Cristina Ertze – 17th March 2022
A few days ago I felt I was going to explode with an overload of pride and joy.
Breaking from the common stereotypes for a 45-year-old mother of two, these emotions were related neither to my offspring nor to my own professional merits. They were instead the result of a massive amount of grit, talent and a fair amount of mud-slinging of which I was only a small proportion.
I play in my local rugby club’s women’s squad and last Sunday we earned a promotion to National Division One. That’s great news, isn’t it? … But did I mention I am forty five? Let me top that dissonance up for you: I am only five feet tall and I am ethnically and originally from Mexico which, unsurprisingly, is not distinctly famous for its provision of the garden shed-sized burly individuals usually associated with the sport. In all honesty, up until six years ago I had never even watched a full rugby match as a spectator.
So, why then am I so ecstatic about my team’s victory and how in the world do I fit into such an achievement? The answer is that I don’t. I am not particularly athletic. I am not particularly fast – at least not anymore. I am definitely not particularly physically imposing. I didn’t even come off the bench during this much-celebrated match. And yet there is not one person in my team, or even the whole club who has made me feel that I should not own my share of this victory or that I should be less deserving of the praise any of my other team-mates have received for it.
Rugby is a wonderfully inclusive sport, in the sense that there is really no specific body type or hegemonic ability needed to fit within a squad. You need your sturdy props, your leggy wingers and your brazen scrum halves. You have folk who love nothing more than crashing into another human body at full force and those who love to sneak past a frustrated grasp.
You have kickers, you have magic hands, you have runners, you have two-legged bulldozers, you have those who embrace strategic discipline and those who can’t help but take a gamble at every chance… And the game is played not by any single one of them, but by the combination of 15 of them at a time. The fact that all of this also describes an undiluted female version of the sport is, to me, the cherry on top.
But going back to that recent personal joy outburst, my feelings of pride are not entirely exclusive to my relatively recently-discovered love for the game and a great team victory. They stem from the wellbeing that a grassroots organisation brings to its members and the wider community that it belongs to.
I first got into rugby through my eldest child seven years ago. Despite my partner being an ex-rugby player, during the first half of my life in Scotland, I lacked the cultural link to this sport, which is rarely even known about back home. As exotic as is the imagery of people bashing each other into mud-covered fields with not so much as a helmet to protect them, it still failed to interest me enough to sit through a full match without diverting my attention to chat, beer or the weather. To be fair, I’d never been much of a sports spectator, not even for football, which is the official religion in Mexico.
But it was when our daughter was five years old and not long after she had quit her local authority’s football scheme out of frustration with the blatant sexism (yes even at that age she spotted it) that rugby revealed itself to me as something other than an excuse to meet with my partner’s pals for a pint. Suddenly we had found a team sport in which our daughter was not treated differently for being a girl within a mixed-gender group of children.
She was not asked to have a particular level of physicality and was not judged for not knowing the names or colours of famous premiership players or teams. She could just enjoy the fun of running about with a bunch of her peers while benefiting from some fitness, games and team dynamics. Focus on the actual game and competitive aspects would come in later years. She was happy. I was happy. I’m pretty sure that this would have been a similar experience in any other sport under the right settings, but it just happened that the contrast was stark between this much more inclusive community club-led experience than the similar alternative to team-sports provided by the local sports-hub.
One thing led to the other and I went from supporting her junior team as a parent to volunteering to join the recently-relaunched ladies team, which had laid dormant for many years due to lack of interest.
I knew nothing about rugby. Seriously, nothing.
I joined partly to chum-up some of my friends who wanted to give it a try and partly as a more entertaining fitness alternative to the white noise provided by the gym. I remember my first session perfectly well. I must have dropped the ball a thousand times. I spent the whole time not knowing where to stand and wondering why anyone in Scotland ever thought that outdoor sports in February were anything other than intentional cruelty.
But I loved it. There was something about the diversity I saw that night – which I keep on recognising to this day – which empowered every inch of my body. I saw an environment in which women did not need to conform to a physical stereotype, a level of femininity or an imposed concept of age-appropriate enthusiasm. We were all encouraged to participate, we were all accepted regardless of our continued mistakes and we were all made to feel valuable. I could see myself finding my own place within it all. And as trite as it might sound, I could very excitedly see my daughter uncompromisingly being herself in the same environment. Back in those days, if anyone had told me I would end up so involved as to progress into a competitive squad aiming for promotion to the highest competitive league level while coaching my son’s minis team in the rest of my spare time I would have met the prediction with massive skepticism.
The key here was the sense of ownership that the grassroots approach provided from the get-go. Although our club is a membership-based organisation, it relies heavily on volunteers and local community sponsorship. It also relies heavily on the continuous turnaround of each age group progression from the tiny wee pre-schoolers to the senior squads. The club could not support its senior squads without the involvement of a much larger number of supporters and volunteers. It could not provide enough coaching bodies, catering, transport and competitiveness without a juxtaposing army of volunteers and committed parents and guardians.
It could not support high-school-aged players, such as my daughter these days, to maximise their skills training without strong links to the local high school. It could not bring in the needed flow of new recruits, without a similarly strong link to the many wee village schools who integrate taster sessions into their PE programmes. It could not offer the needed competitive interaction through development, friendly and competitive matches and tournaments without a fair deal of coordination with other clubs from all over the country.
Through each strand of this web, there is a community link that makes the individuals and collective local demographic stronger. In each task there is an interaction that would not have happened if the same services were provided by an ‘authority’ to the people ‘below’. There is obviously a responsible body regulating the safety aspects of the sport and which aims to support each club and its players. But while their ultimate focus might be the growth of the sport, the clubs, the actual people-powered organisations, are the ones who deserve the praise for all the individual feelings of victory such as the ones I felt last Sunday.
It was because of the inclusive and progressive approach of the coaches and community when my daughter first joined the club at a young age that I felt inspired to volunteer. It was through volunteering that I became confident to become part of a squad. It was thanks to the commitment and volunteering of some truly amazing coaches that our young girls squads developed into national champions in each age category for the last few years, producing the bulk of the talent in the team which now forms the squad I belong to. It is the built-up confidence in these young women’s own and collective strength that helps them welcome and embrace less experienced or fit players like me as equals.
But it was also thanks to the determination and persistence of a diverse bunch of thrawn women like myself that these amazing young girls had a local team to feed into once they graduated from their high school-aged teams. Not every step of the way into forming the squad we are today was easy and it did take some good old internal battles to achieve a greater equality for our squad within the club, but we eventually got there. No one gave up. No one conformed. No one (not even me and my ageing knees) got rejected or side-lined.
The club stepped up its commitment and trust. Our women pushed-on and delivered. Tangible role models are now easy to visualise by our club’s younger female players and so is a progression path within their sport which does not require them to emigrate elsewhere or to question whether their bodies are fit for purpose because they don’t necessarily like to look like celebrities and supermodels. Many of us are going to see the Scotland-England Women’s Six Nations game next weekend. The young girls of high school age will see one of the Biggar team in that squad (congratulations Emma Orr!). That really matters to them.
That is what diversity provides. That is what empowerment feels like. That is the kind of future I want as one of the choices my young daughter and other girls might choose to steer towards. That is why we must support community projects that provide enrichment at a local level and why we should never dismiss the strength that comes from relying on each other.