Melbourne is arguably the sporting capital of Australia.
A wide range of sports enjoy healthy if not avid support down south but with so many football codes now on offer to play as well as follow, some will inevitably have less prominence than others.
While not enjoying the same presence as it does in the northern states, those involved in rugby in Victoria are working hard to emulate the worldwide growth in numbers and popularity of Women’s rugby.
It’s an uphill battle -- Victoria being the heartland of Aussie Rules- but the Victorian Rugby Union (VRU) and the Women’s Rugby Development Association (WRDA) in conjunction with the Melbourne Rebels, are slowly but surely increasing the participation and awareness of rugby for women. It may be in small steps but they are steps forward.
Alana Thomas is a former Wallaroo and now coach of the Melbourne Rebels XVs Women’s team alongside Steve Tio.
With awareness of the sport gaining traction through the success of the Australian Sevens team, the Olympics on the immediate horizon and then the Women’s XVs World Cup next year, Rugby definitely has a place at the women’s sports table and Thomas believes Victorian players can be a part of that growth.
One way to increase numbers is at the grass roots level and she says they are looking to all quarters for potential players.
“We’re trying to get out to the junior clubs, look at their junior programs (and) where they can pick up players, for example, the sisters of the boys that are playing at the junior levels.”
With participation numbers at this point not having the quantity found up north, players will be looking initially to play both the short and long form of the game, but with Sevens gaining prominence, there is a pathway being created with that specialty in mind.
“There definitely is interest in Sevens Rugby. It’s a growth area at the schoolgirl level and this year they’re doing the Youth Competition and trying to have every women’s club have a Youth team so that on the Saturday we’ll play club rugby, then there’ll be a Youth 7s comp come through, so that they can be involved with the club and then we can start to create that pathway,” said Thomas.
But overall Thomas admits most players will play both forms of the game.
So with that in mind it’s necessary to focus on not only participation growth overall but in developing to an elite level those already involved.
At the top end, an Emerging Player Program (EPP) is being implemented this year with a view to develop and support women who take their rugby seriously and want to not only follow ‘the yellow brick road’, but to build that road and see how far it takes them.
The EPP was initiated last year for male players in Victoria aged under 20, who had been identified as having potential and were put through this program with specialised coaching and elite strength and conditioning training.
The program is the brain child of Nic Henderson, the VRUs Elite Pathways Manager.
Thomas says the impetus for the women joining the EPP began with a conversation between her and Henderson.
“We started the conversation saying what can we do for the girls (that are) there and to bring up the next generation. We’ve got three girls (Wallaroos), what if we get another five or so that we think have the potential and are keen to put the effort in. So it gives the girls who have got potential to come to the program and say to them this is what they (the three) HAVE to do ... and wanting them to focus on specific skills and have them all training in that way.”
She is conscious of the requirements of the Australian Wallaroos coach Paul Verrell with the National Titles and Wallaroos training camps not far away and feels that if she can prepare the women with elite skills and conditioning ahead of those, it will increase the opportunities for those chasing selection opportunities.
Ruck and roll
Henderson admits that while pathways do exist for those interested in Sevens through to the National team, there have been far less opportunities in Victoria for women looking to forge a path in XVs and perhaps through to the Wallaroos squad.
“Last year was quite a successful (men’s) program for us and one that we’ve continued. But there’s probably not a great deal of opportunity there for women that are interested in playing XVs for the Wallaroos. So this year I spoke with Alana about getting a squad of six to eight ladies together that would strengthen our Melbourne Rebels Women’s team and then offer them the opportunity to come in and work in that same environment so they get access to the gym, proper individualised programming and then also get some top-up skill extras done,” said Henderson.
Thomas adds that with a few Victorian players in the Wallaroos squad at this stage, this program will be invaluable moving forward for other players that are then singled-out as having potential to grow to an elite level.
“We’ve got three girls in that Wallaroos squad. They’re on (fitness) training programs for the moment (but) there’s no skills based, games-based training, so we’re trying to do what they do with the boys here. We’ve put down about half a dozen names of girls that we think are quite capable."
"We’ll grab those girls that are in the Wallaroos squad and also the ones that we think could have potential (and) then they’re actually training alongside them in that environment making it more professional and elite.”
Henderson is pleased with the initiative and can see the future pathway and opportunity it presents for female players.
“I just think there’s a really good opportunity here to provide some elite level training for those that really want to chase that XV-a-side dream. (It’s) a really good opportunity to chase their goals which can be made a lot harder by the lack of opportunities in front of them.”
“My plan for this year is to provide that sort of opportunity for a small group of ladies and hopefully we’ll see that growing but initially it is a small step towards equalling up the playing field,” said Henderson.
Henderson is also keen to provide the support for Thomas and her future in coaching.
“Considering she’s going to be our (Rebels) XVs coach hopefully for a number of years now, I really wanted to provide her with that opportunity and pathway. It’s good for her coaching as well. Coaching a team with an outcome is different to just focusing on skill development so it enables her to not worry about the bigger picture stuff but to focus on the small things in that environment, so it’ll be a good opportunity for her as well,” he said.
This support is something for which Thomas is very appreciative as an opportunity for her future as well as that of the players.
“Nic’s been really supportive and making sure that I can go and get my accreditation and encouraging me,” she said.
“That’s where I really want to get involved, as a coach of the girls, and give that pathway for those (girls) that want to go and play for the Wallaroos or want to go and play Sevens -- so we’ll contact the girls that we think are capable and we’ll put them through (the EPP),” said Thomas.
Try, try again
Henderson admits that at this stage it is a pilot program to see what the outcomes will be and if the results are what are needed to grow women’s rugby in Victoria.
“I think we’ve got the right staff in place and it’s a matter of seeing how it transitions into our state teams in successes or performances there; and the other part of the program is that it’s not something that needs results straight away, as long as we see the benefits of it for the ladies and (that) it’s a program that needs to exist.”
With the Victorian club competition and the State program both having started this month, Thomas says they have been taking the opportunity to look over all the available and potential talent to join those already in contention for National Title selection and the EPP.
“Our scouting is for Nationals but we’ve probably already named 10-12 girls that we’ve seen through the Nationals last year and through the XVs program and the Sevens program. So we’ll have a (complete) Women’s Rugby program that can evolve over time,” said Thomas.
Henderson also sees the benefits of this program for increasing opportunities.
“There might be a couple of girls who are in our XVs squad under this program that go away and get selected for the Wallaroos but then there’s a program for them to come straight back into when they come home and we can offer them really good preparation leading into camp.”
While the EPP addresses the development of talent at the elite level, the issue of the broader long-term growth of the sport is being tackled with the WRDA currently putting together a five year plan which it will present to the VRU as a complete strategic proposal for the development and growth of Women’s Rugby in Victoria.