When William Webb Ellis picked up a football at Rugby School and ran with it almost 200 years ago, it was seen as revolutionary, but what would the sports master have said if Bill’s mum had wanted to play?
Rugby has experienced many a makeover since that first rucking and mauling around the English Midlands, and the burgeoning number of women in the code’s ranks represent another revolution, one that can only change the game for the better.
Women playing rugby is nothing new, but the Olympic gold medal-winning performance of Australian Women’s Sevens team in Rio left the nation’s clubs scrambling to accomodate a flood of interest from junior girls and the advent of Super W in 2018 has also given the 15-a-side game an unprecedented profile.
While our Aussie Seven’s stars have achieved pay parity with their male counterparts on the HSBC World Tour and Rugby Australia now has a specific pregnancy policy covering female athletes (expedited by now-retired mum-of-two Nicole Beck), the fledgling Super W remains completely amateur in terms of payment and conditions.
It’s a status those within the competition are striving to change, but the desire to play at the highest level and stake a claim for national selection in the Wallaroos squad, where players do receive some remuneration, is creating countless stories of significant sacrifice within the clubs.
Some have moved interstate for the opportunity to play, like Tasmania’s Wynonah Conway at the Melbourne Rebels, others make six-hour round trips to training, like Orange Emus playmaker Emily McDonald at the Brumbies, but one common source of inspiration at all five franchises is the presence of life’s ultimate mentors; the mums.
We are used to hearing references to the ‘rugby family’, but Rugby WA’s Super W squad are the living embodiment of the term.
With their home fixtures this season on a Sunday, the team has a regular social gathering on the Saturday morning at a Perth beach.
The simple instructions from veteran hooker/back rower and mother of two Tara Reed;
Bring; Family and food.
“It’s madness - they all get together at a park or something with all the brothers, sisters, cousins and mums and have a big barbecue,” says Reed’s partner and head coach Shannon Symon.
“Then they’ll all come down again to the game on Sunday.”
This atmosphere is indicative of the wider Western Australian club community - it’s tight knit even by rugby standards - and is also illustrated by Western Force’s fiercely loyal Sea of Blue fan base.
“With Western Australia the majority of families come here to make a better life, so we’re all from all over the place; South Africans, English, Irish, Welsh and Kiwis as well,” says Symon.
“So you get that buy in. People come to the clubs to try and find their social group, to try and find a family.
“Most of the young ones, the schoolgirls coming through, these (senior) players are all their aunties, and I’m the uncle, it’s all a big family and everyone knows everybody.”
Rugby WA second rower Kateraina Ahipene moved to Perth from Auckland with her partner Michael Horner five years ago to be closer to her brother, and so kids Riley (10), Maikah (7) and Beau (4) could grow up around their cousins.
With a background in touch football, Symon and Reed recruited her from the Palmyra Sevens program, and she has formed a formidable locking combination with Wallaroo Rebecca Clough this season.
The 29-year-old was overwhelmed by the support at the club’s first home fixture of the season last weekend, a 31-0 loss to defending champions NSW at Curtin University, and expects even more family members at Rugby WA’s final Perth match of the season today against the Brumbies.
“It was amazing. You don’t realise how much support you really have until there’s people messaging saying; ‘I’m going to come to the game’,” she says.
“For people to take time out of their Sunday to come and watch, it’s a nice feeling, so it was really good to have our people from home there.”
There are six mums in the Rugby WA squad and, with 15 kids between them, there’s a whole team available for a scratch match at the Saturday beach barbecue - just the kind of family-friendly get together which illustrates how women are re-shaping rugby.
Last month across the other side of the country, Albury Wodonga Steamers president Mick Raynes was serenaded by the Brumbies Super W squad after the southern NSW club hosted the Canberra side’s pre-season trial against the Melbourne Rebels.
“I’ve never been thanked quite like that before,” says Raynes, who works closely with a junior committee which boasts the strongest numbers of junior girls outside a major metropolitan area.
A veteran of Riverina rugby as a player and coach since the 1990s, Raynes has been on a few bus trips in his time, and says the greater presence of women is softening the overtly masculine environment rugby has traditionally represented.
“It definitely does, but we do need to find a balance. We’ve been negotiating that internally over the last few years, but we’re now a family club first and I think all the players understand that.” he says.
“A bus trip to Hay can end in a lot of nudity and carry on, and we are very popular at the Mangoplah Hotel, but now we’re also carrying 16-year-old girls on the bus, so that’s off the books - we can no longer behave like that.
“We had two buses when I was coaching in 2015, a women’s bus and the men’s bus, and come the first pee stop some of the women got on the men’s bus, and the men who weren’t drinking got on the women’s bus - they made their own decisions.”
