Last week when the Melbourne Rebels announced that their players would receive payment for the upcoming 2022 season, it was a first for Australia’s Super W competition.
To date, women across the country that have been competing in the Super W have been unpaid, juggling elite sporting commitments with familial responsibilities, university and work.
This was forcing players to make decisions about choosing to train rather than work, having significant impact on their ability to be at their best on the field.
For the Rebels, this was not an acceptable approach so the club has decided to lead, rather than wait for action from government or from the governing body.
According to coach Alana Thomas, the conversations to bring this ground-breaking moment to life have been happening for some time now.
To date, the team has been playing under the banner of ‘Rugby Victoria’. But this year Thomas and her leadership team knew there would be a transition to play under the ‘Melbourne Rebels’ banner.
“I remember talking to the leadership team about what this was going to mean and their focus was on making it one club and creating a club atmosphere that includes men and women,” says Thomas.
“There was also an emphasis on our women’s team and making it professional; there was focus on trying to lead and not waiting for someone else to make the decision about professionalising the women’s game.
“After that discussion, some of our players were sceptical as it is a conversation they have heard before, but to have it publicly announced at our Melbourne Rebels awards night and seeing people and sponsors so interested in helping was a big step forward.”
While assisting players to compete at an elite level and minimising any chance of them living with financial insecurity is vitally important to continue to grow women’s rugby, it is only one part of the story for the Rebels.
Along with payment, the team will also have full access to revamped high-performance facilities, doubleheader clashes across the 2022 season and also see the team come under the leadership of GM of rugby, Nick Stiles.
“One of my philosophies as a coach is that for an athlete to perform at their best we have to look at the whole athlete,” explains Thomas.
“If athletes are going to perform on the field, they need to feel supported in their personal lives too.
“So often in women’s sport we talk about professionalisation and focus on pay in particular; but there is so much more support being offered to us now in terms of the new facility and the assistance of analysts and support staff.
“To make sure the athletes have this at their fingertips and can tap into it is a massive step forward.”
Over the last five years, Australia has seen tremendous strides in women’s sport. But when it comes to rugby, particularly the XV version of the game, there is still plenty of work to do.
At the moment the Rebels are the only club which will be paying their players in 2022 – this needs to change to ensure that athletes can compete at an elite level without worrying about severe financial insecurity, but also to ensure that women and girls see rugby union as a viable option rather than choosing sports where there are paid opportunities to play.
Thomas’ hope is that the leadership shown by the Rebels will push other clubs to do the same and consider what paying their players would look like.
“It takes just one club to be the leader,” says Thomas.
“Women’s sport has grown so much in the last couple of years and it is so important for rugby union to be part of that, too.
“We have some catching up to do, so hopefully other franchises will take notice of what we are doing and see it as an opportunity to grow the game and its brand.
“I am hoping this is a groundbreaking moment and it becomes the norm and everyone else follows suit.”
But for Thomas, the hope is that this is only the beginning of the Rebels’ journey.
“We should be striving to make this a career path so that when a young girl comes to the Rebels, she knows that she can be contracted and then potentially have other opportunities post-career, too,” the coach says.
“This should be a professional career and one in which people can set themselves up for life.”