Rugby supporters will be cheered by the news that the women’s Premier15 league returns this weekend, just as the men’s season is reaching its climax.
And administrators and club chairmen will have been further cheered that Premier15 has found a new sponsor in Allianz, who have a strong history in rugby having supported Saracens since 2012.
The insurance group decided to cut its ties with the European champions after they were found guilty of breaking the salary cap, and now is looking to give impetus to the women’s game at a time it needs it most by supporting it with a six figure sum (the amount remains undisclosed).
While RFU funding for each women’s team is down significantly (reportedly from £75,000 to £56,250 pa), the fact that a major company has stepped in is a major boost for the game.
Interestingly women’s rugby will be the first to adapt its rules because of the impact of the coronavirus pandemic.
Because the teams are a mix of professionals and amateurs and many cannot afford regular testing of its players (which costs £8000 a week) there have to be rule changes – ones which may well benefit the grassroots game when that finally returns too.
The RFU say they can reduce “face-to-face” contact in the game by 80 per cent by playing 35-minute halves and having fewer scrums.
Free-kicks will now be given for a forward pass and there will be no scrum option at a free-kick or penalty. The knock-on effect will be a much faster game.
In an interview with The Telegraph Giselle Mather, the Wasps Ladies director of rugby, said her side had played a practice match under the new guidelines which saw only six scrums in 65 minutes.
“My players were hanging after 35 minutes!” she said. “And I have a very fit, mobile group. It will be faster. There will be unintended consequences that we don’t know of yet – there always are when you tweak the laws of a game that has been around for ages. I think it will produce a lot of good running rugby, but I think the ball will have a lot more air time because the cardio-hit is going to be very high.”
Katy Daly-Mclean, the England fly-half, said she was happy with the changes if it meant the league could restart.
“We want to play and, for me, that’s the biggest thing,” she said.
England scrum-half Natasha Hunt says the game will become better to watch because of the changes. She told the BBC: “I love a fast tempo game. I love a quick tap when it’s on, so I’m super excited to get out there and play that way.”
There are also hopes that by making the game faster and more open, the TV cameras are more likely to want to come. Currently women’s club matches are lucky if the club is able to organise a live stream of their matches – but if a channel were to take a punt (pun intended) now and screen matches under the new guidelines they might discover a whole new audience.
The RFU has also brought in rules around travel and squads eating together as well as overnight stays. All common sense stuff that club rugby is able to adhere to as well.
And if grassroots rugby was also given these guidelines and law adaptations then perhaps matches and leagues could be resumed.
But UK rugby at every level beneath men’s Premiership and Championship and the women’s Premier15s remains stranded right now. The new season has been delayed until January at the earliest because of Covid-19 restrictions.
Fears for the future of many grassroots clubs have been voiced. Speaking back in May, Steve Grainger, the RFU’s Development Director, said the governing body “would have significant concerns about the viability of some grassroots clubs if rugby doesn’t start until the New Year and they aren’t able to diversify their revenue streams.”
Community clubs lost up to £70,000 in revenues over the summer months because of the impact to fundraising events because of the first Covid-19 lockdown and while the governing body’s £7 million financial rescue package and some Sport England grants have helped keep some clubs afloat, there are significant fears that without competitions and crowds the loss of revenue will force many clubs to go under.
For the moment non-contact fixtures and initiatives like ‘Ready4Rugby’ mean some clubs are seeing an increase in minis and juniors, with parents said to be keen for their children to be involved in team sports of any sort. And England Touch, the governing body of touch rugby in England, reported excellent numbers with training having been back in for over a month.
Its Chief Executive Chris Simon says: “We continue to be really happy with how Touch across England is progressing with Return to Play.
“We have ongoing dialogue with all our clubs and it’s fantastic to see them sharing best practice and to actively discuss amongst themselves via the groups we have set up as an Association.
“It is also brilliant to see clubs arrange fixtures amongst themselves to get back to game time and strengthen existing relationships. We are also using this current period as an opportunity to work with our regions and develop the structures and support networks on a local level to help the sport thrive even more across the country.”
The passion is there – and the commitment from the country’s brilliant grassroots clubs is there. And now the women’s game has shown a way forward with its law adaptations. Rugby has felt the impact of the pandemic possibly more than any other sport – but this weekend’s Premier15 fixtures offer a glimpse of hope, which we must cling to.