Gibraltar Rugby – The growth of women’s rugby

in Features/Sport Insight

With a few games of contact rugby under their belts, the first Gibraltar Women’s Rugby Select rugby team took to the pitch against visiting Spanish players on Sunday 20th June. Emotions were, understandably, running high. “At the start I was feeling really nervous,” said trainee psychologist Camille Lavagna, 23, “but as the match went I on I felt determined to take the win as we had all been working so hard together.” They got the win and a very closely fought game, 15-12, having to come from behind twice. There was even significant coverage of the game on GBC, a great advert for the game.

The very first attempts tentative steps at kicking-off women’s rugby on the Rock were made in 2008 following a successful schools programme. Then, around 2015, Teacher and rugby referee, Rob Azzopardi, resurrected the idea and, on an exceptionally wet and windy Tuesday night in March 2018 at Devil’s Tower Camp, Zoe Fidock, later to become GRFU Chairperson for Women’s Rugby, and Tom Tunbridge, the current GRFU Vice-President, organised an open training session. Tom’s bombardment of the email in-trays of anybody that had expressed an interest paid off; despite the conditions 24 players turned up. Unfortunately, the time just wasn’t quite right for the women’s game in Gibraltar and, with issues over access and commitments, player numbers dropped.

By the end of the summer of 2018 I joined as a new coach, and ran weekly training sessions at DTC focusing  on building on basic skills with the players that remained. Then came the move to Gibraltar Rugby’s current home in late 2019 at the newly built Europa Sports Park. Suddenly, rugby players had access to a purpose-built facility, something which they had needed for years. Numbers began to recover.

Then the COVID and lockdowns arrived in Gibraltar. Despite this setback player numbers were maintained and increased once lockdown conditions began to ease. In fact, the numbers were good enough that the first competitive game of COVID-compliant touch rugby was played between Rooke and Nelson and refereed by Rob in mid-November 2020 with Nelson running out as winners on a sunny Saturday. It is easy to underestimate the significance of a game of touch rugby but as finance director, GRFU CFO and mum Georgie Taylor says: “I never thought I would be playing rugby again, so this journey feels really special.”

Three more games, all refereed by Rob, who brought his coaching skills to the role, were played before the second lockdown hit. Online quizzes were used to keep team spirits up as well as Zoom fitness sessions twice per week, which I used to manage. During the second lockdown the GRFU was restructured and the women’s game in Gib was reorganised to mirror the men’s game with four clubs. For the purposes of the playing regular matches, these were amalgamated into two teams: Red and Black. Their first match was held on 17th April 2021. Encouragingly, this game featured debuts for a couple of new players.

As COVID restrictions were relaxed, rugby activity in Gibraltar increased quickly with the advent of the Corporate Touch Rugby Tournament in May and the announcement of the inaugural Gibraltar Rugby Sevens tournament scheduled for late June.

The touch rugby tournament required mixed teams and nearly all the players found themselves being invited to play. New to the game trust administrator Kelly Gibbins, 22, played for the winning team. “I learned a lot,” she said. “How to read the game and seize the spaces, invaluable lessons for my growth as a rugby player. Every week brought endless smiles.” That learning and enjoyment was a gift to women’s rugby as players got more game time and those introduced to the game decided to take it further.

The Gibraltar 7s tournament presented the opportunity to play a full 15-a-side rugby in front of a crowd. However, this was going to be a game against more experienced players so training had to be stepped up. The first club game involving contact was played in May with a winning debut for police constable Leila El Yettefti, 25: “Before the game I was [so] nervous, then I saw my teammates had my back, I relaxed and enjoyed the game. After the win it was such a euphoric moment.”

With a few games of contact rugby under their belts, the first Gibraltar Women’s Rugby Select rugby team took to the pitch against visiting Spanish players on Sunday 20th June. Emotions were, understandably, running high. “At the start I was feeling really nervous,” said trainee psychologist Camille Lavagna, 23, “but as the match went I on I felt determined to take the win as we had all been working so hard together.” They got the win and a very closely fought game, 15-12, having to come from behind twice. There was even significant coverage of the game on GBC, a great advert for the game.

As this article is being written, the players are preparing for a new season. They are always looking for new players. “I love the fact that, no matter your experience or skill set, there is a position for everyone,” says student Milly Head, 17, “you meet such a variety of people. Despite being the youngest, the team has always made me feel welcome.”

“The girls in the squad are such a fantastic group,” adds Georgie. “There is some really great talent for the future of the women’s game in Gibraltar.”

“It feels great to be part of a team that is growing and developing together,” says Camille. “Playing rugby has definitely made me more resilient [and] enhanced my confidence and fitness.”

It is my view that we need to keep growing the game in Gib, to achieve that critical mass. The best way to do that is with games; the ladies just want to play more matches. Our plan is to be playing every couple of weeks, either domestically or against outside teams, home and away. That way you build both character and experience and get a pool of players to select from for our first international match. That’s where we want to be.

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