Women’s rugby is one of the fastest-growing sports in the world. Since it was announced as an Olympic sport in 2009, participation numbers have grown globally from 200,000 to over 2.6 million. Today, 29% of all rugby players are women – a proportion which continues to rise.
This weekend sees the start of the HSBC World Sevens Series for 2018/19 – and curtain-raising duties have been bestowed upon the women’s teams, who will be fighting it out in Glendale, Colorado, to take home the spoils from the first leg of the international series. The tournament comes at the beginning of a season that is not only the biggest for teams competing on the sevens circuit, but for women’s rugby on a global scale.
The women’s game has long suffered in the shadow of its masculine counterpart, having to deal with smaller sponsorship deals, limited funding and childish, negative stereotyping by outsiders looking in.
Thankfully for the future of the game, however, these issues are perceived merely as speedbumps, and do not stop clubs and players forcing their way into the spotlight. Hence why you’ll regularly see the likes of ex-international Maggie Alphonsi on mainstream TV, the Tyrell’s Premier 15s on Sky Sports, and the Colorado sevens live on Sky Sports Mix this Sunday night, and throughout the weekend on streaming service Flo Rugby.
Kate Alder, captain of Wasps Ladies, who play in the top women’s rugby division – the Tyrrell’s Premier 15s – sees the increased coverage of women’s rugby as being part of a wider interest in women’s sport by broadcasters. “I think it’s important to highlight the impact that the success across women’s sport in general has had on increased coverage,” she said. “The Red Roses were Rugby World Cup winners in 2014 and produced an amazing final performance against New Zealand in 2017; England Ladies Cricket are reigning world champions; England’s netball team took home Commonwealth gold earlier in the year; England Lionesses won bronze in the 2015 World Cup. When that happens, and women’s sport is consistently performing to that standard on the global stage, from a broadcasting perspective it makes it impossible to ignore!”
England Rugby’s recent announcement that it will be following New Zealand, Australia and France in taking on professional female players on full-time contracts is hugely significant for the growth of the game, and will pave the way for more exposure, more participation, and more sponsorship and funding.
This is exactly what happened after the creation of the Tyrrell’s Premier 15s injected some much-needed funding into the women’s game in 2017, giving 600 athletes across the country access to a multitude of services which have directly improved performance, according to Alder. “Players now have access to strength & conditioning, medical care, regular player and team analysis, physiotherapy and osteopathy treatment and rehabilitation services. When given that opportunity, players are reaching their potential. Skill level and overall performance increase, which leads to more spectators, which is in turn pushes the sport further into the spotlight.”
Building from the roots up
The development of the professional game and the improved infrastructure are important for the health of the game at a grassroots level, as it demonstrates to young girls that if they work hard and remain committed to reaching the upper echelons of the game, they too will be able to immerse themselves in the world of top-level rugby, and even make a living like their male counterparts; clearly there is currently much less scope for this within female rugby, but it’s a start.
Kate Alder believes that more grassroots opportunities to get into the game are key to growing women’s rugby. “From personal experience, there were very few opportunities for me to play (or try) the sport as a young girl. There are now have incentives such as the Inner Warrior rugby camps and The Burford Academy (run by England player Rachel Burford) that are running up and down the country.”
Alder also thinks that strong role models play a key role, and that they should be given as much exposure as possible. “As the sport is growing, young girls are getting increased exposure to female role models in the sport. These players at the elite level are showcasing to young girls what it’s really like to play rugby! It’s okay to be female and show aggression on a pitch, to hit tackle pads and break out of a previously ‘stereotypical’ female mould.”
Driving into the future
So what next for women’s rugby? Unfortunately, lots more hard work to keep developing the game. As players, teams and governing bodies have discovered in the past, there are no easy wins in women’s rugby. But the initial sponsorship and coverage the game has received over the past couple of years may prove to be the momentum that women’s rugby needs to truly take off.
More eyeballs on matches broadcast on Sky Sports means more sponsorship deals, which means better funding and facilities, and therefore more participation at every level.
2.3 million watched the women’s Rugby World Cup final in 2017, so, according to Kate Alder, “the hunger’s definitely there”. Stakeholders in women’s rugby now just need to make sure this hunger is satiated.
Secure Trading are proud principal partner of England Sevens for both women and men. England Women being their season this weekend in Glendale, Colorado against the USA, New Zealand and China.
At grassroots level, Secure Trading are the main club sponsor for Old Elthamians, whose women’s team are now in their second season playing in the third tier of English rugby – Championship South-East 2. They enjoyed an unbeaten campaign in their maiden season and currently have a squad of over 40 women.
Author: Ollie Claxton