What a summer it is turning into for women’s sport in England! The Cricket team won the World Cup and the Football team made back-to-back semi-finals in a major tournament before losing to host nation the Netherlands in the Euros. Now attention turns to the Rugby World Cup, where the Red Roses begin the defence of their title in Ireland. The title defence begins on Wednesday against Spain, with further group games against Italy and the USA following in order to earn their place in the semi-finals.
Recent results suggest that the Red Roses are in fine form so, despite a couple of late injuries, they will consider themselves in with a good chance of winning consecutive World Cups for the first time ever. The build-up will have been greatly helped by 50 players spending the last season on professional contracts on either a full- or part-time basis. To go alongside this, the RFU have created a new top-tier league, the Premier 15s, as the new top tier in English club rugby, due to start in September. While this all looks like a big step forward for Women’s Rugby, things may not be as perfect as it seems.
With the Premier 15s having 2 teams more than its predecessor the Women’s Premiership, it would have made sense for all 8 of those teams to be included along with 2 other teams, however Lichfield were unsuccessful in their application – the only Women’s Premiership team to be excluded – as there was a team considered a better option in their geographical area (Loughborough Students), despite 3 of the 10 teams coming from the South West and a further 4 from London. This is nothing against Loughborough Students, but this is a step up in level for them, whereas Lichfield have been in the Women’s Premiership since 2003 and have boasted a number of current England internationals, who are now going to have to leave clubs that in some cases they have spent their whole rugby career at in order to keep pushing for the national team.
But it’s not just the selection of clubs that has seemed questionable from the RFU. The much-lauded 50 professional contracts will be reduced back down to just 17 full-time professional contracts, with the RFU’s international focus switching from 15s to 7s after the World Cup. This seems like a huge step backwards for a couple of reasons:
A number of players gave up their jobs for these professional contracts, now many of them are going to have to go and seek employment again, simply because they are only considered suitable for the 15-a-side game as opposed to 7s. This is not fair on the players who every couple of years will have the chance of a 15s contract but are then left to fend for themselves after the World Cup, but will still be expected to turn up and perform for the national team during the 6 Nations and other internationals. The 50 contracts spread over 15s and 7s was brilliant and really helped put England at the forefront of women’s rugby. The danger is that a focus on 7s could see the current World Champions begin to struggle, much like they did in the first 6 Nations when most of their stars were playing in the World Sevens Series.
What makes this even worse is that the RFU are switching the focus between 15s and 7s, but expecting some of the players to also switch focus. 7s and 15s are very different variations in the game, to the point that they could be considered different sports! The basic skills are the same, but there is much more focus on speed and fitness in 7s and the tactics are very different. We saw how few stars of the men’s 15 sides made it into the 7s sides for the Olympics simply because it’s something very different to what they usually play. The RFU cannot focus on just one of these variations as it will be to the detriment of the other. As I mentioned above, the 15s team struggled in a 6 Nations tournament the first season that their stars were moved to the 7s side. With many of the stars back in the 15s side in preparation for the World Cup this season, the 7s team finished outside the top 6 of the World Sevens Series for the first time in the tournament’s 5-year history. Players should be allowed to focus on one variation of the sport to be the best that they can, with perhaps a couple of players who’s skillset makes them perfect for both playing in whichever format is required.
Given the funding that the RFU puts into the women’s game, England should be competing near the top of both disciplines of the game rather than focusing on 1. If they were able to hand out 50 professional contracts this year, then the player base is clearly there and will just continue to grow if the Red Roses can continue to be successful. Women’s Super Rugby will help towards this, but I hope the RFU change their decision to focus on one discipline at a time. After all, we all want to see England winning tournaments, don’t we?