Support for women’s rugby can help grow the game at all levels

England won the women’s Six Nations on Saturday for the third year in a row and 600,000 viewers watched the match on terrestrial television (BBC2). It wasn’t necessarily the classic that rugby supporters were hoping for but more a game for the purist, who appreciated the final 10-6 scoreline for what it was – a hard fought contest by the two best sides in the competition.

For the first time, the women’s Six Nations was played at a different time to the men’s which was a bit of a gamble but one which seemed to pay off with excellent media coverage across all the major outlets in the UK. Of course there were no supporters allowed in stadiums for this Six Nations but the hope is that the quality of tournament that was put on this year will be attracting supporters to the event in 2022.

Women’s rugby has seemingly come an incredibly long way in a very short space of time but, at a crucial moment for the sport, it would seem that investment in the women’s game right now could prove vital in growing the game across the globe.

And England head coach Simon Middleton says  Six Nations organisers should consider permanently factoring a grand final into the women’s championship to help broaden its entertainment value.

“With the greatest respect to the other teams, if we played France first up sometimes it can look like the rest of the competition is done and dusted,” he said. “Today is a great example of how you can bring things to a head,” he said. 

“I like the April window, I like it being a standalone event you’ve only had to look at the coverage we’ve had over the past week or two and that’s been fantastic, we need that desperately.” 

Middleton added it was “absolutely vital” that England continue to be given a slot on terrestrial TV.

“I’m curious to see how people viewed the final,” Middleton said. “Hopefully it resonated with the audience because it was a brutal game with some great stuff in it.”

It is a good situation for women’s rugby to be in, but so much more can be done. But it is important to recognise just how far the game has come. Current England players can still remember playing their first internationals in front of around 100 people earlier this century and in the early 2000s there was little laid on for the women’s international teams in terms of facilities and access. And a home nations tournament has only existed since 1996. But women’s rugby has in fact been around almost as long as the men’s game, with the first reports of a female rugby player (Emily Valentine) playing in a team with her brothers in Ireland dating back to 1887.

Victorian society with its strict values was seen to hold back any progress in the women’s game and then the war years but, post-war, the game did start to develop, not in Europe but in the US.

The game grew in America and Canada in the 1970s and also in France where, by 1971, there was a 22-team women’s championship. France also played Holland in the first ever women’s international game in 1982.

But it wasn’t until the late 70s and 80s when touring teams came to the UK to play exhibition games they inspired a generation of students from universities like Loughborough, Warwick, Keele and UCL to take up the game and establish women’s rugby clubs. Things got going in the late 80s but it was the first women’s World Cup (not recognised by the IRB) that put the game on the map. England lost the final to a rampant US side but were determined on revenge and duly got it in the final of the second World Cup three years later.

The US were in the final again in 1998 but that remains the last final they have been in with New Zealand entering the fray seriously in 1998 and winning four World Cups between 1998 and 2010, showing their men’s side exactly how to do it on the big stage. Their emergence and domination has led to England, and other European sides, all raising their game and putting on an excellent Six Nations which was well watched and well reviewed in the rugby community.

The men’s game, meanwhile, had been suffering a brutal time of it over the past 12 months. The coronavirus pandemic has almost destroyed some Premiership clubs; concerns over player welfare and concussions is at an all-time high and some were questioning whether the sport had the relevance to win over the young audience of today, both to spectate and participate.

Interestingly, in the wake of the failed European Super League in football, relegation was scrapped midway through this season because of concerns around the pandemic. And the season before Saracens were relegated (punishment for their financial irregularities) at a very early stage in the season. So, effectively the rugby Premiership has not had relegation for the past two seasons. So, has the sport suffered as a result?

Recent evidence would suggest not.

Analysis by The Telegraph showed that more tries are being scored since it was announced there would be no relegation from the Premiership in February. Points per game, clean breaks, defenders beaten and offloads have all grown too while the number of penalties kicked at goal has decreased as has the number of kicks from hand throughout a game. 

But perhaps the most noticeable change The Telegraph observed was the number of four try bonus-points being collected per match has gone up from an average of 0.53 to 0.81.

It appears that, with relegation scrapped, teams are playing more attacking rugby, ball in hand, and are less concerned about picking up 3-point penalties. Now we are not saying that scrapping relegation in sport is a good thing – but it is interesting that the matches appear to have been more of a spectacle in the rugby Premiership this season without it.

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