After England beat Canada to be crowned world champions, rugby must make the most of this opportunity to grow the women's game
“THIS COULD be the tipping point for women’s rugby worldwide.” Those were the words of England coach Gary Street after England’s 21-9 Women’s World Cup final win over Canada at the Stade Jean Bouin in Paris.
It’s important to celebrate England’s achievement – after three successive defeats to New Zealand in the climax of the women’s tournament they deserve huge credit for lifting the trophy for the first time in 20 years – but the bigger picture could prove more significant.
In recent years the focus in women’s rugby has shifted to sevens. With rugby sevens making its Olympics debut in Rio in 2016, the IRB have a Women’s World Sevens Series and countries like Canada and Australia are putting a lot of funding into the abbreviated game.
This month’s World Cup has shown, however, that there is a huge appetite for 15-a-side women’s rugby. Record TV figures and big crowds have put the game in front of a wider audience than ever before and raised its profile hugely. As Street says: “Women’s rugby at this level is a hell of a sport.”
The final may have been a stop-start affair but few sporting finals are exceptional given the pressure of the occasion. It’s the semi-finals to which people should look to see the quality of the women’s game today.
England were simply sublime in the way they dismantled Ireland in their last-four tie on Wednesday, the forwards showing no mercy up front and the backs capitalising on that momentum. Then the crowd – as raucous as many a men’s Test match – for the semi-final between France and Canada were treated to a nip-tuck affair where the contact was wince-inducing and the Magali Harvey try was a joy to watch.
In the four years since the last World Cup, the standard of play has risen hugely. England and New Zealand were in a class of their own in 2010 whereas France, Ireland and Canada have all added to the mix here.
The improvement in tight-forward skills was evident in the number of tries scored at this tournament from diving mauls – a technical element of the game that is now being mastered by the elite female players. Kicking, once the glaring weakness in the women’s game, has also developed across all the sides, be that in a tactical or goalkicking sense.
The physicality of matches has definitely gone up several notches too. In 2010, Maggie Alphonsi’s fierceness in the tackle set her apart but back-rowers in all teams now show that same power – and that’s without mentioning Canada centres Andrea Burk and Mandy Marchak, who hit with huge force and determination in midfield.
The challenge now is to maintain the momentum. Women’s rugby has made the front pages today but it’s important that people continue to recognise their achievements. These are the women who should be idolised by young girls today, not the reality TV stars who wouldn’t want to risk breaking a nail at the breakdown. These players have to juggle jobs as vets and plumbers with competing at the elite level on a global stage; those sacrifices cannot be underestimated and should be roundly applauded.
To finish, though, let us celebrate England’s momentous achievement and hope that this tournament inspires the next generation of women’s rugby stars. In the words of Alphonsi: “Hopefully it will increase participation and get more people involved in the sport. This has grown attention to the sport and people who’ve not watched it before now want to watch it more. Women’s rugby is a spectator sport in England and across the world now.”
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