Women’s rugby at sixes and sevens as focus on Olympics splits loyalties
Women’s rugby is used to fighting its corner but never like this. Next Friday England’s women will launch their Six Nations championship campaign against Scotland in Cumbernauld without the majority of their leading players, who will once again be representing their country at sevens in warmer climes. To say there are split loyalties is a massive understatement.
Who could begrudge anyone trying to win an Olympic medal? The present policy of the England hierarchy, however, to prioritise the shortened form of the game continues to divide opinion. “What we’ll see in this Six Nations might not be as competitive as it would have been,” says Maggie Alphonsi, the best women’s player England has produced. “You’ll probably see Italy and Wales do really well because England, France and Ireland will all be involved with sevens.”
It is a strange debate to be having so soon after the 2014 women’s World Cup, when and interest reached unprecedented heights. But then the landscape changed utterly: 20 English players were offered professional contracts on the proviso they focused on sevens. The feeling was that an Olympic medal, under the banner of Great Britain, would enhance the profile of women’s rugby more than sticking rigidly to the traditional 15-a-side format.
But what if the chosen few return empty-handed from Rio? Will it all have been worthwhile if the 2014 feelgood factor is lost? Could it cost in terms of compromising England’s preparations for defending their world title in Ireland in 2017? Last season they finished fourth in the Six Nations, their lowest placing. Commercially, too, the Rugby Football Union has struggled to land new sponsors specifically off the back of the World Cup triumph. Only one England Six Nations game this season is currently due to be televised live by Sky and the domestic women’s Premiership remains short of funding. “I don’t think enough has been done,” the former England captain Catherine Spencer told Sky Sports late last year.
The good news is that grassroots participation has grown – the RFU says 21,000 women play regular contact rugby in England, up from 15,000 in 2013 – but there is some disgruntlement at the top. “Understandably there has been some frustration among those involved in the 2014 World Cup that they haven’t been able to replicate that same level of achievement,” Alphonsi says. “Everyone involved wants to make sure both formats are improving. In the end it’s not a format we’re looking at, it’s England. It looks bad if England 15s don’t do well. You also need a good women’s 15s structure to ensure enough sevens players come through.”
Nor is the 32-year-old Alphonsi, who won 70 caps for her country, convinced England will have enough time, post-Rio, to reintegrate their sevens stars – some of whom are not getting any younger – and create a 15s squad strong enough to knock over New Zealand and improving rivals such as France, Ireland and Canada. “If you do well in the Olympics you’re going to want to try and have that same level of achievement in 15s at a World Cup in 2017,” says Alphonsi. “But it leaves a short time to do it in. Sevens is a completely different game to 15s.”
It is a philosophical tug of war that is set to intensify. For a young, still mostly amateur sport, Olympic sevens representation opens up new financial possibilities. But as with Twenty20 v Test cricket it also risks destablising the foundations of the women’s game and alienating the purists. As Alphonsi puts it: “Fifteens has probably taken a bit of a back seat because what are the opportunities that lead on from that?”
The flip side was neatly argued by Ireland’s hugely impressive captain Niamh Briggs at this week’s Six Nations launch in London. “Sonny Bill Williams is playing sevens for New Zealand this weekend and people want to go and see something like that. Then they see the brand of rugby on show and they want to play it. OK, it’s a different style but it’s still rugby and their contracted players are training every day, unlike what we’re doing. That can only make them better, more skilful, fitter and stronger. If that can transfer into 15s it can only be a good thing.”
The 31-year-old Briggs, a police officer from Limerick when not playing at full-back for her country, also says interest in the women’s game in Ireland has “exploded” since their historic and reckons hosting the World Cup in two years’ time will make even more of an impression: “For me personally it’s about creating a legacy for the next generation to come on and leave women’s rugby in Ireland in a better place, whether it’s amateur or professional.”
Her English counterpart, Sarah Hunter, is another top-quality ambassador and feels similarly. “We’ve always known what the programme would be. After the World Cup we knew there would be 20 contracted girls who were only going to focus on sevens and the Olympics. Twenty girls is a big chunk of any squad but it gives opportunities to younger players who haven’t had much game-time in the past. That should add to our strength and depth in the longer term.”
Following women’s football, cricket and netball to a higher-profile level is clearly everyone’s ambition. There is certainly no shortage of excellent role models keen to inspire the “strong not skinny” generation of young sportswomen. Alphonsi has abandoned her attempt to throw the shot for Great Britain in this year’s Olympics in favour of breaking new ground for ITV as a female pundit analysing the men’s Six Nations. Like any ex-player she knows her subject; unlike many, the camera loves her and she can dissect a breakdown better than most.
Alphonsi freely admits, though, to envying the opportunities potentially opening up for tomorrow’s women. “In 10 years’ time I do think women’s rugby will be more prevalent; you’ll see more of it on TV, more women will get professional contracts. The Olympics will help that. The only fear I have is what shape 15s rugby will be in if the commercial opportunities in sevens are significantly greater than 15s.” It remains a fundamental question without, as yet, any clear answer.