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SUNDAY 14 APRIL 2024

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Sorry ladies, but it’s time you dropped your goal of high-paid rugby stardom

Never mind wild horses, the brute force of the Red Roses’ front row couldn’t drag me to one of their matches. Women’s rugby? Sorry, not interested.

 

And I’ll tell you why. Because they are not fast enough, or strong enough, or powerful enough. I watch rugby – Harlequins and England these days – to see 6ft 7in blokes knocking lumps off each other. Fearsome charges, shuddering collisions, scything tackles.

 

Sometimes I go to marvel at wingers blazing in for tries at a speed that would see them cover 100 metres in about 10.4 seconds. Women can’t do that.

 

What’s that you say – sexist? Talk to the hand.

 

It was International Women’s Day on Friday and one of the unspoken themes was that women can do anything they put their minds to. That’s mostly true, in my experience. And any bloke who smirks and mutters, “Hold on, what about driving?” probably needs to grow up.

 

I don’t want to deny women the opportunity to play rugby (or football, or cricket). Why shouldn’t they? Like the men, some have the talent to reach elite club or even international standard.

 

They all have a right to turn out on a muddy pitch on any given Saturday and I might even watch if one of my granddaughters was playing.

 

But a word of advice: Be careful what you wish for, ladies.

 

Some want to earn their living at rugby and complain that they are not paid as much as the men who play professionally; that they don’t have the same resources and financial backing for their branch of the sport; that they are not on telly as much. They want equality.

 

But have they looked at the state of rugby in England? The clubs are owned by rich men and hedge funds. They pay players sometimes enormous salaries to turn out in front of a few thousand spectators. Former England captain Owen Farrell is said to be on £750,000 a year at Saracens and he'll get even more at his new French club.

 

The game is on  a financial knife-edge. TV is all that keeps it afloat. Its riches filter down to the top clubs but not much further. It is the reason why the RFU was considering the idea of selling Twickenham and buying a stake in Wembley stadium – they doubt they can afford the upkeep of the iconic home of English rugby.

 

The women cannot rely on that tired old notion: We’ll grow the game. No, they won’t. Where’s the fan base? It is what the hedge fund bosses thought… and the result is that Worcester have gone bust, so have Wasps and so have London Irish.

 

Playing professionally is a beguiling thought for all sportsmen and women. But for them to be paid, someone has to be making money. Sport at that level is a business.

 

Worse, it’s showbusiness. It’s about putting bums on seats; it’s about how much merchandise you can sell. Sport comes a distant third.

 

You thought it was enough to be a good rugby player? Wrong. You need star quality, swagger, charisma to persuade fans to part with almost £100 – the price of a decent ticket for a men’s Six Nations match at Twickenham – to watch 80 minutes of razzle-dazzle. Think Marcus Smith.

 

Good looks help but, fortunately for front rows, they are optional.

 

Then there is the downside of rugby: the injuries. The risk of dementia from repeated concussions or blows to the head is real. A legal class action by players who suffered this awful fate is seen by those who run the game as an existential threat. I believe it is another reason why the Wembley option was considered.

 

And how many women realise that they are more prone to suffer anterior cruciate ligament damage than men? It is statistically a fact. I know because my own granddaughter had to have her knee rebuilt after an ACL injury incurred playing rugby.

 

The average wage in the UK last year was about £35,000. The Red Roses start on £26,000 a year, rising to £32,000 for established stars. They may think that’s not enough for their hard work and commitment, and I sympathise.

 

But the men are not going to hand over part of their wage packet any time soon.

*****

 

What a very modern fiasco the affair of the Princess of Wales’s doctored family snapshot turned out to be. Not a patch on previous photo scandals.

 

Some bright spark at Associated Press, the American news agency, spotted that the image had been “manipulated” and it was killed, or withdrawn from circulation, though only after it had appeared in newspapers and on television. Reuters, PA, Getty and AFP also pulled the picture.

 

Why the flap? Was it sparked by fear of Artificial Intelligence getting too big for its boots? Had the ailing Princess been Photoshopped into the family gathering? Was it all Putin’s fault?

 

Well, no. AP’s objection was that “the source”, which is to say Kate herself, had faffed around with the photo “in a way that did not meet AP’s photo standards”. What pompous tosh.

 

After a day of the inevitable online conspiracy theories and anti-monarchists venting their spleen over the “deceit”, Kate came clean. She admitted to a bit of amateur and inexpert editing of the picture.

 

Most journalists will remember two famous war pictures. One was “Falling Soldier”, taken in 1936 by Robert Capa during the Spanish Civil War and purporting to show a fighter on the Republican side at the very moment that a bullet hits him and snuffs out his life.

 

It was published in Picture Post and came to be emblematic of not only that war, but all wars. But even today there are suspicions that Capa staged it, that it was a fake. Doubters pore over the location and debate the identity of the soldier.

 

The other is Joe Rosenthal’s picture of US Marines raising the Stars and Stripes after a bloody battle to take Iwo Jima. It won the Pulitzer Prize but Rosenthal too faced accusations that he had staged the scene. Fortunately, a soldier had filmed the flag-raising and proved it was no fake.

 

However, it was only the second flag to be planted on Mount Suribachi that day in February, 1945. A Marine patrol led by First Lieutenant Harold G Schrier earlier fought their way to the summit and proudly displayed a flag taken from the USS Missoula.

 

But it was deemed to be too small and so the other guys got the glory.

 

Those two pictures, fake or not, will live on. Kate’s, with its wonky hand and jumper, not so much.

 *****

 Old Express hands will remember Shekhar Bhatia, a brilliant reporter and a colleague of mine back in my Sunday Express days.

 

Now his daughter with Meera Syal, Milli, a writer and theatre producer, is putting on a show at the Royal Court Theatre in London called Dismantle This Room.

 

Shek posts on Facebook that she was walking on the Kings Road and told her co-writer she had to get a sandwich because she was “Hank Marvin”. For those not familiar with rhyming slang, it means starving.

 

The co-writer, Ingrid Marvin by name, said: “That’s okay. He’s my uncle.”



RICHARD DISMORE

12 March 2024