the fence.
Nevertheless, clubs go through the appropriate processes to verify the ability of their players and then they are allowed to play based on having ticked the relevant boxes. The question has to then be raised, if all the appropriate safety protocols are being observed, why is it not the same for the women?
In 2014, two teams were forced to pull out of the competition due to lack of players and after the enforcement of the Queensland Rugby Union’s recent ruling, at least two more teams potentially stand to suffer the same fate again, undoubtedly weakening the women’s rugby movement in Queensland even more and could potentially bring the women’s competition to its knees.
After the debacle of the newly introduced fee levy that has made it even harder to justify playing rugby union at the grass roots level across all of Australia and inadvertently placed the game on life support. The removal of the opportunity of underage players to just be considered worthy to participate, will hasten the mad rush of disenfranchised underage female rugby union players, queuing for codes who will give them just a chance to compete if they are good enough but do not necessarily fit the physical prerequisites to play 7’s to be eligible to play 15’s rugby.
If the ruling stands, Brisbane women’s rugby will no doubt be poorer for it, especially if those players then turn around and refuse to come back after they have turned 18. If that is the case, the Queensland Rugby Union will have no one else but themselves to blame.
By James Kite