RugbyX and the Future of Women's Rugby with Holly Aitchison
In my left arm, I held my nearly six-month old daughter while I interviewed English rugby sevens star Holly Aitchison.
While the rest of the household was sleeping on an early morning, Everly and I conducted an interview with Aitchison, who was riding a mid-afternoon train eight hours away in England. Everly cooperated. I’m quite certain Holly didn’t even know there was a third party on the line. Yet, the moment seemed unique.
Twenty years from now, I may barely recollect this oft-truncated interaction – Aitchison’s on-train reception rode a fickle line – but then again, maybe I will. Maybe we won’t be talking about “the rise of women’s rugby in England,” but instead we’ll just talk about “women’s rugby in England.” Maybe the same will also be true within the women’s game in the seemingly ever-burgeoning North American rugby scene. Hopefully.
And maybe, in a unique and spotlighted fashion, RugbyX, with all its excitement and brevity, could well be a catalyst for all the ‘maybes.’ Maybe.
With the debut of the 5v5 indoor version of rugby – having launched on a late October Tuesday at the O2 Arena in London – the future of rugby is exciting, yet, in so many ways wildly unknown. RugbyX may or may not be here to stay. But at least it’s a helpful metaphor for the future – that of women’s rugby, Holly and Everly. Maybe.
Just days before England would play South Africa in the Rugby World Cup Final, legendary sevens coach, Ben Ryan, opened the curtain on RugbyX. For Aitchison, 22, and her English teammates, they just so happened to win it all, rallying in the final to beat the USA in an unforgettable, if not a bit awkward, fashion. Scoring two tries in the final minute, England roared back to tie the match and send the 10-minute rugby varietal to the now much ballyhooed one-on-one “shootout,” where the precise rules became a bit foggy, albeit still fascinating.
“I was literally on the side of the pitch watching (one v one) happening,” says Aitchison, who had gone down with an ankle injury just moments before the end of regulation time. “My physio was like ‘you need to go in and get treatment’ and I was like ‘No, I need to sit here and watch this.’”
She’d have been crazy to miss it.
So, it went like this. The goal was to be the first team to score three tries. England scored. USA scored. England scored. USA scored. England scored. That was it. USA didn’t get another chance. England won. Done deal.
Aitchison and her teammates just didn’t know that they’d won.
“They announced it over the speaker ‘…and your RugbyX 2019 winners are England’ and then lights in the stadium flashed red and then England Winners was on the ribbon thing and then we saw that the cameras were all over us and that was it,” she says. “We definitely didn’t realize what had actually happened at first.”
“I think it was just when we heard on the speakers that we had won. We were new to the rules and everyone was new to the rules and we didn’t know. It was like ‘cool, we actually did that.’ The one v ones are daunting. The spotlight is on you. To come through that and to rally late in the game is a really good test of character for us.”
So, how was it Holly? Is RugbyX the next big thing?
“We absolutely loved it. It was so cool. It’s exciting and the crowd loved it and it was so loud. The home crowd was amazing and it’s obviously something we don’t get on the (World Rugby Sevens) Series.
“I think initially I was very hesitant. I had been to the exhibition match and I thought the pitch was too small and there seemed to be a lot of contact. But to be fair, after playing the first game, I came off the pitch and I was like, ‘I really enjoyed that’ and I didn’t think I would. As a spectator sport, I think it’s exciting. A lot of people there said it was really good to watch. The games were just 10 minutes straight. It’s like sevens of course, but it’s a lot quicker because you don’t have downtime. The scoring system makes everything faster.
“As a player, I don’t think the pitch was too small. Maybe it could be 4v4, but then you have two-man or one-man scrums and I don’t know how you work that out. But, the general atmosphere from our camp was that we loved and we’d do it again. The atmosphere was great and the stadium was electric.”
It could turn into something kinda neat. It could be something really cool. Or it could just be one small piece of this whole “let’s grow the game” puzzle.
At the very least, Aitchison, who is certainly a budding sevens star on the international circuit, hopes it’s the latter. For her and her English teammates, the women’s game is building, but there’s so much further to go.
“I think women’s rugby in England is huge right now. We were massively impacted by the introduction of (15s) contracts last year (for the England’s women’s team). I think we’re definitely moving in the right direction, but I think we need to be seen and that was the focus of getting the TV rights (for the sevens series). You see participation on the rise and a lot more girls interested in the sport. And I think the coverage we got from RugbyX was great and the buildup and exposure that it gave us was great.”
Then, of course, in terms of exposure, there is the Olympics – that carrot tantalizingly dangling at the end of this year’s World Rugby Sevens Series.
For Aitchison, that’s a dream, but one that’s still only just peaking over the horizon.
“I don’t like to think about it too much. There’s a lot you have to go through to be selected to that side. Personally I’m not getting too ahead of myself. I’m trying to just play the best I can and get as much experience as I can and put in some good performances to hopefully put my hand up for selection.”
So far, so good.
While England finished ninth in the season-opening tournament in Glendale, Aitchison led the team in scoring with 29 points, including three tries. The next tournament is in Dubai (Dec. 5-7). She figures her ankle should be ready to go by then.
We wrap up the chat.
Everly still hasn’t made a peep. Good job little one.
In 20 years…RugbyX? Women’s rugby? Holly Aitchison? Everly?
I’m thinking I’ll remember this conversation.