Around the world, the question of transgender women playing in women’s sport is becoming a major issue, but it is nowhere more sensitive than in Rugby.

World Rugby has issued a directive that transgender women can no longer compete in Women’s Rugby at international level. Howls of indignation and accusations of transphobia and discrimination were loud and immediate. So too, were online petitions.

In Australia, National Women’s Rugby bodies fell over themselves to be the first to say they would not obey the directive. While trans women would not be able to play at International level, the National Women’s Unions joined a number of other sporting codes in assuring the world that their LGBTQI credentials were untouched, and that they would continue to allow transgender women to play at “community” level.

However, the directive was only issued after an extensive study by scientists, ethicists and administrators about the risk that slightly lower-testosterone laden men can pose to women playing the game. The conclusion of that study was that because of Rugby’s “… unique context of combining strength, power, speed and endurance in a physical, collision environment… there are compelling, evidenced safety considerations which we simply cannot ignore”.

In LGBTIQ forums the science behind the directive was called into question, which is par for the course when transgender issues arise. The scientists were traduced and called out for transphobia also. This too is now par for the course.

South Park has its say

But to understand why safety questions are so sensitive, it is helpful to be aware of the recent history of one of the biggest safety issues in world sport — the issue of concussion and what sporting codes are doing to minimize harm.

Concussion is the most worrying injury in Australian Rugby today. Since US National Football League (NFL) players won a lawsuit against their employers for not dealing with cases of concussion in their players, Australian Rugby, from Under 6s to International level, has started to take concussion very seriously indeed.  

The most devastating injury in Rugby is a broken neck. Thankfully, the incidence has been reduced by a worldwide safety campaign. 

In Junior Rugby (from Under 19s down) the referee now has a Blue Card to add to the ones issued for foul play — the famous Yellow and Red ones. The referees use the Blue Card to signal that it is unsafe for a player to continue after a head knock. Once the card has been issued the player must leave the field and not return in that game until he or she has had an assessment.  

If the player is assessed as having concussion they have to go through stringent protocols. Those protocols include a period of 19 days before they return to the field and only then after they passed through a “graduated return to play”. 

In addition to their coaching qualifications it is compulsory for Rugby coaches to have a  “Smart Rugby” qualification. Despite the comments some people make about it being an oxymoron, the qualification is about body position in “contact”, like tackles, mauls and scrums.  

A major focus of the training with SmartRugby is the reduction of neck injuries. And it has worked. Rugby has never been safer and the quality of the Rugby has improved as a consequence. 

There was no discussion on the forums that were chanting “transwomen are women” about the science or the safety. The only thing that seemed to be educed for the injustice of a directive designed to stop biological men playing against usually smaller, slower and weaker women, was the lived experience of transwomen playing Rugby, many of whom, for obvious reasons, are valuable members of their teams, if not game winners. 

It is clear that if World Rugby had not made this directive, there would have been a scramble on the part of national teams to acquire the biggest and fastest transgender women to join their women’s squads for the next Women’s Rugby World Cup in New Zealand or the (now-postponed) Olympics Rugby 7s competition — both to be held next year.  

And why not? Rugby is a competitive sport. As the famous gridiron coach Vince Lombardi once said, “If winning isn’t everything, why do they keep score?”  

In Australia they have been scouting skillful, fast, strong women from other codes of football to play in the Australian Women’s Rugby team and it has been a successful scramble. Transwomen who had all the benefits of a male puberty and some development as men will be in the scouts’ sights. 

And there is another consideration apart from safety. Before inclusivity, and in past times (often unfortunately before safety) sport was about fairness.

Fairness is fundamental. It means everyone has an equal chance to excel, to compete and to win. It means not playing Under 14s girls in your Under 13s girls team. It means not getting an unfair advantage because you are using performance enhancing drugs. It means not tampering with the equipment used for the game. And it means not fielding transwomen, who have had the advantage of high levels of testosterone for years, stronger bones and bigger musculature against women who have not had that advantage. 

Another thing World Rugby is aware of, but no one wants to hear, is that if the Women’s World Cup becomes a race to get the biggest, fastest and strongest transgender women to play for your team, that will be the end of Women’s Rugby at International level.  

The girls who in increasing numbers are joining teams will hear the message that you can play all you like in community Rugby but don’t dream about representing your country, going to the World Cup or to the Olympics.  

That is why it is important to keep the rucking safe and fair. 

Martin Fitzgerald

Martin Fitzgerald has taught English, Philosophy, Latin and Rugby at Redfield College in Dural, Sydney, Australia for 28 years. He played Rugby as a schoolboy and young man and as he gets older, he says,...