Sexism in rugby? Women's World Cup winners tackle new challenge

By Chloe HubbardBBC Sport
Women's World Cup winners take on coaching roles

"I was on the sideline once and an old-boy just standing there shouted 'Calm down sweetheart'. It made me rage, but I just had to not respond and think, 'OK, he's ignorant, that's his problem.'"

Katherine Merchant and Rochelle 'Rocky' Clark are Rugby World Cup winners with 156 caps between them.

But as women coaching men's rugby teams, they still encounter on a routine basis the sort of sexist attitudes Merchant recounts.

Clark, 33, who won her 98th cap in England's 11-8 Six Nations defeat by Ireland on Friday, and Merchant, 29, who was forced to retire last year after 58 caps, coach two men's amateur outfits: Buckinghamshire New Universityexternal-link and Chesham Stags.external-link

Both have improved exponentially since the pair took over coaching duties in 2010, but this does not stop some referees and opposition coaches being baffled by the idea of women in charge.

The pair are regularly mistaken for being team physios by officials, or even completely ignored by opposition coaches who often mistake male spectators as the team's coach.

Katherine Merchant in action during the Rugby World Cup
Merchant scored an impressive 44 tries in 58 caps for England

"I normally shrug it off," Merchant says. "But it does make me a bit mad because fundamentally people just need to realise there are female coaches out there and they are good at what they do, otherwise they wouldn't be coaching.

"I'd understand it more if I was quite casual, but when I turn up in coaching kit and I'm clearly coaching and you still can't realise, that's when it's a bit like - really?"

Referees and opposition staff regularly assume Clark's house-mate Karl Cross, an avid supporter and a women's rugby coach himself, is the men's team's coach. "Quite often Karl will get mistaken for being the coach and he's having a pint on the sideline," Clark says.

Merchant adds: "It makes me mad because the other coaches will come up and automatically go to shake his hand. They automatically assume he's the coach even though he's in jeans and turned up later - I find it frustrating that they can't seem to grasp it."

Is there a lack of education in the men's game?

Chesham supporter and women's rugby coach Karl Cross
Cross, a supporter of the Chesham women's team, is mistaken for the coach

Cross thinks so. "Quite often officials from other clubs will come up and speak to me. It will be the referee or opposition coach, and they'll ask to talk to me about kick-off time, or how many players we've got.

"Often 'Rocky' and Kat will be stood there in their training kit actually going through the process of coaching, while I'm just stood in the background.

"I do find it strange, but most of the time it happens at clubs where they don't have a women's team so it's alien to them."

As a supporter, Cross often overhears sexist comments aimed at the women. "I've heard comments from other team's coaches saying things like 'women coaches- that's bizarre, what's that all about?'

Kat Merchant lifts weights in a gym
Merchant, now retired, works as a personal trainer

He recently attended a coaching course where one of the other delegates asked him who he coached.

"I said 'I coach Bletchley women's side'. He said, 'Oh, our club has a women's team, they played Peterborough the other week'. I replied, 'Cool, was it a good game?' To which he said, 'I don't know, I didn't watch, but the Peterborough team were a lot better looking than ours.'

"This is a completely true story, along with the many others where people ask if we shower together."

Both women accept this is part of the process, but hope things will improve. "We hope that they realise once they play us and the guys are performing well that actually that's down to good coaching," Clark says. "The boys have a lot of respect for us, it's part of the territory but it is changing."

Merchant says she was never fazed by coaching men. "I've had a lot of people ask me that, and ask how was the first session, how do they take to you being a woman? And I always say 'what do you mean?' Because it didn't occur to me; it doesn't ever enter my head."

Is it weird for players having a female coach?

Not at the Chesham Stags. The players see their coaches as international athletes. Their sex is irrelevant.

"It's brilliant, what they've done," number eight and team captain Jack Davies says. "They are inspirations to us and they've achieved more than any of us could dream of achieving, especially for 'Rocky' (Clark) to get nearly 100 caps now, it's amazing. And it's a massive selling point for our club. They're not just women, they're world champions - they're the reason people come to our club."

Rochelle Clark dives over to score a try against Scotland in last year's Six Nations
Clark dives over to score a try against Scotland in last year's Six Nations

Winger Billy Moore adds: "They're brilliant coaches, they're the best coaches I've ever had. I know when I play I put in 100% every week because they're watching and I want to impress.

"You don't notice they are female, it doesn't make a difference. They're awesome coaches, it's just normal."

Prop Jon Barnes is similarly effusive. "I think it's brilliant to have people who have played for England at that level so many times, I particularly like working with 'Rocky' because she's a prop like me and all the technique I've learnt from her is invaluable. I love it."

Are there advantages to being a female coach?

Clark and Merchant coach the Chesham Stags women's team as well as the men's. Merchant, who was forced to retire because of a concussion sustained during last year's World Cup, has also taken over coaching responsibilities at Worcester women's side.

Both say there are subtle differences between coaching men and women.

"The difference is women want to know 'why?' a lot more, which you can probably imagine, whereas the guys will do it without thinking," Clark says. "Probably that's the main difference, but you get the same amount of banter.

"There are quite a few advantages. When a guy needs an arm around the shoulder because he's had a bad day at the office, we can do that. If they need to be told they haven't performed very well, I can do that as well. Being able to read the player as an individual is important."

Merchant adds: "It's unique and when you get lads who are really on board and are open to it, they're really up for it and it's brilliant. The point we really want to make is that it shouldn't matter whether it's a male coach or a female coach, it's just a coach. And is my coaching knowledge good enough? Am I suited to that team?"

"I hope that if we weren't World Cup winners the guys would respect us as coaches anyway, but I think it does give you something. The higher the level you play at, they think you know what you're on about."