“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 University and Chesham Stags.
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.
“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?
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?’ 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.”