While Rugby Sevens has developed into an opportunity to expand the sport, it is also considered a potential threat to the future of the 15-a-side game as Penny Hopkins concludes in the final part of this series.
While the growth of women’s rugby may be considered a slow burn, there is currently a palpable enthusiasm and excitement about its future. To help us contextualize its history and appreciate its future, former England captain Catherine Spencer shares her experiences and vision for the sport having begun her career just as women’s rugby was finding its feet. She captained England from 2007 to 2011, including at the 2010 World Cup before retiring in 2011 having won 63 caps.
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Spencer grew up playing mini-rugby with her brother. When she joined her local club there was one other girl and the odd comment of: ‘What’s that girl doing on the pitch?’ but generally she felt well supported.
By age ten, she had won the club’s Most Improved Player award, but then she ran into the all too common story of there being no girls teams beyond the under-12s. Nevertheless, she had been bitten by the bug and, even though she had to wait until university to play properly again, was undeterred.
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The nineties saw an explosion in the popularity and acceptance of women’s rugby into the mainstream and progress continued in the next decade. In 2007, the Women’s Six Nations moved up a gear by synching its organisation with the men’s competition. As a result, Spain was dropped, Italy included, and ground allocation improved, as did media coverage. However, it’s the World Cup that has captured the imagination of the general public.
Spencer recalls her first World Cup in 2006 which was held in Canada: “There was no marketing, no publicity,” she said. “I remember one of the venues had a poster up outside advertising the club’s AGM, but nothing about the upcoming World Cup fixture it was hosting.”
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By 2010 a record crowd — at the time — of 13,253 saw New Zealand win their fourth World Cup in a row, beating England 13-10 at the Twickenham Stoop.
And in 2014, the Stade Jean-Bouin in Paris sold out its 20,000 capacity as England finally won their second World Cup — 20 years after their first — beating Canada 21-9. And, it’s safe to say, the resultant publicity changed the map of English women’s rugby for good.
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It led to something that Miss Emily Valentine, back in 1887, would have considered impossible; England started to embrace professionalism. It announced its first central contracts in 2014 and Scotland its first professional player, Jade Konkel, in 2016. For England, it is all about trying to retain the World Cup in 2017, and, if professional contracts work, they must be considered the way forward.
So far, the Southern Hemisphere countries have resisted this idea and neither the Walleroos (Australia) nor the Black Ferns (New Zealand) are paid to play the 15-a-side game. However, the latter has continued to be the dominant force in world rugby and will be looking to regain the World Cup trophy in Ireland in 2017.
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It will be interesting to see which of the two approaches will come out on top next year. Things have undoubtedly changed in the international game since Catherine Spencer made her England debut; she was living in Bristol and training at Bath University. She trained early in the morning before work. The clubs and grounds she played on were generally not fit for purpose. Facilities are generally very different now and although she is no longer playing, her enthusiasm for the growth of the game is evident. Women’s teams, especially internationally, are starting to play on better pitches and in bigger stadia. And she is in favour of the central contract system; “It really does feel like there is positive change.”
Regarding England’s Red Roses, Spencer is disappointed that after they became world champions in 2014, and with the advent of central contracts, England Rugby didn’t immediately seize on the opportunity to promote the women’s game more. “England plateaued for the last few years, but we’re coming out of this now,” Spencer explains.
She is still somewhat critical of the world game’s organisation though, particularly in its ideas regarding the World Cup. “I can’t believe it’s still only 12 teams. If they can’t make it 16, then they should at least extend qualifying.”
Spencer is also unsure about the use of Rugby Sevens to promote the game in countries which are new to rugby. “There’s a place for it, obviously,” she acknowledges, “the Olympics took it to a different audience. But it’s not a game for all shapes and sizes, and it’s important that rugby is seen as that.”
Spencer has founded a company called Inspiring Women, an organisation providing workshops and speakers to businesses wishing to encourage and nurture their female employees and leaders of the future. It’s basically what she did on the pitch, reworked for the commercial sector and is clearly something still desperately needed in the business world.
And, despite her reservations she is largely enthusiastic about the way the sport is going. Importantly, Spencer feels that women in rugby are starting to value themselves, and are being recognized as athletes by being invited to events, to speak in different arenas, to offer their expertise.
In February 2016, World Rugby announced its first official rankings of women’s national teams. This had been a contentious issue for some time as countries classified and counted their international matches in different ways, but eventually the format was agreed, and as of August 2016, the top ten rankings stood as follows:
- New Zealand
- United States
These rankings suggest that the 2017 World Cup will see a New Zealand/Canada final on August 26. Can England overturn that and retain the title or can the Australians capitalise on their success in the Rugby Sevens at the Olympics and spring a surprise?
Women’s rugby has come a long way in a relatively short period, although progress is still to be made to achieve global professionalism. Mainstream media coverage remains inconsistent and unreliable.
Women’s Rugby, like so many sports, suffers from a tradition of originally being a male sport, and consequently is still perceived as second best. A notion that is gradually being shifted by a slowly changing tide in women’s sports coverage.
There can be no doubt that the time has arrived for women’s rugby to step out of the shadows and show the world just how good it is. Rugby Sevens advanced its reputation by becoming an Olympic sport in 2016, and the 15-a-side game needs to capitalize on this momentum. While rugby fans will reflect on the success and impact of the 2014 World Cup, it’s clear that the 2017 tournament now has the responsibility of advancing the game to establish its credibility for generations to come.
Photos: World Rugby/ Mike Lee @ KLC Fotos