Wasps Ladies’ director of rugby Giselle Mather gives her verdict on the championship
How to fix the Women’s Six Nations
The curtain has prematurely fallen on the Women’s Six Nations, but has it been a success? Without doubt interest has hit new levels, with every match televised, more column inches written and podcasts devoted to the women’s game. New audiences are being reached and crowds have risen dramatically. All of this is fantastic.
That said, there are issues surrounding the tournament. Poor scheduling, substandard facilities and a glaring lack of a title sponsor are all topics that have surfaced. But for me, the biggest threat to the future success and growth of the Six Nations is none of those things; instead it lies in the product on the field.
When I was entrusted with leading Wasps Ladies in the Tyrrells Premier 15s in 2017, I received a pearl of wisdom from an experienced rugby man: “Keep the main thing the main thing. The product on the field is everything and if you get that right the rest will take care of itself.”
I’ve kept that at the heart of all the decisions I make and feel it rings true for the future success of the Six Nations. A tournament that appears to hinge on one game (England v France) to decide the Grand Slam champions is only thinly disguised as a competition. If we don’t address this it potentially becomes more an exhibition of the women’s game than heated rivalry between sporting foes.
England and France unquestionably lead the way with their attitude to on-field performance. The RFU and the French federation have their elite squads on full- and part-time contracts respectively and surround their players with all they need to be the best they can be – S&C, analyst support, high-quality coaching and medical staff.
On top of that is the precious commodity of time that athletes need to allow proper rest and recovery.
Both nations have also invested in an elite domestic league where players are supported and participate in pressure games. The two environments of club and country are seeing the English and French players thrive. The product they put on the field is improving year on year while Tests between the two nations are high quality, engaging and competitive.
For the Six Nations to take its next step, other unions must support their female players in action and not just in words.
Jade Konkel and Chloe Rollie stand out for Scotland because they receive SRU support and train full-time at Harlequins. Imagine what Scotland could achieve if all their elite squad had that support?
Edel McMahon and Cliodhna Moloney were Players of the Match in Ireland’s first two games. While receiving no financial support from their union, both moved to England to play in the Premier 15s and take part in daytime training at Wasps. It is no coincidence that extra time with ball in hand has seen a marked improvement in their development and in turn their impact on the international stage.
Siwan Lillicrap and Keira Bevan are extremely talented Welsh internationals, but how can they be the best versions of themselves on the pitch if they have to do a full day’s work before training?
I appreciate that finance in rugby is tight but if these unions cannot afford to make their female athletes full-time professionals then make them part-time; two days a week is better than none.
We are investigating ways to move the Premier 15s from amateur to semi-pro over the next three years to again raise standards. If we in club land, with limited resources, are doing our best to find ways to support our athletes in this way, why can’t governing bodies do likewise?
The Six Nations is not a level playing field. Unless the Scottish, Irish, Welsh and Italian unions act now to follow England and France’s lead by investing in the product on the field and giving athletes the chance to release their potential, I fear talk of bigger stadiums and sponsors will fade away because a tournament should never just be a two-horse race.
This article originally appeared in the May 2020 edition of Rugby World magazine.
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