CAN'T SEE, CAN'T BE

On Saturday 21st Nov, England played what was, for all intents and purposes, an absolute cracker of a match, complete with a come-from-behind victory with a nail-biting finish to defend their newly-acquired spot at the top of the world rankings. They’d only just climbed to the #1 spot the weekend before, having beaten France 33-10 away, but were presented with a challenge and a half from the French side at home only a week later, and found themselves 10 down at the half. It was starting to look like France were about to claim their first victory at Twickenham since 2015, until England emptied the bench and turned it all around in the final ten minutes of the game, narrowly coming out on top with an 82nd minute penalty kick from Emily Scarratt capping off an English surge to win 25-23. A competitive match with huge skillsets, scorching pace, and full of passion and heart, any fan of the game would have been thrilled to watch it- and shockingly, they actually could have. And did. The match was broadcast live on BBC2- not rerun, not online only, not in the middle of the night, not just a highlight reel, not behind a paid subscription plan. Live. On terrestrial TV. You know, like international rugby matches are.

For someone outside of the women’s rugby community, or not familiar with the women’s sports world in general, this might not seem like anything to report. International men’s rugby matches are often on TV, drawing huge support and becoming cultural cornerstones for entire generations of fans. Women’s rugby matches, however, are so rarely broadcast, that becoming a fan of a team, or following a season, is nearly impossible. Even the top tier of the game here in England, the Allianz Premier 15’s -which is without a doubt the most advanced and professional women’s rugby league in the entire world- doesn’t have it’s games broadcast regularly, and only a handful of them are even available to stream online. Especially in these COVID times, when going to a game isn’t possible. And less sport is being played around the world than ever before, the inability to access matches is felt harder by us all.

  One of the biggest challenges the women’s game faces in it’s pursuit of full professionalism is access to a fan base, and access to the market- it’s kind of hard to be a viable business model without your existing and potential customers being able to access what you do. The England-France game on BBC 2 is a huge step in the right direction for the game in general, and hopefully the momentum and interest created by it will continue to build, both here and abroad.

Beyond markets and business and professionalism, however, I felt an even bigger impact from the game’s coverage. For the first time that I can remember in my lifetime, I saw on normal, everyday TV female professional rugby players- but I also saw professional female match officials officiating the game, female commentators and pundits covering the match and providing pitchside commentary, I saw players brought in to offer their opinions as experts in their field. I saw women valued for what their bodies can do over what those bodies look like doing it. I saw women valued for their input, their expertise, their insight into a field that they’re hugely respected in. I saw women valued for their performances and for their achievements over their appearance. I saw women playing their absolute hearts out. I saw resilient, authoritative, powerful women. And I was far from the only one watching.

  How many young girls watched that game, saw what I saw, and were inspired? How many young eyes realized that there was a place for them, a viable path, towards what they could be, what they wanted to be? How many kids saw a part of themselves out there on that pitch, in those commentary booths, or with a whistle around their necks? How many young minds stared at the screen and thought, “this is so cool”?

Can’t see, can’t be.

  How many of us, those in the generations before them, had, whilst watching, been hit with a wave of emotion, of pride, of communal accomplishment- or even something a little sharper, a little twinge of remorse, a tiny crack of pain for not being able to have seen this sooner, for not knowing these possibilities within ourselves for longer, for having to learn them ourselves, for that feeling of swimming against the current?

Can’t see, can’t be.

  How many girls were just watching a game, completely unaware that anything new or abnormal was happening- how many of this new generation will grow up thinking that equality in sport is the expected norm?

Can see, can be.

This is only the beginning.

- Stef

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