If you speak to anybody who played for EURFC in the recent South West Rugby Derby, they’ll surely tell you that there was something particularly special about playing under the lights at Sandy Park for the University. Some may go as far as to call it an “honour”.
Yet, this special feeling continues to be refused to our female teams. When we go to Football Varsity, there is no talk of EULFC. When we go to the South West Rugby Derby, there is no talk of EUWRFC. When we go to Cricket Varsity, there is no talk of EULCC. The few events which can be salvaged are perhaps Hockey Varsity, which was played in a back-to-back fashion last year; Boxing Varsity, which is thanks to the nature of the club being mixed (although even then only one female boxer took part) and EUNC’s Spotlight Fixture. But none of these are quite as prestigious as the male-only events, and they certainly don’t allow for the opportunity to play in professional stadiums.
So, why can’t we allow the squads of EUWRFC and EULFC loose on Sandy Park and St James Park? The argument that seems to crop up is the feasibility of it; there’s an illusion that people simply wouldn’t turn out for a women’s game because it isn’t as established, and therefore they should simply end up having a token gesture of a “varsity” match at Topsham.
In my opinion, the main flaw in this is that it assumes that people turn up to a varsity solely for the sporting event. Sure, the fans will go home happy if Exeter win, but let’s not get ahead of ourselves and pretend as though it’s the be-all and end-all. At the recent South West Rugby Derby, I seriously doubt that the majority of the fans present could tell me what exactly ‘Super Rugby’ is, let alone the permutations that allowed Exeter to leapfrog Loughborough into second place.
The majority of the fans simply weren’t there because their life’s worth depended on the outcome of the game; they wanted to go along because these matches are more than just there for the sporting side. They aren’t just games; they’re events. It’s a social event to turn up to Varsity, and as one person described it to me, “it’s great to see everyone just kind of coming together”. The notion that people wouldn’t come together in this way because the players are female seems ridiculous, and EUNC’s Spotlight Fixture somewhat proved that, as it was pretty much filled to the rafters.
The notion that people wouldn’t come together in this way seems ridiculous
Even if we were to think that people turned up to the games on sporting merit, this means that we have an expectation that games featuring women aren’t as exciting as those contested by their male counterparts. At a professional level, perhaps there is an argument here, but it exists thanks to the very turbulent world that is female professional sport which simply makes it infeasible as a career path for many. At a university level, to argue this is would be pure nonsense. In rugby union and football, we see that our female side competes at the same level as their male counterparts. EUWRFC have beaten some teams by over 90 points this season, and they feature some of the top young players in women’s rugby in the country. It just is not valid to question their talent.
So maybe it’s time for a change. Maybe we should follow in the footsteps of other events such as the Varsity between Oxford and Cambridge, where both men and women play games back-to-back. It’s time to give our female sport teams the recognition that they deserve, and that definitely doesn’t mean another trip to Topsham.