The same day the Cambridge Women crushed their Oxford rivals, 47-0 on Grange Road this March, they had double reason to celebrate. That afternoon, it was announced that December’s traditional Varsity Match would become the Varsity Matches, and that the women’s team would play their match at Twickenham on the same day as the men for the very first time. I spoke to CUWRFC about what the opportunity to play at Twickenham means for women’s sport and the still-existing gender divide in university sport.
'‘I’m really, really excited to be playing at Twickenham,'’ says captain Nikki Weckman, ''We went out to see it a couple of weeks ago and just seeing the stadium tour and taking the walk around the stadium was just incredible because you really get a sense of the history of the place, and so it’s just going to be such a good platform for us to bring our game to.’'
Behind the excitement to be turning out at the home of English rugby lies years of work to bring this about, as Newnham-based hooker, Jess Charlton explains: ‘'This is something that’s been discussed for maybe three years, the prospect of the women moving to Twickenham and when would be the optimal time to do that. It brings a different aspect to our season with trying to get a squad ready for December rather than March. But we decided it’d be better to just get on with it. We wanted to get ourselves out there, we want to put ourselves on that platform. We think the level of rugby we play deserves to be seen.’'
I ask about the prejudices facing women in a sport dominated by men. How difficult do they find it to be taken seriously as athletes? '‘I think what you’ll encounter is a sense of pleasant surprise,'’ says Weckman, ‘'and I think that’s one of the really good things coming out of Twickenham – you’re going up on such a big stage, and so hopefully the next time a little girl says that she wants to play rugby, it’s taken more as a thing that girls do.’'
Laura Nunez-Mulder, Emmanuel second row, agrees: '‘Often when I tell someone that I play rugby, often the first thing they ask me is whether it’s full contact. And I absolutely love that straight after I get to say, ''Yes! And did you know we’re playing at Twickenham this year?'' Just to see their expectations about women’s rugby skyrocket, I absolutely love that.’'
Ciara Scott, prop at Pembroke College, continues: ''I think it’s often pleasant surprise, and they sort of come around to the idea. When I told my granddad I play rugby, he was absolutely terrified! He was an old rugby boy, he was like “no you can’t! It’s not full contact is it? You don’t do scrums, do you?” And I was like, “Yeah, it’s exactly the same, granddad!” But then, when I scored my first try last year, I got a card from him the day after, so people do get really excited about it when you get them involved.’'
The move to Twickenham has coincided with a series of positive developments in the sport at university level, as Wilson explains: '‘One positive thing is that last year, we weren’t allowed to play on the pitch at Grange Road if the men had a game in the evening. If that happened, we had to play at Fitzwilliam, whereas now it’s very positive, we play all of our home games at Grange Road, unless there’s a direct conflict. And now a lot of the men’s team come and support our games, which is great.
‘'Also for our Varsity match last year – when we won 47-0! – we filled all of the stands at Grange Road, there were people standing as well, I don’t know how many people were there, but it was an absolutely fantastic atmosphere and a really high level of rugby that was played, and I think a lot of people after seeing that game thought, ‘'Yeah, why aren’t the girls at Twickenham? The girls are winning, the girls are playing great rugby, they should be there.’'
‘'We’re riding on a big wave of popularity right now in terms of the women’s Rugby World Cup a couple of years ago,’' adds Weckman, ‘'It generated quite a lot of support for women’s rugby. I think it’s one of the fastest-growing women’s sports in the country, and so ever step forward that we make is a big step.’'
The ever-shrinking gap in opportunity between men’s and women’s rugby is one of Cambridge sport’s real success stories. So do the team think that women’s rugby is laying down a marker for other sports to become more equal? '‘I hope so,’' says Weckman, ‘'The more visible that you make women’s sport, the more that will feed into other sports that aren’t quite as lucky, that don’t have as much visibility or as much funding. That’s a big goal, to be able to be a role model and help make women’s sport visible.’'
Amongst the hype surrounding the move to Twickenham, it’s easy to forget that there’s a trophy at stake. I finish by asking how the Light Blues feel ahead of the game. ‘'We’re obviously going to win!’' laughs Wilson, '‘I think it’s going to be very competitive, but we have a really good chance of winning. Our league is very challenging at the moment, so we’ve lost a lot of our games, but they’ve lost those games by more, and significantly more in some of them! And we’ve been getting a good vibe from the opposition, that they think we’re better, so I think we’re definitely in a good position to win.’'