This Girl Can: Playing rugby for Oxford

29 November 2017

Johanna Dombrowski talks about the move to Twickenham and her impressions before and after the merger. First coming to Oxford on an Erasmus programme from Williams College, Massachusetts, she’s now studying for an MPhil in Comparative Social Policy. She has a Blue in Basketball and is currently Secretary of OURFC Women.

During my first year of rugby at Oxford I was a member of the last OUWRFC team before the men’s and women’s clubs merged under the OURFC title. At the time, the women’s club set up was far different from the men’s. Unlike the men’s team which was largely run by a team of professional administrators and coaches, the women’s club was student-run and lead meaning that a group of 20-something full-time students organized and managed complete rugby seasons for two separate teams—the Blues and the women’s seconds, the Panthers. Even though as a first-year member of the team I didn’t sit on the committee, I was aware of how much time and energy it took to get our season off the ground. We struggled. In week one of Michealmas, our coach quit and we were left scrambling to find someone to lead our practices and take us to games. Two men’s Blues generously stepped up to coach and did the best they could, but the danger and risk involved in rugby really require technically proficient, experienced coaching to ensure the safety of all involved. The disparity between the men’s and the women’s sides at the time was stark. Coming from the U.S. where Title IX largely ensures equal funding and support for men’s and women’s sports, I struggled to come to terms with the difference in the experience and opportunities we were afforded.When I first came to Oxford three years ago, the women’s rugby Varsity Match was still separate from the men’s and took place in alternating years at Iffley Pitch or Grange Road, while the men’s Blues and the under 21s men’s teams’ matches took place at Twickenham. I remember going to Twickenham to watch the men’s match in December with the rest of the women’s team and just being in awe of the experience. At the time, as an American studying abroad, I didn’t fully appreciate the importance of Twickenham as the home of England rugby. There’s no real American equivalent—professional sports teams all have their own home stadium—but there’s no one place that embodies so much national history. Even without context, however, the gravity of the day made an impression on me. You’d be hard pressed to find a more beautiful rugby pitch to play on. Not to mention, the unbelievable energy of the crowd and the impressive nature of the stadium itself. I remember sitting in the stands next to my teammates and thinking how amazing it’d be if we had the same opportunity as the men.

In the Spring of 2015 it was announced that the men’s and women’s clubs would merge. OURFC would now include the women’s first and second teams. It was also announced that the women’s Blues Varsity Match would now take place at Twickenham alongside the men’s. I remember crying the day I found out. Having worked and played alongside the two captains that were instrumental in brokering this deal from the women’s side, Tess Braunerova and Tatiana Cutts, I knew firsthand how much blood, sweat, and tears went into this agreement. Moreover, I felt affirmed for myself and my team that our hard work was finally being recognized and appreciated by the rugby community at large. While the inputs for the men’s and women’s sides are different (men’s Blues almost exclusively come to Uni with strong rugby backgrounds and every year the women’s side has to actively recruit, train, and build a team largely from the ground up), the output is still strong rugby play from a group of exceptional individuals who not only excel on pitch but in the classroom as well. More to the point, the women’s team plays good rugby, sometimes even great rugby (See the current BUCs standing for proof, where the women’s Blues sit fourth in the Premiership South, just below three RFU hubs).

Although the Varsity Match is just a game, in a much longer season and in a much bigger world, the elevation of the women’s match to Twickenham, and the promotion of the women’s game by association, was a strong show of support for women in sport in the wider world. With the move to Twickenham, people around the world, especially little girls, can turn their TVs on and see women on the pitch at the home of England rugby. No longer just spectators, they can see women who look like them owning and dominating a space that has been home to hundreds of men throughout the years and a far fewer number of women. Win or lose, the chance to play at Twickenham is a chance to play for all the women who’ve been told “they can’t” or “they shouldn’t” or “they might hurt their pretty little face”. It’s a chance to show the world that women can be and can do anything that men can and that it is worth taking note. Playing at Twickenham is just one way that Oxford women’s rugby shows that “THIS GIRL CAN”.

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