The women’s game is healthier than ever. I would suggest this is one of the biggest myths in the modern rugby era. If you peel back the successful skin of the women’s game in England and you will see a huge gap in the positive noises coming from the people in charge of the game and the reality at grassroots. The access to quality rugby and an environment capable of supporting the future of England rugby is built on a foundation of sand and is in desperate need of a radical restructuring.
From a personal position I have been involved in coaching in the women’s game for nearly 10 years and I have been a follower of the game at all levels and have watched women’s premiership games, internationals, championship games two world cup finals and spent my summer holiday this year in Paris following the world cup. Then of course week in week out I am involved in coaching at grassroots level.
It is difficult to talk about quality and standards of the women’s game as a man without sounding hugely patronising so you will have to forgive me if that’s how this sounds. There is no doubt at the elite level of the sport the skill and quality of the game is of the highest standard. The premiership games have been similar to their male counterparts with some great ones and some not so great ones.
However once you get beneath the surface there is a massive need for investment in a national strategy to bring women into the game.
An example of the situation can be shown if we look at the statistics from the women’s national cup this year. The first round of matches had 44% of its 54 games given as walkovers with no game taking place. These are not just grassroots teams crying off these are teams with ambition. In the second round 31% was decided by walkover. This week at least two teams make the third round without having played a game.
Now I know the cup is a very different thing and maybe not the best example but if you were to suggest the women’s game is healthy you would think that more than 56% of the sides who decided to play in the cup would have players available to full fill the fixtures.
In the leagues, some are running at 21% walkover rate and week in week out some teams fail to fulfil fixtures. This isn’t meant as a witch hunt but more as a time for real honesty and a realistic look at where we are currently at.
My own experience as a coach in the bottom of the leagues highlights this issue even more. We started the season in a small 6 team league. Before a ball was kicked one of the sides folded from the league. During the Christmas break another side folded from the league and this week we have found out a 3rd team has also pulled out. We are left with a 3 team league. Look on the RFU website fixtures and results and you will see at every level other than the premiership sides have defaulted on games the lower you go the worse it is.
All the time more sides are starting up, with clubs believing that if they start a team and one of the women’s friends comes and coaches, then they have done something to grow the game. It needs a more thoughtful and long term approach to make it successful.
First of all requires clubs to be honest about their situations and the numbers of players they really have available. How many clubs are claiming a playing squad of 30+ which is made up of players who retired 5 years ago or who joined for a month and then never came back? It’s time for an honest approach so we can come up with some effective solutions to help move the game forward in the way so many people desire it to go. The simple truth is that this isn’t sustainable to keep adding more sides when there simply aren’t the players. A far better way to do this would be to encourage sides that don’t have women’s sides to promote local clubs that do, and to reward them in some way if they are able to point women towards these clubs.
All sides at all levels are borrowing players to fulfil fixtures and these needs to me more transparent and also not punishable. If it means more teams get 15 aside games of rugby then that has to be for the betterment of the game.
I was involved with my counties women’s team this year – an area where investment could really help—and this was a great environment for relationship building within clubs. I wrote a report at the end of the county season in which I highlighted the success of the programme.Buckinghamshire Women
In a large part due to the quality of the coaching (not my own I might add but two of England women’s squad) and this is where I believe the time for radical thinking has to come.
What better inspiration for people at the bottom of the ladder than to spend time with people at the top. At a time when England has gone professional in its sevens set up why not go professional as a 15’s side and contract the players to not only help them stay at their physical peak but also to have them as a resource to grow the game of rugby. Involve them in local coaching workshops for women, bringing clubs together and encouraging people to get involved. This has a knock on effect. When England women play their games, the crowd is made up of people who mainly have a connection to the players be it old clubs, current clubs, family and friends. Increase the connection and you increase the crowds.
There should be 15 aside leagues for teams that can fulfil these games. In local areas, clubs should play on alternate weeks enabling them to share players and resources over the games. 12 aside leagues should be put in place to make sure people are still playing when they are with sides that can’t get 15 players. This helps the game 2 fold, firstly it means less games get called off and secondly teams in those leagues will at least know the numbers they will be playing on a Sunday. Currently you train for a 15 aside game and find when you arrive its 12 aside and there is no front row. My team have travelled 4 hours to games this year with 20 players and found teams with only 10 players at the other end. This means that the already difficult substitution system is even harder to deal with. The reason I pick 12 aside as opposed to 10’s or 7’s is this means we keep pushing rugby as a game which includes all types of people.
Monthly county or regional coaching sessions which encourage the best coaches to get involved, because let’s not beat around the bush, there is bags of passion and commitment in the coaching at grassroots of the women’s game. However there is a real lack of quality and nothing is more discouraging to players than poor coaching. The main problem for this is that many clubs don’t see the women’s team as an integral part of their club but have a women’s team as a box ticking exercise. The coaching as a result tends to fall to whoever first puts their hand up or who has it forced up.
My opinion is simple; we need a big investment in the game for women. The RFU should be leading the way and setting an example to the world in making proper investments. Everyone who argues says the investment is wasted as there is no commercial desire for it. There is a desire but it isn’t that big at the moment, invest and grow it, promote it in a sustainable way and the desire will grow. The commercial interest will grow and then the investment will start to pay itself back. With more women we bring into the game the bigger the revenue, a greater interest in the elite game and a strategy to grow the game at all levels. There is no negative side to that but continuing to deny there are real problems in the women’s game will lead to a sticking plaster solution to a real problem.