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Australia women’s sevens are breaking down barriers in their hunt for success

All smiles: Sharni Williams and Shannon Parry celebrate. (pic by Dom Thomas) Rugby World

Australia women’s sevens are breaking down barriers in their hunt for success

By Oliver Pickup

In modern sporting parlance, “game changer” – alongside “legendary” and “awesome” – is one of the most wince-inducing, hackneyed expressions. However, when Rugby Australia announced, earlier in January, a new collective bargaining agreement (CBA) had been struck that guarantees the women’s and men’s sevens and Super Rugby starters will be handed the same base pay, it truly was a game changer.

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It is the first time in history that a top-tier rugby nation has taken this progressive – and, for many, long overdue – step to pay parity. The entry-level salary of A$44,500 (£25,260) will stretch across all formats of the game until at least 2020, when the present broadcast deal expires; it would be scandalous if a similar deal is not established at that point.

Further, female players also have a new pregnancy policy built into the current package, which again marks a huge advancement for women’s sport, in Australia and beyond.

“Everybody is talking about equality at the moment, and it is so exciting that our nation is leading the way with our sport,” Sharni Williams, co-captain of the Australian women’s sevens team, told me on the eve of the HSBC Sydney Sevens, which began on Friday. “The pay parity will make Australia thrive. We are proud to be the first union to achieve equal pay. I’m sure others will follow – in sport and other areas.”

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Game changing, epochal, call it what you want … the fillip achieved from the newfound equality for Australia’s female players was obvious on the first day of competition in Sydney – Australia Day, appropriately enough – which also represented the first time the men and women will be playing across the same three days at the same tournament.

The hosts, in the second round of the HSBC World Rugby Women’s Sevens Series, were on a different level to their opponents, in more ways than one. They advanced to the quarter finals from Pool A after chalking up 122 unanswered points, against Spain (29-0), Papua New Guinea (50-0), and France (43-0).

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Shannon Parry, the second co-captain of Australia’s sevens team, believes that winning the inaugural Olympic Games title, two years ago in Rio de Janeiro, improved the general attitude towards women’s sport in her country, led to greater nourishment of rugby in particular, and paved the way for this pay parity.

“That gold medal has been fantastic for the growth of women’s rugby in Australia, and it has helped develop rugby at all levels, from the grass roots to the top,” the 28-year old told me earlier this week. “Now we have a clear pathway for women’s 7s and 15s players, with the introduction of the Super W, which is starting in March, as well as the new Aon University Sevens Series. It is clear that youngsters can make it all the way to become an Olympic champion or win the World Cup.”

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In another first, this April’s Commonwealth Games, held on the Gold Coast in Australia, will see women’s sevens teams going for glory. And, following the conclusion of the HSBC World Rugby Women’s Sevens Series, the Sevens World Cup – for men and women – takes place in San Francisco in July.

It’s some year for women’s rugby, and after the pay-parity boost, confidence is high in the Australian camp, understandably. It would surprise no one if the buoyed hosts, who won the first stop of the series in Dubai before Christmas, triumphed this weekend in Sydney.

“For any Australian to play on a home soil and in front of family and friends it’s definitely a special moment that you’ll always remember, and it doesn’t happen very often,” continued Parry. “For us it promises to be a great year. First up is Sydney, in the HSBC Sevens Series, and then we have the Commonwealth Games on home soil – it will be the first time women’s rugby features, so that will be special. Finally it’s the World Cup. Three bigs ones in a year. A great way to start will be with victory in Sydney this weekend.”

Clean through: Emma Tonegato scores in the rout of Papua New Guinea Rugby World

Williams, a 29-year-old qualified mechanic, added: “If I were to pick one of the three titles I would choose success at the Commonwealth Games. Being the inaugural event, and it being at home, will be a huge driving force. To win that and add it to our Olympic gold medal would be pretty special.”

Victory this weekend could spark a glittering gold-and-green winning streak for Australia’s women. Should that happen it will only serve to emphasise that it is high time other top-tier unions stump up the monies to compete, and achieve pay parity. Now that really would be awesome and legendary, if you will excuse the clichéd turns of phrase.