Welcome to Tuesday Team Talk. Every week, the H+K Sports team will give a unique perspective on the stories making the headlines across the world of sport.
This week, the RFU announced that the contracts of all the women’s 15-a-side players would not be renewed following the conclusion of this year’s World Cup. The move has caused widespread upset, and I too found myself pretty astounded reading the announcement. The importance of the decision that has been taken by the RFU, in my opinion, cannot be understated. It sends a huge message not just to future England Women’s rugby players, but to all young aspiring sportswomen. And that message is a very damning one indeed.
The main reason that I was so surprised by Monday’s news is that, as female sport goes in the UK, rugby is definitely one of the feathers in our cap. Runners up in the 2002, 2006 and 2010 World Cups, and winners in France in 2014, the termination of the players’ contracts comes as a direct contradiction to the upward trajectory of the England Women’s rugby team. They’ve been the dominant force for an extraordinary length of time now. They’re the top dogs. And yet as of late August, those players will either have to force their way into the national rugby sevens team, or look for an alternative means of putting bread on the table.
It’s not just the promising position of women’s rugby right now that makes this a baffling call from the RFU. The fact that female sport participation in general is going from strength to strength in the UK at the moment means this backward step leaves an even more bitter taste in the mouth. In 2016, over 1.6 million women took up sport in the UK thanks to Sport England’s This Girl Can campaign. The number of women taking up exercise is increasing faster than the number of men. And at the opposite end of the pyramid, women’s elite sport is certainly not disappointing. From GB’s gold in the hockey at the Rio Games of 2016 through to the cricket World Cup win last week, we’ve been riding the crest of a female sporting wave for the best part of two years. So why have the RFU suddenly decided to buck this trend?
Well, with The Commonwealth Games on the horizon along with a Rugby World Cup Sevens tournament, 2017 is seeing a shift of focus from the full fifteens side of the game to rugby sevens. England will go into those two tournaments with a squad of 17 contracted players in total and high hopes of success. Meanwhile, those who have not been selected will supposedly continue to partake in international fifteens tournaments as England, with a view to those players coming back into contention for a central contract once the next World Cup rolls around in 2021. According to the RFU’s Director of Professional Rugby, Nigel Melville, “The women’s squad were always aware that contracts would end in September, after the World Cup. The current XVs squad was informed in April that the next contracts will be focused on sevens, reflecting the cyclical nature of the women’s game. The squad fully understands the position and are focused on the World Cup in Ireland next month.”
But here’s the problem. If, say, you were one of the fringe players in the England squad that’s about to realise your life’s ambition by appearing in the World Cup, but with no real hope of securing a contract through sevens rugby after the tournament concluded, would you really be so “fully focused” on the tournament? Will all the young talented women that are bursting onto the rugby scene and on the verge of a call up to the England set-up be motivated to carry on playing the game? A few months ago they had a full-time contract to work towards. Now that dream of playing the sport they love for a living will have to be put on hold. There will be plenty of young girls dreaming of a career in sport who no doubt may be inspired by England’s performances at the World Cup next month, but how could you justify taking up rugby over the likes of football and cricket when the sport’s national body has publicly declared that they won’t back you even if you make it all the way? This was a decision that shouldn’t have revolved around finances (The RFU announced record profits at the end of last season) but something far more meaningful. And the only people who will suffer long-term because of it are England Rugby themselves.
The problem is exacerbated by the bewildering lack of infrastructure in place for women’s club rugby. The majority of clubs see no financial benefit in running a female team, and therefore simply don’t do so. For plenty of international sportspeople, if you weren’t being funded by your national team, at least you’d be earning a wage at your club. But Women’s rugby at present can’t offer this support mechanism. It’s not only the RFU that needs to step up their ideas on women’s rugby but professional clubs as well.
This week, I had the pleasure of conversing with the brilliant Helen and Kate Richardson-Walsh. They have done so much to promote gender equality on the sports field, and hearing them speak about females’ struggle for acknowledgement in sport is truly captivating. But, as they quite rightly point out, it wasn’t always like this. Back in the 1920’s, women’s football matches used to draw bigger crowds than the men’s games – sometimes attendances would top 50,000. It’s been a heck of a long time coming, but finally now in the 21st century it seemed as though we were on the right track to placing women’s sport back up alongside the men’s sport pedestal. But with the message that the RFU have sent by announcing the imminent termination of the women’s team’s central contracts this week, we see how much work is still left to be done.
By: James Foggin