Celebrating International Women’s Day with Heriot’s Blues Women

A few years ago, if you were coming down to Goldenacre on a Sunday afternoon, you would have found the juniors and a few empty pitches, and some remnants of the day before from the Blues Men’s game. Nowadays, you will find a small crowd gathering, watching two women’s teams playing some of the best rugby in Scotland, competing in the highest national division in the country.

Heriot’s Rugby Club has changed a lot in the last few years, but one of its biggest achievements to date has to be the integration of its women’s team. It was a big project to take on from both ends; the Club had to support a whole new team with all the extra practicalities that come with it, whilst the players had to live up to a legacy that was renowned in Scottish rugby, especially within Edinburgh.

The Blues Women have been around for less than 4 years, and have already made their way through the ranks. They now compete in the highest league in Scotland and possess some star players who represent Scotland internationally from the U18s level right through to the National Squad. 

Captain Kirsty McConnell had a few words to say about her team on this special day:

“I am honoured to lead such an inspirational group of women. This season especially I have seen so many women using the pitch as a space to be courageous, creative, and brave. I love seeing everyone bring their own passion and empowerment to each session. Inspiring each other every session. I am so proud of how we have welcomed new players to the Blues this year. From the moment a woman sets foot at Goldie, you’re one of us, whoever you were before! I also love how the other women in our lives have become part of the Blues family. Aunts, grans, sisters, and mums on the sidelines showing we are strong for the women before us that could have been unreal players but didn’t get the opportunity at the time.”

Speedster Emily Flavell joined the Blues Women just over a year ago and has since made herself a key member of the squad. Being part of this strong group of women has been a great experience for her but has also helped her through some hard times:

I feel like from the very start of the Premiership we [Blues Women] got stuck right in and were really serious competitors and just showed that we were definitely where we were meant to be. After the playoffs, I think it’s insanely exciting to see what we can build from here and what we can bring for next season. I’ve played with a few teams now and the environment at Heriot’s is so special in that every single person on the team wants the best for everyone else and wants to see everyone achieve, no one gets left behind and I think that’s what makes us such a strong squad overall. 

Being a woman in a more male-dominated sport is really tough and you definitely feel a lot of the time like you’re fighting for your place in the sport and having to justify your right to be there, but that’s also what makes it so rewarding and empowering as well. A lot of the women now who grew up with the sport have spent their whole life being pretty comfortable with facilities/transport/coaching/funding etc. being sub par compared to the men because that was just the status quo but we’re at a point now I think where we know we can do better and deserve better and don’t want younger players to face the same obstacles we did. International women’s day is about celebrating women’s achievements and I think any woman who has the courage to step up into any spaces where you’re making yourself vulnerable to being told you don’t belong there, whether that be in a sport or the gym or the workplace or whatever is achieving so much because we’re making those spaces more and more accessible for all the girls coming in next.

Personally, rugby’s pulled me up and out of a lot of tough times because you want to be as strong, fit, and healthy as you can to show up and be there for your team because you know they’re all doing the same for you!”

It’s only March, and 2022 has already been one of the best years for Women’s rugby. Scotland recently qualified for the Rugby World Cup which takes place in New Zealand later on this year, and with the Women’s Six Nations getting its first-ever title sponsor, TikTok, female athletes within the sport are finally seeing their hard work bear the fruits they had been waiting so long for. The engagement and reach alone that TikTok will bring to women’s rugby will be a game-changer, attracting brand new audiences. The platform, also being video-based, will force sports unions and clubs to post higher quality content of their women’s teams, which will, in turn, mean better coverage of the women’s game and better quality content. The small changes are starting to appear within the sport, but there is still a way to go.

To succeed, the women also need the support of their male counterparts, of board members, coaches, referees, unions, supporters and so many more.

It is not just for the grassroots, but for the National squads to be able to compete against some of the biggest rugby nations in the world, Scottish rugby needs to take a page from their neighbour’s playbook.  Contracted Women’s players are rare in Scotland, and solving this problem starts at grassroots level. If more clubs support their women’s teams, whether that be equal access to pitches or funding, the quality of rugby will develop and so will the national teams. 

Caitlin Sedgeworth has been playing for Blues Women for a short time but has already made her mark in the team. Caitlin is a great advocate for the game and when we caught up with her to ask her about her personal experiences, she said:

I find being a female rugby player incredibly frustrating at times, obviously the discrepancy in funding, televised games/promotion and general support is part of that. As a rugby player who is female you are constantly representing your gender on top of other normal sporting pressures whereas our male counterparts get to just play rugby and all scrutiny is entirely game-related. It’s never ‘They missed that conversion because that’s a part of the men’s game that is weak’. I think if every rugby player just took the time to take an interest in their women’s & girls section and support it, promote it, encourage it grassroots women’s rugby would really benefit from that. It’s a hugely growing game, people need to get on board, sports aren’t and shouldn’t be gendered – rugby really is for all!

There are some amazing movements going on at the moment – you can see the impact already in both Wales and Ireland. It does frustrate me that it is always the women who are having to put themselves out there and take the risk to make it better for their teammates and the next generation. I hope to see more male allies speaking up about inequalities no matter the level, from international to club rugby. Are your women’s teams being treated differently? Do they have access to the same facilities/equipment/kit as you? What pitch do they play on, which changing rooms do they use? These are simple things to get right, and the positive impact can be huge. Heriots has made great progress with these things and it’s important that this continues and other clubs follow suit.

It’s difficult to ask for equal results when there is no equal treatment, but women within the sport are proving time and time again that they are the incredible players that deserve to be shown on the telly 

Paige Anastacia, Front Row for Blues Women has demonstrated her strength and commitment within the team not only on the field but within the squad as a friend and her teammate, continuously supporting the Blues

“I was introduced to rugby in my early 20’s and I instantly fell in love with the sport. I have always been a very outgoing person, who danced and rode horses while growing up, but finding rugby gave me even more confidence in what my body can do.

Through rugby, I’ve met some amazing women. Some have paved the way for the younger girls coming through the ranks, others, like myself, were introduced later on.

All too often, women are told that we don’t belong in the sport, or asked the most ridiculous questions, usually around what law changes there are because we are women. Because of that, I am proud of every woman involved in the sport. I am proud of myself, and my teammates for showing up and proving, in a stereotypical male sport, that we are here, and we are here to stay.

I absolutely love being part of such a new team, that is Heriot’s Blues Women. Being on the same pitch as three U18s making their senior debut has been such special moments in my playing career. Especially as I’ve watched them grow so much in a short space of time. It makes me sad that I didn’t have the opportunity to play as a kid, but it makes me so unbelievably happy knowing the roots are there for the girls that come after them.

I believe most clubs could do more for their women’s teams, as a lot are still quite new to having a women’s team, but I believe Heriot’s will lead the way in having equality for a few reasons: We have Rhona Shepherd on the board, representing women’s & girls rugby. A legend of the game!; we are the only premiership team to have a Female Head Coach [Lucy Brown] & coaching team (and out of my three previous teams, the only time I’ve been coached by women); and possibly the most important. But out of all the games this season, no matter where we’ve played, I can’t think of a game that I haven’t had a post-match hug from Club President, Iain Duckworth.”

And that ladies and gentlemen, is leading from the front.

In the words of Shaunagh Brown and the recent performances from Scotland women

"We will show you we are worthy, like we always do"