Opinion: What’s next for women’s rugby?
Why rugby must build on the momentum created by the 2017 World Cup
High energy, high tempo, high quality, high drama – the 2017 Women’s World Cup has been the biggest and best yet. Without wanting to put a dampener on things, though, we were saying the exact same thing after the 2014 tournament in France and if we’re honest there have been few significant advances since. So how does rugby ensure it taps into the increased interest and builds on the momentum of WRWC 2017?
Before looking at the key issues facing the game, let’s look at exactly why this tournament has been such a success.
For a start, the standards on the pitch have been brilliant. New Zealand’s victory over England was undoubtedly the greatest Women’s World Cup final there has been but it was also an incredible game of rugby, period. It was the skills, physicality and tactics on show at Belfast’s Kingspan Stadium that engaged spectators, viewers and listeners; it didn’t matter if it was men, women, boys or girls playing.
How fantastic for a match of that quality to be aired live on ITV and BBC 5live on a Saturday night. It was a different kind of X-factor but demonstrated that Britain has got talent! The TV audience for the final peaked at 2.65m – a UK record – while 3.4m tuned in for the semi-final between France and England in France, another record.
In the stadium itself, 15,000 tickets had been sold, beating the match record for the 2014 final at Stade Jean Bouin. Players have spoken of the welcome change of seeing unfamiliar faces in the crowd; rather than only friends and family coming to watch, the general rugby fan is now showing an interest.
Then there is the increased media coverage – more column inches in newspapers, live commentaries on terrestrial TV and radio, Rugby World dedicating their first cover to women’s rugby.
All these have been key factors in generating such a buzz about the game in recent weeks and it is fantastic to see so many people engage with it and appreciate the role models there are in the sport. A quick scroll through social media demonstrates just how much the event has captured people’s imaginations, young and old. Now rugby must seize the moment and not let it pass by.
“At some point we’ve got to kick on,” England fly-half Katy Mclean told 5live after the final. “We’ve said this in 2010 and 2014 and now we’re saying it in 2017. At some point the landscape has got to change. Unless we start doing something about it, it isn’t going to change.
“The support has been sensational but we have really got to start making sure we aren’t saying in 2021, ‘Was this the one?’. Let’s make it now, and let’s make a difference.”
So what are the key challenges the game must address if it is to grow and not stagnate?
The widening gulf
England and New Zealand were always expected to reach this year’s final, and as good as that final was, therein lies a problem. There need to be more teams capable of lifting the trophy, more teams able to challenge each other over 80 minutes, otherwise there are going to be two divisions: those who can keep up with the Black Ferns and Red Roses, which on recent evidence looks like France and possibly the USA, and those who can’t.
There also needs to be a general raising of standards across the world. Hong Kong’s achievement was in reaching the World Cup itself, but the one-sided nature of their matches wasn’t pretty. It should be remembered that the men’s tournament has thrown up ugly scorelines, too, but it is key that rugby develops in all nations, not just the big ones.
How do you do that? More regular Test matches would be a start, and against different opposition. Japan and Hong Kong may dominate women’s rugby in Asia but they need to test themselves more regularly against the top European teams or the North Americans. Warren Gatland’s mantra has long been ‘you only get better by playing the best’ and a better global fixtures list for the women’s game would be a big step forward, just as World Rugby have managed to implement for the Tier Two men’s nations.
There are two issues to look at with regards the World Cup itself. The first is qualification. Yes, it’s important to have a geographical spread of countries but it’s also important that the best teams are at the tournament. Would Scotland have been more competitive than Hong Kong? Yes. It’s not about denying countries the chance to compete in a global showpiece but changing the qualification process and perhaps using a similar repechage tournament to that being employed for RWC 2019 where a few nations from different regions play off to determine who should go through to the main event could be a smart move.
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The second is the time span of the competition – and this is where it gets tricky. The good thing is that the schedule is the same for all teams; there are short turnarounds but it is all equal, unlike a men’s World Cup where the lower-tier nations are often forced to back up after just a few days while the bigger ones have a week between matches.
New Zealand wing Portia Woodman, the tournament’s top try-scorer, has called out the schedule, saying that she doubts the men would be able to cope with it. And the arguments to have longer between matches are strong. Take Danielle Waterman, who was unable to play in a fourth World Cup final because she simply didn’t have the time to complete the return-to-play protocols after suffering a concussion in the semi-final against France.
Yet on the other side of the coin the amount of time off the amateur players have to take in order to compete has to be considered. Extending the periods between matches means extending the tournament by a week or two, and some players may not be able to afford to do that, particularly when you take into account training camps before the tournament itself. Like many of these problems, one answer only generates another question.
Money. Like so many things in life this is crucial to progress. Funding levels for women’s teams sports are notoriously lower than their male counterparts and given the money generated by men’s leagues and international fixtures, not to mention sponsorship, it’s obvious to see why. Yet unions could surely funnel some of that money into women’s sport to ensure it continues to grow.
Also, many sponsors these days are looking to engage with women’s sports and events so tap into those opportunities, get separate deals – not everything has to be tied to the men.
A key growth area is the domestic game. Three Scotland players, Jade Konkel, Chloe Rollie and Lisa Thomson, have been signed as pros by the Lille Metropole club in France. The Top 8 in the country has become a successful league since the 2014 World Cup and games have drawn large TV audiences. The RFU are looking to do something similar with the newly-created Tyrrells Premier XVs and developing a better club game for the country’s best players is a vital goal.
The next step is attracting broadcast partners and bigger crowds. They need the league to be a competitive spectacle to do that, which will take a few years, but being visible is crucial, not only in terms of inspiring a new generation of players – which is hopefully what WRWC 2017 has done – but also in attracting external investment.
XVs v sevens
This is probably the most thorny subject of all. It’s little wonder that the sevens code has been prioritised by many countries around the world. It’s cheaper to fund because you need less players, plus the fact it’s an Olympic sport means many nations are allocated money for it. But do we want a situation where an Olympic medal is valued more highly than winning the World Cup? Doesn’t the focus on sevens dilute the ‘a game for all shapes and sizes’ argument? And how fair is it on those players to continually flit between sevens and XVs?
The RFU took an historic step forward when handing out contracts to 15-a-side players this year but they are coming to an end and those not wanted by the sevens programme will have to return to work. Is this a viable way to continue going forward? How are players supposed to develop careers away from rugby if in one of every four years they are asked to take eight months off work to focus purely on the oval ball ahead of the World Cup?
There is no easy solution here. Personally, I don’t know if the XVs game can support full-time contracts for such a large group of players in England, let alone in other countries where the game is less established. But the fact that England’s priority for the next three years is sevens is a huge concern and competitions like the Six Nations are devalued when many of the best players are absent.
Countries need to be incentivised to promote and develop their XVs programme as much as sevens, or the abbreviated format could take over in the long term.
As the applause for this World Cup dies down, rugby must ensure it addresses these wider issues. Otherwise, as Mclean says, we’ll be having the same conversations in four years’ time and those who have been inspired to take up rugby in recent weeks will be facing the same challenges.