But work must start now to ensure the women’s tournament is the best ever
Comment: Why postponing Rugby World Cup 2021 is the right decision
Postponing Rugby World Cup 2021 is the right decision.
Of course, I appreciate the intense disappointment players and coaches and supporters are feeling following this week’s announcement that the women’s tournament will be put back until 2022 because of Covid-19 and all the associated challenges.
People will have made major life decisions around the World Cup taking place this September and October, whether that’s to do with retirement or starting a family or career progression or all of the above.
The sad reality of a possible 12-month delay (the dates for the postponed tournament haven’t yet been confirmed but it’s likely to be played in the same time slot in 2022) means that some players we expected to see competing in 2021 will not be around a year later.
Still, on balance, the postponement is the right decision and ensures the integrity of the tournament remains intact – for several reasons.
Ten teams are still in the running to qualify for the final three spots at the tournament and the window to get them played before a September 2021 kick-off was getting ever smaller. Both the Asian and European qualifying tournaments have been postponed several times, with no dates set on when they would be played.
A play-off between Colombia and Kenya also needs to take place before the repechage can be staged.
When you consider that Colombia, Hong Kong, Kazakhstan and Samoa are also involved in the Olympic repechage in Monaco in June, with several players likely to straddle the sevens and 15s squads, it adds a further complication.
The impact of the pandemic on the women’s international calendar means even the teams that have qualified have been short of game time. For instance, Wales will have gone more than a year without a match when they face France in the truncated Women’s Six Nations in April while hosts and defending champions New Zealand haven’t played a Test since August 2019.
Ongoing travel restrictions mean teams may also have struggled to arrange meaningful fixtures before the tournament. Take the situation surrounding the France-Ireland match last year.
Ireland had to ask the French to move the game to Dublin because rules around ‘elite’ sportspeople playing in cross-border events meant players had to isolate for two weeks on their return. That was fine for the men’s team, who – as professionals – could isolate as a squad and continue to train. For the women’s team, with many squad members working in teaching or health services, a two-week isolation period wasn’t feasible.
In the end the match didn’t get played because of Covid cases in the French camp, but it highlights the problems that exist in the current climate. Elite sport is covered by various government rules but the different circumstances of amateur and professional athletes means they aren’t always workable.
This is a big sticking point, with many feeling the tournament was postponed because no one was willing to cover the costs of 11 teams (not to mention officials and tournament staff) having to quarantine on their arrival in New Zealand.
Rugby commentator Nick Heath estimated that there would have been a $1.2m bill to clear this hurdle, but who would pay it? World Rugby, the New Zealand government, the teams themselves? It’s hard to see many of the latter being able to afford that.
However, the cost of quarantine isn’t the only issue, it’s having to quarantine full stop. Tying in with the preparation point, two weeks in isolation, even if teams were given exemptions to allow some form of training, is far from ideal.
Also, that means players, the majority of whom are amateur, needing to take an additional two weeks off work. The tournament would essentially have lasted six weeks rather than four – and that’s before you account for the travel time to get to New Zealand and training camps etc beforehand. That much leave, most likely unpaid, would have a significant financial impact on players.
And what if the worst happened and there was an outbreak of Covid in one of the camps, as happened with Fiji during the Autumn Nations Cup and France in the Six Nations? The tight turnaround between fixtures means that not only is there no room for postponements but a team could have to forfeit two or even three matches while isolating.
As BBC rugby reporter Sara Orchard says, the World Cup should be won by the best team on the pitch, not the one that was lucky enough to avoid Covid.
While New Zealand would obviously have opened its borders for the teams competing, no fans from overseas would have been allowed in unless they are NZ residents or citizens. Delaying it a year improves the chances of people from around the world being able to go. After all, organisers are aiming to set new attendance records with this tournament.
Plus, we’ve seen in the past week how quickly things can change, with Auckland going into a seven-day lockdown after a community case of Covid. If this had happened during a World Cup no fans would have been allowed into stadiums. With five-day turnarounds between pool games, an equivalent lockdown would have meant a third of matches being played behind closed doors.
I actually think if this had been a men’s World Cup it may well have been postponed earlier as ticket sales and travel packages are so crucial in generating profits. New Zealand has said its borders may stay closed for the rest of 2021, so they would have needed to delay to ensure it remained viable.
As we await official ratification of the postponement decision early next week, plans need to be put in place to ensure women’s rugby doesn’t lose ground.
Getting the remaining qualification matches played must be top of the agenda, ideally by the end of the year – even if they are later in 2021, with the hope that vaccine rollouts ease travel restrictions. That would ensure teams have nine months to prepare.
Plus, can a full Women’s Six Nations be reinstated now there is more time to play the qualifiers?
For those teams that have already qualified, an enhanced Test schedule should be put in place. Again Covid-19 makes this more challenging but if World Rugby has $4m they can pump into sevens programmes before the Olympics surely they could fund some women’s 15-a-side events.
England were planning to tour New Zealand in the autumn of 2020 before the pandemic hit – could they do that in 2021 instead? Maybe get Australia involved too and play a triangular tournament.
Or could an event be staged with five or six teams like the Super Series in 2019? Or a women’s Autumn Nations Cup?
Again, World Rugby have scheduled sevens events for France in May, so it doesn’t look like the governing body is ruling out setting up international tournaments. It’s just finding the right place and time that reduces the risk of postponements or cancellations.
Oh, and with all of the above as well as next month’s Six Nations, let’s make sure people can watch matches, whether via live streams or (preferably) TV deals. How good were the England-France matches broadcast on the BBC last November? More of that please.
There are now 18 months to build momentum to ensure that women’s rugby is front and centre when the World Cup kicks off. Yes, postponing Rugby World Cup 2021 is the right decision – but only if the work is now put in to make next year’s event the best ever.
Can’t get to the shops? Download the digital edition of Rugby World straight to your tablet. Subscribe to the print edition for magazine delivery to your door.
Follow Rugby World on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter.