While the men are squabbling, Jim Kayes says, women’s rugby has made a huge leap ahead starting an annual global competition, WXV, in 2023 – which should make the Rugby World Cup even stronger.
Women’s rugby has thrashed the men. Embarrassed them really.
While the blokes have been arguing for decades about a global calendar and an annual, or bi-annual competition – and still are – the women set one up in just a year.
Well, it was actually a few days because, though it took a year from when the WXV was first raised in 2018 to when it was confirmed in 2019, it took just two days – with everyone locked in a room in Hong Kong – to work out the details.
Egos were set aside, personal perspectives were ignored and the good of the game took centrestage.
The tournament would have kicked off by now if not for the Covid-19 pandemic. But it will start next year, featuring 18 teams in three divisions of six, played at two or three venues which will be revealed in a few weeks. World Rugby has committed almost $13 million to the tournament over the first two years.
Sponsors and broadcasters are yet to be found, but organisers are confident the financial future of the tournament will be secure.
Alison Hughes, World Rugby’s head of women’s competitions who’s in New Zealand as the director of the Rugby World Cup, says WXV will be paused in 2025 so it can be reevaluated.
But she’s confident it’s here to stay and smiles without commenting when it’s noted the men’s game is still squabbling over how they can have a common calendar and more global competition.
Women are rugby’s success story with the growth in their game accelerating around the world – and propping up the numbers here in New Zealand.
Women play rugby in about 50 countries, with roughly half that number regularly involved in competitive games.
Twelve countries will compete in the World Cup in New Zealand this month, with 16 set to take the field in 2025.
“If WXV goes well we will be playing with 20 teams at the World Cup sooner rather than later,” Hughes says.
England has a women’s premiership competition and France have been quietly professional longer than anyone else. Those two, along with New Zealand, are the best three in the world and are likely to contest the final in Auckland.
Behind them Six Nations teams Wales, Ireland and Scotland are rapidly improving and in the last eight months have contracted some of their squads.
Australia (superb in sevens but still finding their feet in XVs), South Africa, Canada and the USA are improving.
The real growth though, could come from unlikely countries like Kazakhstan, who have competed in six women’s Rugby World Cups and were on track to come to New Zealand for this month’s tournament till they lost, late in qualifying, to Colombia – who were in turn beaten by Scotland.
The Celts play their opening match against Wales on Sunday and the Black Ferns later in the month.
“Women’s rugby is growing rapidly,” says Hughes, noting that five tests were played in the November international window in 2016, and 22 in the same month just two years later.
Last year, despite Covid still having an impact, 16 tests were played in November, including four by the Black Ferns.
“There is a lot of enthusiasm but it needs everyone to come to the table and say what they need [from World Rugby],” says Hughes.
That’s because those needs vary so greatly when the game is growing so quickly.
Investment is needed at the grassroots, especially in the developing countries, with a focus on developing skills and retaining players.
But Hughes says there needs to be a top-down approach as well. “You can’t build the game without that because you have to give the players something to aspire to. Competition is really important,” she says.
In Europe, as an example, rugby is popular in Sweden and Germany but they need more games.
It’s the same around the world. Hughes rattles off countries where women love the game, and notes that for some they have invested heavily in sevens which has been the shining light for women’s rugby.
Brazil focused on their sevens programme leading up to the 2016 Rio Olympics and are now shifting that focus to XVs.
The game is popular in Columbia where Hughes says there is an old-school look to their national team – a side that reflects all shapes and sizes.
Fiji will compete at the World Cup for the first time this month and Samoa were looking good too, but their country’s strict Covid travel restrictions meant they couldn’t compete in the final qualifying matches earlier this year.
To date, the growth in the game from a playing numbers perspective hasn’t been reflected in bums on seats at grounds, or a stampede of sponsors, but that’s changing too.
A record crowd in excess of 30,000 will be at Eden Park for the triple-header opening day of the Rugby World Cup this Saturday.
And Hughes says the money is out there. “We have only recently begun unpacking the women’s game from the men’s [so it can be sold separately] and there is enthusiasm from our sponsors and broadcasters,” she says.
“Those stakeholders want something more than a World Cup every four years and that’s what WXV will deliver. I think it will be very saleable.”
If it is, if it does kick on and become a permanent fixture, the women will be chuckling all the way to the bank.
The blokes, they’re likely to still be squabbling.