Women’s Rugby Flourishing In 2018 – How Much Further Can the Game Progress?

Women have been playing rugby for years but the sport has only just started to grow into an elite, competitive spectacle. Take England, for example. The Red Roses are one of the top nations in the female game and plenty of fans will be backing Simon Middleton’s side at the 2021 Women’s Rugby World Cup. Women’s rugby is thriving right now and we are all hoping for this growth to continue for the foreseeable future.

The 2017 Women’s Rugby World Cup was a huge success and that competition helped to enhance global interest in the sport. New Zealand, the most decorated nation in both men’s and women’s rugby, were crowned champions for the fifth time – defeating England in the showpiece. With matches held in Dublin and Belfast, Ireland came together as one to host a fantastic tournament and there was a record attendance for the competition as a whole.

17,115 people attended the Women’s World Cup final in 2017 and organisers will be hoping to eclipse that figure in 2021. Of course, the men’s Rugby World Cup in Tokyo next summer will see atmospheric numbers in comparison but we should stop making direct references between the men’s and women’s game. It is time to just appreciate how women’s rugby – and women’s sport in general – is starting to be recognised across the world.

It isn’t all about rugby union, though; league is also starting to become prominent, especially in England. The first Women’s Super League season was a roaring success and there are now seven teams competing in 2018. On the opening weekend, defending Super League champions and Challenge Cup holders Bradford Bulls lost to Leeds Rhinos – a result that shows how competitive the sport is. There are no easy games in the Women’s Super League and union can learn a lot from watching how entertaining these matches are.

The concept of rugby league is completely different to that of league. Instead of phases, you are given six tackles. Instead of 15 players on the field, you have 13. The general ambition of outscoring your opponent by touching down for tries remains the same but league is a more skilful game whilst union is more physical. In the men’s game, players have made cross-code transitions and it is only a matter of time before high profile women stars want to make the switch between codes.

All six competing teams won at least one match during the 2018 Women’s Six Nations event and that can only mean positive things for the sport. Yes, France were dominant once again but even Wales and Scotland managed to secure a victory; women’s rugby is evening out. As in every sport, there are still some nations who are some way clear of the rest but that gap will continue to shrink as long as money is invested in grassroots women’s sport.

Nobody would deny that women’s rugby is on the rise; the facts and figures support that belief. One of the biggest issues is convincing fans to regularly attend matches; attendance numbers fluctuate considerably on a weekly basis. International rugby, especially matches taking place during the Six Nations season, is usually well attended but club rugby is still relatively small in the United Kingdom. If the sport’s governing body want to look at the Sevens game for inspiration, that may be worth considering – especially as there are a few high profile players shining at the moment.

Comparatively, the men’s game has also attracted more intention but not necessarily for the right reasons. Fans were angry at the increased ticket prices for the 2018 Six Nations; with the best seats at Twickenham Stadium selling for a staggering £161 each. Pricing younger rugby lovers out of the market isn’t the best option; local clubs will struggle if international nations discourage budding players from attending matches.

Women’s rugby is much better though. For example, a ticket to one of the Wales Women’s fixtures cost around £15 – a reasonable price for an afternoon watching international sport. And the quality of competition is improving every year; Italy were able to shock Wales at the Principality Stadium during the latest round of fixtures and that is exactly what the women’s game needs. Excitement and entertainment will help to attract larger crowds; as will staging these matches prior to the men’s matches.

Union needs to take heed of rugby league’s impact – but perhaps it would be wise to look beyond the women’s game itself. Australia’s NRL is widely regarded as the biggest and best rugby league competition in the world; not even the most ardent Super League supporter would argue against that. Watch a match and you won’t regret it, the skill on show is very impressive indeed. Following the Rugby Sevens example – a watered down version of union but with the league skill aspect – may be the way to go.

Passing the ball and attempting set plays is exciting, it certainly trumps grinding out wins by running physically down the middle of the field. Look back at the NRL’s fixtures in Week 6, as previewed here by Oddschecker, and you will see just how exciting and unpredictable this division is. That is how women’s rugby should be – fun to watch and fair. There are no easy games in the NRL and hopefully, the women’s game can follow suit.

Keeping women’s rugby accessible to the masses is key to success. The men’s game is out of control and the potential to watch live rugby at a cheaper price may appeal to those who have been priced out of the male sport. 2018 has been something of a landmark year for both codes and they are only going to get bigger. Watch this space, women’s rugby has the potential to mature into a massive sport in the coming years.

In summary, the women’s game IS improving – both on and off the pitch. Wales had 11,000 fans watching their defeat to Italy inside the Principality Stadium in March this year and that shows how interest in women’s rugby is growing. Once the sport develops into a recognized professional game, there may be another surge in popularity and it is certainly an exciting time to be involved in women’s rugby; whether you are a rugby union, league or general fan of women’s sport.

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