By the time I was 15, I had put two rugby players in hospital. I broke the arm of one and knocked the other unconscious. Both were legitimate tackles, I was just better developed: bigger, stronger and more aggressive than my opponents.
I got my comeuppance in New Zealand when, as a 19-year-old, I launched myself at a Polynesian second row in an Under-21 match. I have a photo on my wall of the aftermath of my attempted tackle. My face is a tapestry of pain: a broken nose, a broken cheekbone, one eye black and the other glazed with concussion.
I came off lightly by comparison to Max Brito. He was an enthusiastic but inexperienced winger for the Ivory Coast in the 1995 World Cup; three minutes into their game against Tongan a ferocious tackle left Brito paralysed below the neck. I visited Max three years later, one of the saddest encounters I’ve experienced. A determined and dignified man, he’s never blamed rugby, but the fact that the Ivory Coast have never featured in another World Cup is proof that they were dangerously out of their depth in 1995.
That’s why I support the position of World Rugby (the sport’s governing body), which is expected to announce a ban on allowing transgender athletes to play women’s contact rugby because of safety concerns. Trans players will still be allowed to play touch rugby.
In a report earlier this month, BBC Sport reported that World Rugby had examined recent independent research that detailed there was ‘at least a 20-30 per cent greater risk’ of injury when a female player is tackled by someone who has gone through male puberty. World Rugby told BBC Sport:
‘The latest peer-reviewed research confirms that a reduction of testosterone does not lead to a proportionate reduction in mass, muscle mass, strength or power. These important determinants of injury risk and performance remain significantly elevated after testosterone suppression. This presents a clear safety risk when transgender women play women’s contact rugby.’
I’ve been a cheerleader for women’s rugby for over two decades. As a sports journalist I wrote about its development and I once spent a weekend in a training camp with the England squad where I saw at first-hand their professionalism and proficiency.
They also know how to party; the most enjoyable rugby dinner I’ve attended was the women’s rugby football union bash at Twickenham in 1999, an event so riotous I boarded the wrong mini-bus at the end of the night and ended up in Leighton Buzzard instead of Finchley.
Women’s rugby has evolved into a sport of speed and guile, and some of the players have more technical skill than I did in my pomp as a semi-professional player. But I can safely say none have the brute strength and raw power I had in my twenties as a 15-stone flanker.
In its report of World Rugby’s findings, BBC Sport quoted trans player Grace McKenzie of the Golden Gate Women’s rugby club in San Francisco. She is campaigning to reverse World Rugby’s decision, and said:
‘I don’t feel that trans people deserve to just get the leftovers when it comes to these sorts of things. I want to be able to participate fully with my team and in the sport that I love.’
Stonewall and other LGBTIQ+ sports organisations in the UK are calling on British rugby clubs to oppose World Rugby’s draft transgender guidelines. One of their supporters, Dr Sheree Bekker, a sports injury specialist from the Department for Health at the University of Bath, claims:
‘Any exclusionary policy in women’s sport hurts all women. This policy approach enacts a particular structural violence against trans women.’
The violence Dr Bekker should be worried about is the (legitimate) physical violence that female players could face from opponents who have gone through male puberty. We’ve seen the physical gulf between females and trans athletes in track cycling, where the 6ft tall and 14 stone Rachel McKinnon set world records in winning consecutive World Championship titles in 2018 and 2019. The woman who took the bronze in the 2018 race, American Jennifer Wagner, said subsequently the race was ‘not fair’.
It wasn’t, but at least Wagner’s only bruise was to her ego. Rugby is a dangerous sport; in France in 2018 four players – all 23 or under – died as a result of violent collisions on the field of play.
Women’s rugby is a wonderful sport and it must be allowed to continue to grow in a safe environment free from identity politics and from opponents who could do them some serious physical damage.
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