Female rugby player

Saturday evening saw a familiar clash between two rugby giants, as England faced up to New Zealand.  Less familiar was the fact that this prime time televised match was the women’s world cup final and it was England’s Roses and New Zealand’s Black Ferns who captivated audiences of 2.6 million (a substantially higher viewership than the average premier league match) in a nail-biting display of all that rugby has to offer.  England went into half-time 12 points up thanks to an early break from Lydia Thompson followed by a penalty try, only for the Black Ferns to return all guns blazing in the second half, with relentlessly physical attacking which ultimately wore down England’s defences and left the final score at 41-32.

Despite the palpable disappointment amongst the whites, post-match interviews from England full-back Emily Scarratt and fly-half Katy Mclean revealed an overriding sense of positivity at the upward trajectory of women’s rugby generally and the benefits of prime time exposure. As Mclean commented, “We’re immensely disappointed, but the positives from today are if any girl goes out and tries this sport.”

But how does this success (both for England and the women’s sport generally) sit with the RFU’s decision not to renew the England women’s 15s professional contracts?

Much was made of this issue in the match commentary, the topic having received significant media attention, and even input from MPs, in recent months, albeit that the players have been clear that they knew what the ‘deal’ was when it came to the 15s contracts.  In response to criticism and accusations of a lack of commitment to the women’s game, the RFU has repeatedly pointed to the fact that England was the first and only union to offer their female 15s players full time professional contracts (indeed even the World Champion Black Ferns are only semi-professional) and that a decision not to renew the existing contracts is not necessarily indicative of a lack of investment in, or commitment to, the women’s game. Instead it reflects the “cyclical nature” of the women’s game, with funding for contracts alternating between 15s contracts (in preparation for the World Cup) followed by 7s contracts (in preparation for the Rugby World Cup 7s and Commonwealth Games).

Deborah Griffin, founder of the RFUW and first female board member of the RFU has commented:

“It’s so sad there’s so much good stuff going on and so much of it is misinformation… Once you explain it they say: ‘Oh yes, well, that’s fine then.’ It’s such a shame because the RFU is doing so much for women’s rugby. All the people involved in it, the volunteers, we’ve got such good stories to tell, but it went down this cul-de-sac about the contracts.”

Griffin is keen that there should be more recognition of the RFU’s investment in the 15s talent pipeline, in the form of the new Women’s Super Rugby league in September this year, in which the RFU has invested £2.4 million over the next three years:

“What we were finding was the girls in the England playing squad were going back into their clubs and not playing in a professional environment. They were having to play out of position or with team-mates who weren’t as good, it wasn’t helping them or producing new team-mates.”

Indeed, Sports Shorts has written previously about the hurdles which can arise during the process of professionalising, and the importance of developing the talent pipeline as well as the central role of media cover and commercial investment to achieve this.  This goes to one of the central tenets of a governing body’s role, which is fundamentally to develop and further its sport.  However, in practice, the fulfilment of this duty comes with a number of tensions and politically charged questions, including the levels of athlete remuneration (indeed the RFU has seen pay disputes with its men’s teams in the earlier days of the game turning professional, including, famously, a strike by the England men’s team in the early 2000s), and the extent of investment at grass roots level. For the RFU, having merged with the RFUW in 2012, this now includes both the men’s and women’s game.  It must therefore approach its duty as a governing body with a number of overarching questions and considerations in mind, including (1) the appropriate amount of financial investment to make in view of the fact that, whilst the RFU is one of the richest unions in the world, the women’s game is yet to become commercially viable in its own right and (2) the increasing commercial potential of the 7s game (including its inclusion within the Olympics, as well as the myriad of questions surrounding the funding of a GB team and the potential to pool resources between the home nations’ unions (covered by Sports Shorts here).

There has been little by way of explanation as to why the RFU feels it cannot yet break the “cyclical nature” of the women’s game but what is clear is that it has taken the view that investment in the talent pipeline is the priority at this stage. Its investment in 7s contracts combined with the new women’s super league, is intended to grow participation with the eventual aim of re-introducing more full time professional contracts (for both 7s and 15s). Presumably the hope is that this will help break the current cyclical nature of the women’s game, which at present effectively requires players (or at least those who do not play both 7s and 15s) to take a career break every 3-4 years in order to play.

Inevitably the remuneration of athletes is, to some extent, commensurate with the revenues generated by their performances on the pitch and it is an undeniable truth that men’s sports generally continue to attract greater audiences, making women’s sport less attractive as a commercial investment – a self-fulfilling prophesy in many respects.  Indeed, in the UK, between 2011 and 2013, sponsorship of women’s sport accounted for a mere 0.4% of total sports sponsorship, and media coverage of women’s sport accounted for only 7% of total sport coverage.  It is for this reason that prime time coverage of events such as the women’s rugby world cup is an essential part of breaking the cycle.  It is certainly disappointing, particularly in light of the Roses’ stellar performance this summer, that those players without 7s contracts will now find themselves without professional contracts but it can only be hoped that the RFU’s long term strategy for growth of the women’s game, through 7s and Women’s Super Rugby pays off.

In the meantime, the new league kicks off on 16th September full of promise.