England Rugby looks to protect fairness & safety for female players. It’s time Australia stepped up.

England Rugby looks to protect fairness & safety for female players. It’s time Australia stepped up.

England’s Rugby Football Union (RFU) is the latest sport to recommend restrictions on transgender participation in women’s competitions, in order to “ensure fair competition and safety” for female athletes.

The RFU Council will vote on a new gender participation policy on 29 July, following “extensive consultation” and “review of the scientific evidence”. In its press release, the governing body stated:

“The review and consultation concluded that peer reviewed research provides evidence that there are physical differences between those people whose sex was assigned as male and those as female at birth, and advantages in strength, stamina and physique brought about by male puberty are significant and retained even after testosterone suppression.

This science provides the basis of the recommendation that the inclusion of trans people assigned male at birth in female contact rugby cannot be balanced against considerations of safety and fairness.

The recommendation is that until such time as new science is available, a precautionary approach is appropriate to ensure fair competition and safety of all competitors...Therefore, the RFU Council will vote on a recommendation for a policy change for contact rugby to only permit players in the female category whose sex recorded at birth was female.  In the male category it is proposed that players whose sex recorded at birth is female may play if they provide their written consent and a risk assessment is carried out.

This is a complex and difficult decision and the recommendation has not been made lightly or without thorough and full research and consultation.”

Asides from the fact that sex is not assigned, but rather observed, at birth, England Rugby is right – in events where power, stamina and strength are deciding factors, athletes that have passed through male puberty have life-long physiological advantages, even after testosterone suppression.

The recommendations are in line with World Rugby’s guidelines, which regulate against trans inclusion in the female game based on extensive research, including modelling which shows a minimum 20-30% increased risk of injury to female players who compete against male-bodied transgender players. They also follow the recent decision by the International Rugby League to ban male transgender players from women’s international competition until further research and consultation has been completed.

Women’s sports advocates praised the recommendations on social media.

“BREAKING NEWS. Another sport says no to males in women’s teams,” tweeted Fair Play For Women. “Two years after the World Rugby ruling, England Rugby Union now joins the growing list of sports reverting to sex categories.”

“RFU making the right choice here,” tweeted women’s sex-based rights advocate Maya Forstater. “As the Sports Councils set out last year there is [a] choice between including trans identifying males in women's sports or ensuring fairness and safety for female participants. Case-by-case assessment does not work.”

“A welcome development,” tweeted Ross Tucker, the world-renowned sports scientist who helped to develop World Rugby’s guidelines. “I hope RFU Council respect the science, and most important, the voice of their community, and approve the recommendation.” He added: “Every single organization that has recognized that this is a colliding rights issue, that has properly sought the views of women athletes/players, & actually looked into the scientific evidence, has concluded the same thing. It’s choice, not balance. And we all see the choices.”

"Excellent news out of the UK with @EnglandRugby looking set to protect the female category of sport in a bid to ‘prioritise fairness of competition & safety of players’,” tweeted Save Women’s Sport Australasia. “Well past time @NZRugby & @RugbyAu followed suit!”

“England Rugby Union steps up,” wrote Tasmanian Senator Claire Chandler on Facebook. “When will Rugby Australia, the NRL and AFL stop allowing males to play full contact football against women?”

When indeed?

When Senator Chandler called for urgent revision of Australia’s 2019 Guidelines for inclusion to protect Australian female rugby players in accordance with World Rugby’s recommendations in 2020, she encountered opposition from both the Australian Human Rights Commission (AHRC) and Sport Australia.

Dr David Hughes, the Chief Medical Officer of the Australian Institute of Sport took the view that World Rugby’s conclusions were not sufficiently authoritative or certain to provoke a reconsideration of Australian policy. “They may be correct, but there is nothing in world literature to suggest that they are.”

Asked to respond to these comments, Tucker pointed out the problem of the reverse onus of proof. The claim of ‘insufficient research’ should:

“be a signal to defend the necessary protection of a female category in sport ... We should not be including (biological males who identify as female) into women’s sport, and then seeking a way to prove that they don’t belong. That to me is totally upside down.”

Senator Chandler echoed these sentiments in her synopsis of Sport Australia’s approach:

“Sport Australia has conceded that World Rugby’s findings of a potential 30% increase in head-injury risk to women when playing against transwomen ‘may be correct’ but refuse to reconsider their own guidelines in light of these findings. They seem to suggest we need to see some more women getting head injuries before they reconsider their actions.”

Sport Australia’s approach is entirely inadequate when it comes to its responsibility to female players in contact football. But if they won’t act, then individual sporting bodies must step up for women.

We join with Senator Chandler and other women’s advocates in calling on Rugby Australia, the NRL and AFL to heed the research and women’s voices, and to follow the lead of World Rugby, the International Rugby League and England Rugby in protecting fairness and safety for female athletes. Everyone should have an opportunity to play sport, but we need to make sure we have a fair playing field.

Sign the petition to protect women’s sport and download our new report, A Fair Playing Field: Protecting Women’s Single Sex Sport, to find out more about trans participation and fairness and safety for women and girls in sport.