England’s women are gunning for a grand slam and are expecting a big crowd when they entertain Italy at Exeter’s Sandy Park on Saturday
Here is an ideal quiz question for International Women’s Day: name the latest team sport in which women are starting to attract more supporters than the men? The answer is rugby union. This Saturday a record five-figure crowd is expected in Exeter to watch England’s Red Roses play Italy in the women’s Six Nations, a higher number than attended half of the six fixtures in the Gallagher Premiership last weekend.
Ten thousand fans gathering for a women’s game at Sandy Park? Cheaper tickets notwithstanding, few would have called it even a couple of years ago. No wonder Exeter Chiefs have plans to launch a female team to capitalise on this growing interest. If it helps that England, unlike their men, remain unbeaten with a grand slam still in their sights, there are also clearly other factors at play.
Maybe, just maybe, people are finally waking up to the fact female players are as committed to what they do as the men to whom they are so often unfairly compared. If the recent advent of full-time contracts for the leading English women is visibly improving the standards of players, fast-emerging stars such as Sarah Bern and Jess Breach are every bit as compelling to watch en route to the try-line as Kyle Sinckler and Jonny May.
Others such as Abbie Scott, the impressive Harlequins lock, have first-hand evidence of how attitudes are changing. “I got a really nice email today from a young boy who’d attended a coaching camp I’d been at,” revealed Scott, who captained her country for the first time in the autumn. “For International Women’s Day he’d been asked to draw a picture of a really inspiring woman. He chose Abbie Scott, England Rugby. Little things like that are great.”
If Scott does not yet stop all the traffic along Twickenham high street – “You do get the odd person recognising you but I’d like to think I look a bit different off the pitch when I’m not covered in mud” – her profile is destined to rise. Her teammate Marlie Packer also reports growing awareness a little further west. “I was walking through Yeovil town centre with my mum the other day and three people stopped us and said they were coming down to the game in Exeter,” says a delighted Packer, also sharing a lovely story about her first exposure to rugby aged five. “My mum thought I was just going to watch so she put me in this red top with lots of frills on it. I came back caked in mud and never looked back.”
The women’s game, just now, could give the men a few lessons in how to promote their sport, according to the Rugby Football Union’s acting chief executive, Nigel Melville. In Exeter last Thursday, Melville was particularly struck by the wide-eyed enthusiasm on the faces of a group of schoolgirls from Ilfracombe as they sat listening to Packer and her up-and-coming England teammate Lagi Tuima, who can kick goals from halfway and whose uncle, Akapusi Qera, gave years of wonderful service to Gloucester. “You don’t realise the impact, until you see it, that those moments have on those girls.”
Which is why, in Scott’s view, the only major battle left for women’s rugby is to put more bums – of all sexes, shapes and sizes – on seats. “Sometimes people are unaware there are games being staged, or even that there is international women’s rugby. It’s all about exposure. Once people come, they come back. You get such good feedback. Women’s rugby has gone up and up every year and we’re now putting on spectacles that any sports fan would want to watch. It’s taking off and, at the minute, I don’t see a ceiling for it. It’s exponential in terms of where it’s going to go to as a sport.”
With the club game expanding via the Tyrrell’s Premier XVs and popular festival occasions such as the Game Changer – tickets for this year’s edition between Harlequins’ Ladies and Gloucester Hartpury at the Stoop on 30 March are available via the Quins’ website – the only lingering concern is that semi-professionalism in England ideally needs to be replicated elsewhere. To date the Six Nations has been largely a procession, although Italy are on the up. “We can’t just create an island, stand on it and shout how great we are if we’ve no one to play,” says Melville.”We need the game to grow everywhere.”
How refreshing it would be, too, if women’s games were not unthinkingly scheduled on the same weekends as the men’s Six Nations. Why not hold them on the fallow weekends or at a different time of year entirely? By all means stage a Twickenham double header with the men but put the women on beforehand, not as an afterthought in the chilly winter gloom with few paying attention. We have not even mentioned sevens. Go and see a women’s international live and there is every chance you will be genuinely impressed.
Another day, another major rugby story, this time in Welsh regional rugby. Proposals to merge Scarlets and Ospreys into one West Wales entity – “C’mon you Scarlet Pimpernels” – might make sense on a spreadsheet but ignores decades of local rivalry, traditional loyalties and on-field sparring. What is there to persuade fans of either side that this new venture is worth supporting; the equivalent in England would be Bath and Bristol merging into the Avon Gorgers. History shows people do not like manufactured regional sides; they tend to hate shotgun marriages of oval-ball convenience even more.
One to watch
Two more wins for Wales and, domestic issues or not, they will have a grand slam to celebrate. Their last visit to Edinburgh two years ago was not a happy one but, otherwise, they have not lost to the Scots in the Six Nations since 2007. Scotland are due a decent 80-minute performance at some stage but if Wales play like they did in the second half against England they will be four-fifths of the way towards a first slam since 2012.