How Tassie, the pioneer of rugby, helped rejuvenate the game

The outgoing president of Tasmanian rugby, Ebony Altimira, paved the way for the game in a non-traditional rugby union state. We spoke to her about the legacy she is leaving, especially for women.

For outgoing Tasmanian Rugby Union President Ebony Altimira, it only takes a quick glance around the room when Australian rugby’s greats gather to realize the walls she helped bring down.

Altimira, who will step down later this month, is the first female president of a rugby affiliate in Australia.

It’s a bittersweet fact, but Altimira feels reassured that her opinion, especially given the status of the sport in Tasmania, is not only respected but valued.

“I was the first woman president of a rugby affiliated union in Australia, which is a bit disappointing in some ways, but nice,” she said.

“I’ve had a couple of meetings with Rugby Australia and CEOs of super rugby teams and stuff lately as I’m finishing my role.

“I’m still the only woman sitting in these conversations, which hopefully we can break down a bit more and have more female voices in the male-dominated sports as well.

“Sometimes you think super rugby teams don’t care what someone from Tasmania has to say. It surprised me with the questions I was asked and my opinions on certain things were accepted.

“I’ve had lovely messages from CEOs and Presidents of other affiliated unions and Super Rugby teams who appreciated having this female voice at the table and will miss her.

“When you’re sitting in the room, you forget that you’re the only woman, and there’s this respect that everyone has for treating everyone as they are.”

Work and other life commitments, notably looking after son Charleston, two, have prompted Altimira to step down after Rugby Tasmania’s annual general meeting later this month.

But she looks back with satisfaction on her tenure in which a code has grown in a state dominated by Australian rules.

“It’s time for me to focus on something else. I have a young son so it’s a juggling of work, life, rugby and him,” she said.

“I’m pretty proud of where we’re from. When I took over I felt the community was really detached from our board and Tas Rugby as a whole.

“We have tried to get the clubs back on board and have a working relationship with the clubs that are working together. That was the main thing at first because there was a disconnect between the board and the clubs that I felt.

“The first year was finding the lay of the land and honestly I didn’t realize what I was getting myself into.

“The role is more than just being President and that’s simply because of how we’re set up in Tasmania.

“We’re the only affiliate in Australia that doesn’t have a paid CEO or workers, so the President actually serves as CEO, community rugby boss and competitions manager too. “It’s a juggling act but we’ve developed a really good relationship with Rugby Australia and get a lot of support from them these days.

“We’re putting Tasmania back on the map and they know there’s rugby in Tasmania where it’s probably been forgotten for a while.”

A former Taroona player and coach, the rise of Australia’s all-conquering women’s sevens team has helped rejuvenate women’s rugby in Tasmania.

“We put a lot of effort into the juniors and women. We make sure we create a competition that women can enter,” she said.

“AFL has really picked up momentum in this area over the past few years, but we’ve held our ground.

“This is where the revival of women’s rugby in Tasmania really began when Australia women won the 2016 Olympics.

“We jumped on it, started a competition in Tassie and tried to grow from there.

“We saw a few girls go out and play SuperW, we’re pretty proud of the girls who were able to capitalize on those opportunities.”

Altimira has also helped establish a junior tournament where Tasmanian sides have played against South Australia and also developed U10 and U12 15v1 competitions.

Her efforts were recognized in 2021 when she was honored with the Nick Farr-Jones Spirit of Rugby Award.

“It was pretty mind-blowing and still a little bit unbelievable to be honest,” Altimira said.

We are a non-traditional sport and quite small in Tasmania. Competing against areas like NSW and Queensland that have a lot of participants and volunteers doing a lot there is very special.”

One goal Altimira hopes to achieve with the game and other code that needs it is the success of their campaign to build a rectangular stadium in Tasmania.

This is one reason Altimira considers very important if sports like rugby union, soccer and rugby league are to be a realistic contender to host major events in the state.

A-League club Western United play games annually, including Launceston’s UTAS Stadium, where the oval configuration can affect the atmosphere and viewing experience.

Tasmania’s bid to host teams in training base camps ahead of this year’s FIFA Women’s World Cup was unsuccessful.

Rugby Union’s bid to host World Cup matches when Australia hosts the men’s and women’s tournaments in 2027 and 2029 respectively is also penalized by the lack of a bespoke venue.

Last year, during its campaign, Labor promised to build a rectangular venue in Hobart that could seat 10,000 to 15,000 people.

“We’re realistically paralyzed in Tasmania to try and host one of those games (Super Rugby or Tests) or anything like a Rugby World Cup,” she said.

“There are AFL stadiums here, but they’re not the right facility for rectangular games.

“Rugby Tasmania and Football Federation Tasmania have spoken on numerous occasions to seek support for a rectangular stadium. because they obviously need it too.

“One would hope that at some point we would have one. There are so many ways to bring tourism and other activities to Tasmania when hosting these types of tournaments.

“Or not even hosting games, just training fields. Tasmania is currently missing out on the Women’s World Cup because we don’t have the space.

“Unfortunately, it is our (lack of comparable) popularity that sometimes prevails.

“I think something will happen at some point, obviously there is a lot of focus on another stadium (in Tasmania) at the moment.

“But as soccer and other rectangular sports grow, at some point you’re going to need some sort of rectangular stadium that’s built for those games and opportunities.”

For now, Altimira is looking forward to reflecting on the opportunities rugby union has given her, from winning a Wallabies Bledisloe Cup game in Perth alongside former Rugby Australia CEO Raelene Castle to building friendships with some their idols.

“The opportunities rugby has given me and the people I’ve met – I never could have imagined that five years ago, some of the people I would be sitting at a table with,” she said.

“Things like just randomly having a fight with David Campese and then going, ‘Oh my god, it’s David Campese, what are you doing?’

“Some of my idols were the girls who played in the Olympics like Ellia Green. They ask you questions about what they can do in community rugby.

“To be friends with some of these people is pretty amazing.”

Originally released as How Rugby’s Tassie Trailblazer helped rejuvenate the game How Tassie, the pioneer of rugby, helped rejuvenate the game

Ryan Sederquist

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