Last year, as the first wave of the COVID-19 pandemic was being felt around the world, a resource dedicated to the growth of female participation appeared on the New Zealand Rugby website.

The brainchild of Sarah McIlroy, the Women in Rugby Clubs Toolkit is designed to help clubs become a more accessible space for women and girls.

McIlroy, who currently works for NZR as its Women’s Rugby Participation Manager — Northern Region, had the idea while she was working in a development role for the North Harbour Rugby Union.

Having canvassed the clubs in her local area, she identified three key areas that needed to be addressed in order to encourage increased female participation at all levels of the game.

The toolkit therefore sets out to show clubs how they can include women in leadership roles, provide good quality coaching as well as equitable access to facilities and support.

“She talked to a whole lot of her rugby clubs around, you know, where were the opportunities for clubs to get in behind and support the game,” Rugby World Cup 2021 Leverage and Legacy Manager, Danika Charlton told World Rugby. 

“The three areas of leadership, coaching and facilities popped out every single time. So she put that forward to New Zealand Rugby and then we sort of picked it up from there.”

Easy to use and understand

In order to highlight the steps that clubs could take, McIlroy spoke to each of NZR’s regional development officers to unearth relatable examples. 

The toolkit includes three case studies that show exactly how change can be made at a club level.

“They’re great case studies,” Charlton said. “They're things that the club down the road can relate to and ‘if the club up the road can put it in place, then we can too’ kind of thing.”

Charlton was working on plans for the RWC 2021 Trophy Tour when she was first alerted to the toolkit, and thought it was perfect to use as the “backbone” for that event.

“It was just a really nice alignment,” she said. “We were looking at how we could encourage clubs to reflect on what they were doing for the girls’ game. 

“And, then I suppose use it as a bit of a call to action in terms of reminding them about some of the things that they could do that were really simple and easy to achieve.”

Charlton added: “We didn't want it to be another toolkit where it just sat on the website or, you know, in the shelves. 

“We wanted something that was really easy to use, really easy to understand, and something that we could supercharge, you know, through being able to leverage off Rugby World Cup.”

Lasting RWC 2021 legacy

The result is a resource that NZR hopes clubs can use to help them make the most of the increased interest in rugby, and the women’s game, that will result from RWC 2021.

“We expect there to be a huge interest and following post-Rugby World Cup,” Charlton said. 

“So, we want clubs and provincial unions across the country to be ready to be able to capitalise off the back of that. 

“We want them to think now about how they make the most of that opportunity, so that we're just not focusing on just running another event. 

“We want it to have a lasting legacy where we can really leverage off it, and we want clubs to be ready to think about how they attract and how they capture an interest. 

“We want them to think about, you know, do they have the right facilities to be able to retain the girls once they come into the club? Is it a safe environment for the girls and women to be part of? 

“Do they have a coach [or] do they have a plan for getting a coach for the girls' and women's team, should they suddenly get four or five teams at their back doorstep wanting to play?”

Charlton hopes to re-launch the toolkit in a few months’ time once plans for the RWC 2021 Trophy Tour have been finalised.

She aims to include further case studies to highlight work that is currently being done, such as the upgrading of RWC 2021 match and training venues to be more gender equal.

There are plans, too, to share the toolkit with the five Pacific nations that the Trophy Tour will pass through, Cook Islands, Fiji, Papua New Guinea, Samoa and Tonga.

Ultimately, Charlton says it would be an “amazing legacy to leave behind” if similar women in rugby toolkits were not necessary in the future.

Although she admits there is a lot of water that needs to flow “under the bridge before we get to that point”.

“There's a lot of mindset changes and there's a lot of changes within the environments,” she added. 

“A number of clubs are there already, some are on the path to changing and there's some that still have a fair amount of work to do.

“But, in the future, absolutely, that would be a great goal to have.”

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