The Women’s World Cup 2017 – the Aftermath, by Bruce Perkins – with foreword by John ‘Max’ Maxwell
I occasionally get sent links to articles on women’s rugby, and some come to me direct from the author – as did this piece from Bruce, “I Coached at school for many years, and quite by chance saw the very first England Women’s International at Richmond in 1986, only at that stage they were GB. They played France and lost. Interest revived when I saw the World Cup Final 2010 at the Stoop – BP.”
One essential follow-up to the Women’s World Cup 2017 is World Rugby’s consultation process, due to take place in November. WR will want to ensure that the many successes of this year’s competition are exploited, and any weaknesses it revealed are diagnosed and cured.
It is the latter that need the closest attention. They include qualification, size and shape of the tournament, player welfare, amateur status, ticketing/attendance and cost.
The worldwide qualification process is organized on a regional basis. This helps to ensure that every continent feels it has an equal chance of providing competitors to the final stages. But that brings its own weaknesses. The strength of women’s rugby is very unevenly distributed: its main sources of power are Europe, Oceania and North America. Asia gains some representation at the highest level, Africa and South America hardly any. So a first requirement on WR’s to-do list is to establish stronger roots in these less fertile areas. It seemed odd to find Scotland (ranked 12th) excluded in Ireland, while Hong Kong, (ranked 23rd), enjoyed a couple of weeks in the limelight.
One simplistic response is to demand 16 qualifying nations, not 12, as at present. WR is frightened of ill-matched sides competing together, with the inevitable huge scores involved. But even in Dublin this year there were two such results, as Canada and especially New Zealand were merciless in bolstering their chances of a semi-final place by walloping Hong Kong 98-0 and 121-0 respectively. Defenders of HK’s right to be there point to Japan’s advance in the men’s version of the WC. From being the traditional whipping boys, they advanced over a decade or two to produce the greatest upset the tournament has known, when they beat the Springboks at Brighton.
So why not spread the net and allow twenty nations to compete? This might well involve more heavy defeats, but the minnows could have worthwhile scraps against each other, just as they do in the many 7s tournaments around the world (Andorra v Luxembourg). A larger tournament requires a longer time span. The Irish version of 2017 lasted 17 days, with three pools of four teams. This meant a gap of just four days between matches, far less than WR itself deems wise and recommendable. The permitted number of players in each squad is 28. Until recently it was 26! So in many cases, a individual player will be involved in all five games, putting personal fitness and well-being under extreme stress. The simplest short-cut to that problem is to increase the squad maximum to 30.
The longer the tournament lasts, the harder it is for the amateur player to take time off work. Even the most generous of employers would bilk at the length of time their one rugby-playing employee would need to be away. Only one group of players competing in Ireland was unconcerned about time off, and they were the Red Roses. But the days of fully professional women’s rugby seem no closer now than it did before the RFU awarded its contracts to delighted English players in 2016. Not one 15s player now enjoys these benefits, all that money now being switched to 7s. The next issue is the ability of each national union to finance the costs involved, not least travel and kitting out.
For the WRWC in its current form, the host nation needs to provide accommodation for 12 x 28 players plus all the support staff involved. Raise the qualifying nations to 16 or even 20, and visions of bunk-beds piled high against the wall take on nightmarish proportions. And the requirements stretch much further: everyone needs to be fed and watered; players need first-class training facilities (fitness centres, practice areas) all within easy reach of the accommodation. And there need to be two arenas placed reasonably close together for the pool matches. Dublin provided a coach for each team to move around the extensive complex.
That is why the traditional location chosen has been the university campus, in Ireland’s case University College Dublin, which provided all these facilities with a smile. But a larger-scale operation would stretch the most generous of host centres close to breaking point.
No campus in the world can offer a stadium big enough for the knock-out stages of the tournament. So tradition has it that we move to one or two other venues for these big events. Belfast’s one weakness this year was the distance between the Kingspan Stadium (capacity 18,000) and the support arena at Queen’s University Belfast. No doubt, spectators attending wanted to support only their own side, and were less concerned about the fate of the rest at the other venue. But the QUB operation did seem like a mere outpost to the main events at Kingspan. The timings of the individual matches caused concern, especially amongst the media people in attendance. With two games going on concurrently, it was impossible for them to cover both at first hand.
That brings us to ticketing and attendance.
The WC pool stages still don’t attract large audiences. They are much bigger than they once were, but TV viewers were perplexed when they saw two largely empty arenas in Dublin when they had been advised weeks earlier that all tickets for the pool stages had been sold. Indeed they had; but even the Irish, enthusiastic supporters of the oval ball, were unwilling to arrive early to watch other nations not playing in green.
One ticket gave the purchaser entry to three consecutive games, a splendid offer for the few who had the time available. It can hardly be otherwise. Unlike a theatre or cinema, it is not possible to clear the ground of spectators in the brief interval between matches. The tournament takes place in August, when most people are likely to have free time. So the authorities can only hope that increased media coverage and popular support will ensure larger crowds in future.
It was noticeable that Belfast went on advertising ‘tickets still available’ right up to the last minute. Their position was not easy. They had a large 18,000 stadium, the Kingspan, to fill, as well as the other QUB ground, some miles away, for the remaining play-offs. It was already agreed that Ireland would be allotted a match at Kingspan, should their finishing position warrant it, and indeed it did. So an enthusiastic audience rolled up, only to see their heroines subside before the Welsh furies. Then the question arose: would they stay on for the remaining matches, the semi and the final?
They could have been forgiven for trooping home in dejection, but no, they did stay, and were treated to two memorable encounters. The authorities were rewarded for their hard work by an attendance of over 17,000. But questions remain: why are spectators not allowed to switch from one ground to the other during the course of one afternoon? Why are some games not started before 12 noon, the earliest time on offer in Dublin? This might help to resolve the annoyance of the press pack.
All these considerations can be reduced to four frightening letters: COST. Consider Billings Park, the second ground used at UCD, a few hundred yards from the Bowl. It had been a completely open space until new stands and other paraphernalia magically appeared in the run-up to the tournament. However much did these structures cost? WR needs to examine what proportion of the total expenses it feels the host nation should bear, and how far it should bear the brunt itself.
The parameters for a successful Women’s World Cup are tight and unforgiving, It needs to take place in the height of summer when participants’ accommodation is most easily available (students’ vacation). Large numbers of volunteers are needed. The tournament needs to be short enough to be affordable for the visiting nations, but long enough to ensure players’ welfare is safeguarded. A case of squaring the oval circle.
We must hope that WR doesn’t concern itself solely with the broader, global issues. They are certainly crucial, but can only come to fruition in the long term. Meanwhile, the next WRWC creeps closer every day.