"New town. New team. New mates. Same 19th century attitudes."
Just what century does the RFU think we are in?
Amazingly the above image is not something from the 1960s - this is the front page of the new website (http://www.rfu.com/playon/default.aspx) launched in the last few weeks to promote the RFU's new "Play On" initiative. They say that a picture is worth a thousand words - well in this case it says more about the RFU and rugby's attitude to women and girls than a multi-volume encyclopaedia could manage!
I honestly cannot think of any other sport that would be so inept and thoughtless as to launch an official campaign designed to increase player numbers with an image featuring only males playing the sport - and then compound the felony by including a few young women as a sort of decorative adornment, tastefully draped around watching their boyfriends in action, or chatting away admiringly to their man as he recovers from his exertions.
I cannot recall seeing anything so overtly and obviously sexist - even misogynistic - since they stopped draping partially clad models over cars at motor shows. It says - no screams - "rugby is a game for men - just you sit there and watch, love". And the rest of the site isn't much better, with no mention on most of its pages of women's or girls' rugby at all.
Its also noticeable, incidentally, that everyone in the image is also very white - presumably ethnic minorities need not even bother turning up to watch.
There is - unusually actually - no separate RFUW logo, which hopefully means that they were not consulted. Even if RFUW have been involved in discussions about the initiative itself it is inconceivable that they could have approved this without kicking up a huge fuss, otherwise they'd be failing to do their job at a pretty fundamental level. They could do with looking at it - now - and then knocking on some doors (and I know you are reading this, guys - I monitor the these things you know).
And this is a huge shame because underneath this positively Freudian imagery is a initiative of real value - indeed (ironically) it has the potential to be of proportionately greater value to the women's game than the men's, because its all about keeping young players playing by building up networks of "Pathfinders" to signpost them in the right direction.
Last year you may recall that the RFU ran a "Go Play" campaign designed to get former players back into rugby. While its relevance was a bit limited for us as the only former players we'd want to attract (ie. former mini rugby playing girls aged 12-16) would probably not be an audience readily reached by drink-related scratchcards and beer mat advertising, the RFU are claiming that overall it was a big success. Some of us would like to see a more gender-specific breakdown of the statistics before we are completely convinced, but I suspect we aren't going to get that so we will have to take RFU at their word.
Following on from that, the new campaign - "Play on"- is not aimed sozzled old blokes in bars trying to recapture a lost youth. Instead it is targeted squarely at 16-20 year olds wanting to carry on playing rugby.
The RFU know that many players are lost of the game after they leave school and suspect that a major factor is that, when they leave home to start a job or got to university or whatever, they find themselves in a new town, not knowing anyone in the local rugby club - or maybe not even knowing where the local club is. While the more cynical amongst us (hi there!) will probably be thinking that the RFU doesn't much faith in the research abilities of young people, fact is that they are at least trying to sort out the problem which deserves some applause.
Anyway, a key bit of the site is a database that provides the user with a means of locating their nearest rugby club. Amazingly, given the tone of the rest of the site, this does include a separate search for women's clubs - and it even sort of works.
Sort of because it only includes women's clubs, whether of not they have U18 sections. So anyone in North Herts using the site is firmly directed to Hitchin, with no mention of Letchworth - or Welwyn come to that. In fact there is no mention of Saracens or Shelford either (even if you relocate your search to somewhere rather nearer to these illustrious clubs) which maybe indicates some sizable holes in the RFU's database (well, bottomless cavern if they have contrived to miss Europe's most successful women's rugby club off the system!).
Despite that it doesn't take much imagination to see how incredibly useful this is to the women's game. The targeted ages are slightly out, but give a minimal tweak this could potential assist in solving our game's two biggest headaches - the loss of players after mini rugby, and the lack of an effective bridge between the girls' and women's game. A slightly realigned campaign and database aimed at a 11-19 audience would be fantastic.
So come on RFUW - help the RFU to turn defeat into victory. Let's see if the two of you can't turn a PR disaster into a practical triumph of lasting value to the entire female game.
Oh - and if anyone in the Letchworth men's section is reading this... I think you need to put forward the name of a Pathfinder to RFU. As a matter of some priority. A search for men's clubs in this area just comes up with Hitchin too - so don't complain if all the promising young players moving to the area all end up in the hedgehog's embrace.