Boisterous bus-trip antics are certainly nothing Brumbies hooker Lou Burrows hasn’t seen before.
A veteran of four World Cups with the Wallaroos, ’Cookie’ will turn 41 before this year’s Super W is done, and returns to Perth for today’s do-or-die clash with Rugby WA for the first time since she represented the ACT in the old national championships format in 1999.
Pending an expected NSW victory over the Rebels in Bathurst, the victor at Wanneroo Rugby Club today will travel to Brisbane to take on Queensland in the sudden-death play-off next Sunday.
Burrows has children almost as old as her Brumbies teammate Grace Kemp, one of her students at Canberra Girls Grammar, and said she decided to start a family after returning to Canberra from the 2006 World Cup in Canada.
“I was pretty much pregnant or breast feeding for four years,” she says, adding that she never knew if she would pull on the boots again.
“When the kids were a bit older, I came back in 2010, but not to the point of thinking of myself as an athlete. It was more just; ‘I play rugby’.
“In 2013 I lost my dad to cancer, he was 57, and I thought; ‘I’ve got one life to live, I love rugby, if my body allows me to keep playing I’m going to give it a good crack’.”
Kateraina Ahipene is another who has been focussed on bring up her youngsters in recent years, and said it took time to weigh up the impact playing Super W would have on her family.
“It probably was a little bit harder than I was expecting, but we’ve managed to make it work between me and my partner and my family,” she says.
“With anything like this though you realise you’re going to spend quite a bit of time away from your family so, for me personally, if I’m going to invest so much time and effort into something I’ve got to really believe in what I’m doing.
“It’s definitely been worth it, I’ve really enjoyed it, and it’s been good for me to find something to do for myself again, as well.
“I’ve spent a lot of time over the last few years always putting the kids first and, that hasn’t changed, but it’s been nice to sort of step away from that role and be able to play with my team and just be Kati, and not be mum.
“When I’m with my team, I’m just part of the team, and I get that break away from the other responsibilities I have, just for a little bit of time.”
After quitting rugby after school in Auckland, Ahipene has also noticed the change in the atmosphere around game after a 10-year absence, but the fact around two thirds of the Rugby WA squad has Kiwi heritage made the comeback easier.
“Rugby’s changed a lot from when I was younger - not just the game in general - but the whole culture around it,” she says.
“I’m really enjoying it - even within our own team - some of the other mums will bring their little kids along and the girls in the team are always fussing over all the children.
“That’s what I like about women’s rugby, there’s such a broad range of women that play.
“It’s not just people in their 20s, it’s 17-year-olds, and 30-year-olds, and mums who have finished having their families and have decided to come back and have a go.”
Son Maikah, who will be at Wanneroo with his extended family again today, had his first experience of watching mum play at Curtin Uni last week.
“It does make me feel like she’s tough, strong, and when she’s on the floor she just gets up straight away,” says the seven-year-old, after a pregnant pause to consider his answer.
The WA women are not alone in juggling rugby with motherhood - Queensland holds the maternal Super W title with eight mums - including former Australian Sevens representative Amy Turner.
“Just because you have a baby doesn’t mean it’s over...it’s not full-time on footy,” the 34-year-old told News Ltd in Brisbane earlier this year.
Flyhalf Lavinia Gould pens the names of her daughters Khalarnae and Kaia on her wrist strapping before each game and relies on the support of family and friends to help with regular hospital visits for 14-year-old’s Kaia’s kidney dialysis treatment.
Prop Hana Ngaha is a mother of four, which is double the progeny the entire defending champs have managed to produce. In the NSW squad, only playmaker Chloe Leaupepe and Pareake O’Brien have children, and Symon admits commitments outside of rugby have truly tested the depth of his squad in 2019.
“We do need to be more flexible here (than in NSW or Queensland). It’s one of those things with women’s sport - they’re all going to be mothers at some stage - it’s always something you’re going to have to look at,” he says of a season where the team has been decimated by injury.
“We’ve got first-time mothers all the way through to mothers of 18-year-old children, so we’re across the board in the team.
“I guess it does hinder us a little bit with the depth, but it’s just something you’ve got to try and work around and manage.”
Symon has moved Wallaroo outside back Mhicca Carter to scrum half for today’s must-win clash clash, with a head knock forcing out Zion Tauhima, and injury has caused a major shakeup in the forwards.
Despite ligament damage to fingers in her right hand, Ahipene will start in the second row, and this week she has made a point of completing the house work before piling the family into the car.
“I got home after match last weekend and I was feeling euphoric, on a high, and I walked in and realised I’d forgotten to wash the kids’ school uniforms,” she says.
“I had to drop everything and go and put them in the machine, and I couldn’t go to sleep until I’d hung them out and made sure they were ready for the next day.
“So… straight back into mum mode.”