Sports Gazette

by sports journalism students at St Mary's University, London

Women’s rugby on the rise

Posted on 10 June 2022 by Piers Dunham

2022 will be seen as a breakout year for women’s rugby. In just the last year we have seen record breaking attendances at games and viewing figures on the television. But we cannot stop here. We must continue to push so that women’s rugby gets the platform it deserves.

Attendances on the rise

Sam Bytheway hosts the Women’s Rugby Show and has years of experience covering both the women’s and men’s game.

Bytheway thinks that the biggest differences in the women’s game from now to a few years ago is the profile of people who are attending games.

“In the last few years, the people attending games were mainly partners, family, parents, brothers, sisters, whereas now we have young kids coming to watch. They get to watch their heroes play on the pitch and get to have a photo with them after the game” he said.

Fan interaction is key

The interactive side of the women’s game is one of the biggest reasons for the meteoric rise in the women’s game.

Rugby journalist Elizabeth Cartwright believes that this is one thing the men’s game could perhaps learn from the women.

She said: “the men don’t always stop to take a photo or walk around the pitch after the game to interact with fans, and I think that stuff is really important and since Covid it’s made people appreciate the game even more”.

However, it would be unfair to say that the women’s game has improved solely due to the likeableness and personality of those who play the game. The standard of both the domestic competition, the Allianz Premier 15’s and the international Six Nations is as high as ever.

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Cartwright said: “the physicality of the teams has really improved and the Premier 15s has been more competitive than ever”.

Importance of professional contracts

The improvement of the standards of women’s rugby has coincided with the professional contracts and funding that teams and players have received from the RFU. The RFU first handed out professional contracts in 2019 and since then England have lost just a handful of games.

The importance of having these international teams give out professional contracts cannot be underestimated. Being able to benefit from elite training facilities, having access to nutritionists and simply having the peace of mind that you can give everything to rugby without having to worry about another job is huge.

England are so good because they have now been given the ability to train, rest and recover like the professional outfit they are.

This success has led to other nations following suit, with Wales handing out professional contracts earlier this year and others soon to do the same.

But how far behind are the other nations?

Bytheway said: “England are probably three or four years ahead in terms of pro contracts, the money being pushed into it and that has shown on the pitch. Wales have had professional contracts for what, six months now. And they’re already way ahead from where they were last year.”

England’s dominance in recent years has led to criticism of the women’s game. That the Six Nations is boring and just a one-horse race. However, Bytheway thinks it will not be long until the other nations catch up.

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He said: “Both Ireland and Italy have said, that they are bringing in professional contracts. I think in their next cycle, they will be introducing them.

Wales already have pro contracts and Scotland will also be bringing them in. So once those come, I think it can only be a matter of time before they are just as good as England and France.”

TV exposure

It is all well and good improving on and off pitch standards, but spectators still need to be able to watch games on TV.

Unfortunately, not everyone can access to match tickets, and it is vital that we do not let these fans slip through the cracks. Currently, the regular season of the Prem 15s is not broadcast on live television. Only one game per round of regular season fixtures was accessible through a BBC livestream.

This is something Cartwright wants addressed.

“I want to be able to turn onto BT sport and watch a women’s game like you could a men’s. I have been watching rugby since I was six and I have always had access to men’s rugby, but it’s so much harder for the women’s game”, Cartwright said.

“Imagine if, with the World Cup coming up we could sell out Twickenham, that would be massive for everyone in the sport.”

Being able to watch women’s rugby on the TV regularly is key to inspiring the next generations and those who are looking to get into the game.

Inspiring more women

I spoke to Sophie Willis, a woman who joined her local rugby team at the start of last season.

When I asked her about how she got into rugby she said: “I have always been around rugby, both my dad and brother played but I never thought about playing it until just year. My dad took me to watch Harlequins women play and it was just amazing. I know quite a few of the other girls here were inspired by them too”.

Schools need to do more

But why should women have to wait until after they leave school to get their first experience of playing rugby?

Willis said: “I never had the opportunity to play rugby at school and its definitely something I would have done but it was always seen as something the boys play, and we played hockey or netball instead”.

Cartwright echoed these thoughts. She said: “when I got to sixth form there was no option to play, so I actually set up a girls’ team”.

“That’s why I am so passionate about getting girls to play, because I never had that chance”.

It should not be down to the actions of individuals who want to play the game, to have to set up teams and leagues that they can play in. The RFU needs to work with schools to get girls playing rugby at an earlier age.

A tremendous platform has been built in women’s rugby, but now is not the time to slow down. We have seen the success of the Women’s football and I believe that women’s rugby can reach that level. I am hoping that women’s rugby game does not fall as far behind football like the men’s has.

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