Upgraded contracts, new television deals and a commitment from the media to provide more coverage of women’s sport has given Australian female athletes new pathways and aspirational goals.
One of 2016’s most exciting sporting moments was the Australian women’s sevens team winning the gold medal at the Rio Olympics.
According to the HSBC 2016 Future of Rugby report, Sevens is currently the fastest growing sport in the world and by 2026 forty per cent of participants will be female.
In Greece rugby union is very much a minority code, sitting well behind football, basketball and volleyball in terms of popularity. However the sport is growing and reinvigorating after previous administration difficulties led to Hellenic Rugby being deregistered from Rugby Europe and World Rugby.
One of the people leading the charge to boost the game is Panathinaikos rugby club player/coach Lina Norman.
Lina started playing rugby 11 years ago at age 24 in Sweden where she grew up before relocating to Athens with her family a couple of years ago. Watching a recent sevens tournament in Athens it is quickly obvious Norman, who represented Sweden in the 2010 World Cup, is a rugby enthusiast and the stand out player in the competition. So good in fact that officials on the sideline feel told me she could play in the men’s competition and excel.
“I would never do that,” Norman laughs.
“They are scared of hurting me. They see me as a woman and mother so they would treat me differently.
“I just love the spirit of the game. Rugby is a game for all shapes and personalities. Everyone is welcome. Here no one has been playing for a long time so everyone is starting at the same level. I find that girls that come along to training and try the game generally love it. We make sure it is fun.
“Rugby can be a tough sport but once the new players come to training and get tackled a couple of times they realise it is not so bad and start to enjoy it,” she says.
“I think the female players experience a strength that they may not have felt before at training and on the field with rugby. Our players are people that like to try new things in life. Some of them had never even seen the game before let alone know the rules.
“When you say you play women’s rugby here people think it is a bit strange. I don’t think there is quite the same emphasis on sport here particularly for girls compared to say Sweden or Australia. There seems to be an expectation that boys do boy things and girls likewise. When we say we play women’s rugby it takes a while for some people to get their head around it.”
Greek women’s rugby has been around for the last few years and currently boasts 70 participants.
The Panathinaikos ladies train twice a week alongside the men and Norman says they are made to feel welcome and are treated as equals by their male counterparts.
“On a good night we can have up to 15 women training at Panathinaikos. Because of the numbers we are only playing sevens rugby at the moment.
“I would like to think we can have a Greek national team for men and women soon once the country is readmitted to Rugby Europe and World Rugby.
“Players want to aspire to the highest level and there is nothing higher than playing for your country.
“The Australian team’s gold medal in Rio was fantastic for the sport and I admire their skills and athleticism.
“It is important for women to have female role models. A lot of our players follow what the Australians are doing on social media.”
Norman says her dream is for someone to provide financial backing to the sport here.
“It is hard being a small sport but you see what can be done in countries like Russia who have developed their men’s and women’s sevens teams to be competitive on the world stage. It is a bit easier with sevens compared to 15 a side as long as you have some financial support.
“I feel as the game develops here that Panathinaikos, which of course is an iconic sporting club in Athens, will see the value that rugby brings and we will all benefit.”
Panos Marmaras is coach of the Attica Springboks women’s team which consists of 15 women aged between 15 and 40 from various backgrounds
“At the start of the season I ask each player to bring a friend along to training and surprisingly it works,” Marmaras said.
“Coaching the team can be challenging due to their lack of rugby experience but it is always fun. I love that we have all different backgrounds and cultures coming together to produce a multicultural team.”
Marmaras and Norman are working together to organise the first 15 a side women’s rugby match on Greek soil. Another step forward for the game if it comes off.
“Do you know any rugby lovers with money that would like to sponsor us?” Lina asks optimistically.
“Also if you can help out with coaching we would appreciate any assistance.”
I sense this is a request Lina rightfully puts to anyone that arrives in Athens with the slightest connection to rugby.
Norman has just completed a rugby referees accreditation and has plans to further her coaching development by attending a course in the United Kingdom in the near future.
Officially there will be four rugby tournaments this season in Greece supplemented by any unofficial ‘friendly’ matches that can be arranged.
At the latest tournament in Athens hosted by Attica Springboks on February 4, six women’s teams (Panathinaikos, Attica,Thessaloniki, Iraklis, Aelos Patras and Egaleo City) competed.
“To be honest our players need to play more games. It can be frustrating training so much without having the opportunity to test our new skills against opposition.
“There is a lot of optimism for the future of the game here now. I think we have turned a corner,” Norman exclaims before running onto the training pitch in the rain to greet her team with a smile and a joke.