Thursday, May 5, 2022

England set standards, but Six Nations needs competition to succeed

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A brassy Bayonne crowd began to empty as England hoisted the Women’s Six Nations Cup once again. A crowd of 11,000 French fans had barracked and yelled the entire time to try and lift their local heroes to a first La Crunch win in four years, but by the end of the 2022 tournament, as is becoming known, it was Simon Middletons Squad who climbed the podium to claim their spoils – again winners of the tournament they now so thoroughly dominate.

And that is cause for concern. This was a historic, transformative tournament with greater broadcast, media and viewer interest than ever before. But it wasn’t until last Saturday that there was more than one game where there was real danger and doubt.

Sport is inherently competitive – it’s hard to market a sporting competition if it’s not a competition. Six Nations chief executive Ben Morel said last week that he hopes to attract more sponsorship specifically for the women’s tournament, but the question is whether sponsors and broadcasters will have a great desire for a competition where the conclusion is anticipated .

So these are two crucial years. The delay in the Autumn World Cup meant the start of the innovative WXV competition – a welcome introduction that should offer consistent matches at the right level for a wider range of teams – was postponed to coincide with the 2023 Rugby World Cup in France, which could deny him potentially crucial visibility.

Such is the recent pace of change in women’s rugby that the future needs to be planned with due attention. Men’s rugby made several missteps in the early years of professionalization and is struggling with far-reaching consequences. After a transformative tournament that produced more questions than answers, there is little doubt that the future of women’s football looks extraordinarily bright – but it needs to be carefully managed to maximize what it could be.

It shouldn’t detract from the excellence of this England side. Yes, they are granted significant benefits as professionals and better equipped than any other nation, but they still push forward without complacency. The addition of Louis Deacon as forward coach helped sharpen their set-pieces that France had previously been able to blunt and they decided Saturday’s game. England can only play what’s in front of them, but France, as they showed in the patches at the Stade Jean Dauger, are currently the only side anywhere remotely close – and even they’ve had ten straight against theirs closest rival lost.

It is unacceptable to continue asking primarily amateur players to compete with those who play professionally. As England support Sarah Bern added to the immediacy of the Grand Slam triumph on Saturday: “I would absolutely love it if everything were even. I have many friends who play for Wales, Scotland and Ireland. It’s really hard work.

“That [Premier 15s] demands more from our players and International demands so much from our players. Playing a game like this and having to work tomorrow – I really feel for them. I’m always there to fight for their corner because I think everyone should have an equal chance.”

Of course, this will have a cost, but it must be seen as an investment. Some of the growth metrics for women’s rugby are excellent and certain investors are taking note – it has been reported that part of Silver Lake’s forthcoming deal with Rugby New Zealand will be an increase in funding for women’s football. It was therefore worrying to hear Morel hinting ahead of the final round of the tournament that there was no plan yet towards profitability for the Women’s Six Nations.

One of the great benefits of the standalone window is that it has brought these issues into broader focus. Given the public pressure, it would be a surprise if next year’s tournament started with an all-amateur team as all nations start offering more suitable contracts.

The gap may widen before it begins to narrow. Before the World Cup, England will have more preparation time than any other country due to around 30 professionals under contract. Perhaps New Zealand’s coaching staff, contracts and the necessary cultural reset will bring them back into contention, or France will finally get over the line, but it wouldn’t necessarily come as a surprise if this fine English side matched their greatness with a cruise to victory later this year would crown in a commanding manner similar to that of Meg Lanning’s Australian cricketers last month.

With September’s World Cup warm-up matches expected to be confirmed, barring anything notable, England will head to New Zealand after winning 25 straight games – a record run for any team in international rugby history. They’ve set the benchmark for where women’s football can go and it’s up to other nations to invest now to ensure they don’t get out of sight.

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