The start of February could only possibly mean one thing to avid rugby fans like myself, the start of The RBS Six Nations. The English men’s side have enjoyed an unbeaten 2016, after a frankly shameful World cup appearance the year before, where a lack-luster England side were knocked out at in the group stage. The England side have now gone 18 games unbeaten including a first English Six Nations Grand Slam since 2003, and a historic 3-0 series win against the Aussies, stylishly sealed with a well-fought 44-40 win in Sydney. This incredible run of England victories is being largely put down due to the breakthrough of young stars, such as Maro itoje; who won the world breakthrough player of the year award for 2016. However, an area that does not seem to have recognition that it so richly deserves is the remarkable women’s team that England currently possesses and who are presently world champions. With stars such as world player of the year and England skipper, Sarah Hunter, it should only be fair for the equally as successful women’s team to get as much media exposure as the men’s. Yet this is definitely not the case, therefore begging the question: What is being done to aid growth of women’s rugby at professional and grass-roots level?
The RFU spoke out on the matter in October of 2016, saying that were are aiming to double the current number of women playing rugby, from 25,000 to 50,000 by 2019. This is to be aided by a £20 million investment in order for the side to retain its position as world champions with the upcoming competition only 5 months away in Ireland. Ian Ritchie, the RFU chief executive said, “We wanted to create an identity for England Women that would inspire more people to get involved, whether playing or supporting the women’s game,”. This comes after the RFU announcing 48 professional contracts for 15s and sevens players for this season, and after a stylish rebranding of the team, they are now known as the “ Red Roses”. Much like the Lionesses of English football, this modern re-brand is looking to push forward and entice numbers to the female game. The goal of doubling numbers of female participation will be no mean feat. The RFU are targeting 300 female ‘hub clubs’ around the country to enable women to have access to a club that already has a well-established team.
The fact the women’s game is growing cannot be ignored, but how is it growing compared to other sports? Considering that overall participation in sport is on the up with a rise of 1.65 million people who currently taking part in a sport since 2005/06, female numbers for participation in rugby is still greatly lagging behind sports such as football, swimming, cycling, and athletics. This shows that, even with the efforts of both the current Red Roses and the RFU, the introduction of the new objectives for participation, and the re-branding of the team to try and entice more women to play. There still seems to be a clear gap between the rate of growth not only with the men’s side of the game, but with other sports as well.
Although it seems as though the RFU are working on expanding participation in the women’s game it needs help from the girls themselves. The fundamental problem with the women’s game in terms of media coverage and the profile of the game is the current lack of participation. In order to gain more coverage the women’s game needs to improve it’s funding and for that to happen the investors need to see it as worthwhile to invest, and for that to happen more women need to be playing. Until we see this change it’s unlikely that the sport will change for the better.
So, with this all taken into account let’s hope for continued growth and continued participation , in a sport where there seems to be so much positivity around and hope for a Grand Slam win for our Red Roses, along with a guaranteed men’s Grand Slam of course.
-Piers Dunham, year 12.