Lara Gibson aims to grow Cambridge University women's rugby
New captain hopes to expand women's game in the colleges
Lara Gibson clearly has a natural aptitude for sport.
Proficient at netball, athletics and taekwondo at school, when the Lucy Cavendish College student turned her hand to rugby union, there was no looking back.
And having been elected captain of Cambridge University Rugby Union Football Club’s women’s squad in March, Gibson is keen to spread the word in order to help grow the game.
Rugby was not exactly alien territory to Gibson as her family had an interest in the sport, but she had no experience of participation, instead becoming a black belt in taekwondo.
But after going to study animal science at Nottingham University, she joined one of the smaller campus’s rugby teams, and ended up progressing to Nottingham’s BUCS side.
“I guess playing netball, I had ball-handling skills and was used to playing in a team so I suppose those kind of things are transferable between team sports,” she said.
“I think rugby is something you can take up even if you have never played a sport before. That’s what’s good because there are so many different positions and aspects to the game that certain people can excel in, and other people can excel in other areas.”
And that is a message that Gibson wants to help spread in Cambridge.
She has won two Blues since arriving to study veterinary medicine, and it is the sense of camaraderie that she feels is one of the enduring features of the sport.
“Any women’s teams that I’ve played with in rugby, it’s just always been the same,” she said.
“Everyone is really welcoming, everyone just really wants you to take it up and really wants you to give it a go.”
But with burgeoning numbers trying women’s rugby, the challenge is about more than just tackling an opponent.
The RFU launched their ‘Meet Your Inner Warrior’ campaign at the start of the year, which was aimed at encouraging more women and girls to take up contact rugby.
While the governing body drive that on across the wider playing community, Gibson is keen to use her captaincy to help turn initial engagement at taster days in Cambridge into regular participation levels, ultimately leading into the Blues squad.
And that involves growing the game through the university’s colleges.
“It’s still in the beginning stages so each year we’ve got to think again about how it fits in with the rugby that we’re playing here [with the Blues] and getting girls going through the college system,” said Gibson.
“I always think you want the end goal to be that they play college rugby and then eventually want to see them come and play here, at Grange Road, at least for our second team.
“Often people want to play college because they don’t have the time commitment to join the rugby team here. Training for the college teams is once a week, roughly, and they don’t have a coach as such. It’s usually other players that will take their time to go and coach.
“I want to get more involved in – if I have the time – the arranging side of things because we had Laura Nunez-Mulder, who was head of development on our committee, and she has tried so hard to get the college thing up and running.”
The development days leading into the super Sundays brought a boost to the club, but by the time the Lent Term came around, the numbers had flattened off.
One of the obstacles is people try to do a number of sports without committing to one or other, so it makes it difficult for colleges to get rugby teams.
And, just as in the broader spectrum of the women’s game, it is about identifying and presenting a clear route through the game, from the initial take up to playing regularly.
“I do want there to be a clearer pathway for girls coming through,” said she. “It’s definitely something we’ve talked about with Jack (Baird, the head coach) because we have these people turning up to development days and then we lose some of them.
“Whereas if everyone turning up to development days knew how they could then progress, they might actually stay if they knew how it worked.
“We also don’t have much time from our pre-season in September to the Varsity Match, and even our league games start in October.
“So we kind of need to have a team at the beginning and stick with that throughout the term, because I think consistency was an issue that we had this season.
“Fitting that around newer players coming in, there just needs to be a clearer plan to it.”
It seems that the same challenges – perhaps just packaged differently – are faced throughout all levels and areas of the women’s game, and it will be an interesting time for Gibson in the new academic year to try to tackle some of them, in a college setting.
And she will have to do that while balancing the demands of sport and academy, but it is something that she is relishing, with the support of team manager Sophie Farrant.
“I know that I can fit in rugby as well and I will just throw myself into both of those things,” she said. “I was club manager last season so that was quite a lot of work anyway, so I know how much time it’s going to take, and that I can manage that.”