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Women’s rugby commentary: there is no better time for a paradigm shift

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Photo by Jan Kruger - RFU/The RFU Collection via Getty Imagesges

8.7 million rugby fans tuned into Scotland deservedly beating England at Twickenham for the first time in 38 years on Saturday. Little did they know, there was another upset playing out in Devon as Exeter Chiefs Women secured their fourth win on the bounce, seeing off Harlequins in a nail-biting battle. A modest 1600 viewers tuned in to the game, which boasted a number of future England stars giving Simon Middleton something to think about in preparation for his Six Nations and World Cup campaigns. 2021 could be the year for women’s rugby.

Born into a rugby mad family, I grew up watching my dad play at Old Albanians RFC. As he edged closer to retirement, he stayed on the pitch at half time to give me and my brother some high catches and a chance to practice our passing and kicking. After the game, you would either find me drinking the dregs of beer on the tables or singing the club song, sat on the bar. It was a male rich environment. More often than not, the only women in the clubhouse the whole weekend were either running the bar, cooking the food, or picking the kids up.

Times have changed. Not only is there a place for women’s rugby in the clubhouse, there is a place for women’s rugby across the world. I am proud to say that I am a fan of women’s rugby, a convert; the views of yesteryear are outdated. Even better, recent successes have proved that women’s rugby is firmly on the map and is here to stay.

Increasingly inspired by the impact many are having in promoting rugby to demographics that otherwise may not have had an opportunity to play (see Vitality Grassroots Sportswomen of the Year 2020, Zainab Alema, for example) it is also great to see the likes of Maggie Alphonsi, Nolli Waterman and Kat Merchant on our screens as pundits. There is great hope for the future generations of Red Roses.

There has, however, been one reoccurring theme throughout the increasing exposure that has greatly stunted the game’s growth – the commentary.

I have been fortunate to see, first-hand, the dedication and commitment made by players at Premier 15s and International level. There is nothing lesser about what these athletes put themselves through to achieve their goals in comparison to the men’s game. In fact, there is a whole lot more as the large majority have to balance full-time jobs, studying for degrees or in some examples, leading the nations efforts in combating COVID-19. These rugby players deserve far more respect, at all levels.

Yet, whilst watching and listening to the matches, comments regarding the sport are unappreciative and condescending. Even worse, these comments are echoed through the fan base. Despite the highly qualified pundits providing their expert insight, this shift must happen now, if the followership is going to continue to grow as it should.

Whilst we have been fortunate to have a steady stream of rugby to watch over the winter months, the Allianz Premier 15s games tend to have a similar issue.

Exeter have caused two huge upsets, and in doing so inflicting Saracens’ first loss since October 2018 last week. In a game that looked like it could come down to the wire, Saracens unleashed England International Poppy Cleall from the bench. In a pivotal moment in the game when Saracens had the upper hand and momentum, they were awarded penalty advantage and a ‘free play’. Cleall, typically a second row or back row forward, kicked the ball away in anticipation of being awarded the subsequent penalty. Commentary followed, ‘we’ll let her off that one’. Holly Aitchison missed touch, Exeter were on the front foot and the game shifted into their hands. Should Cleall have been let off? Or had she kicked the game away?

As we wait for the Red Roses to play their Six Nations Competition in April – out of the shadows of the men’s tournament – last Autumn, 1.5 million viewers tuned in to watch the scintillating two-match series between England and France. One game displayed a dominant England side become top on the world rankings followed by an astonishing comeback against a passionate French team at the Home of Rugby a week later.

There was also a defining moment during the Red Rose’s Grand Slam Six Nations win against Italy last season. Thirty-three minutes in, England were dominating. With penalty advantage, inside centre Amber Reed broke through the Italian defence on the attacking 22m line and offloaded to scrum-half Claudia MacDonald, only for the opportunity to go begging. Clearly devastated, MacDonald trudged back, hands on head.

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The commentary that followed completely under-valued the sport. “She’s smiling, that’s alright” and “She knows she had the advantage, so it’s fine”. No. It was a clear error. I am sure the first person to say she should have done better, is the England half-back herself.

Echo a similar situation in men’s rugby. Those that watched the Six Nations this weekend saw two fly-halves get a slating for missing two rather large opportunities. With Billy Burns missing touch in the final play of Wales vs Ireland and ruining a last gasp chance to steal the game, and Owen Farrell neglecting a 4 man overlap by kicking the ball down Stuart Hogg’s throat, it seems that in the women’s game the commentary is far more forgiving. This should not be the case, particularly whilst the most passionate women’s rugby advocates are pushing hard for equality. The sympathetic commentary should be reserved for the parents on the sidelines of the grassroots level; the future Red Roses who play on a Sunday morning at their local club.

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A missed tackle whilst watching the Red Roses would be met with a comment like ‘that was a good effort to try make that tackle’. It happens more often than not. A similar scenario in the men’s game would draw some deep analysis of what that missed tackle means for the team. As a consequence, the supporters deem these belittling comments acceptable and they are echoed throughout the rugby circles.

Another comparison worth making is one we often hear regarding the styles of play – northern vs southern hemisphere – but the commentary style is noticeably different too. We should learn from some of the Farah Palmer Cup commentary. There is a great deal more conviction and passion, no differentiation between what you’d see and hear in a Mitre 10 Cup game. Even better, you won’t find many negative comments regarding the competition in their resident country either. A coincidence? Perhaps not.

Now, with the buildup to the busy calendar of rugby in 2021, our Red Roses deserve greater appreciation. There is no better place to start than with the Premier 15s and the way we, from fans to commentators alike, observe and articulate our views on the analysis of the game.

If the women’s game is to be taken seriously, then the players cannot be treated differently. Now more than ever, that has to begin with how we make comment about it.

Rugby World Cup

Women’s Rugby World Cup looks set to be postponed.

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World Rugby has made the difficult decision to recommend the postponement of Rugby World Cup 2021, scheduled to be hosted in New Zealand between 18 September-16 October, until next year. The recommendation will be considered by the Rugby World Cup Board and World Rugby Executive Committee on 8 and 9 March respectively.Play Video

While appreciating the recommendation is extremely disappointing for teams and fans, it has their interests at heart, and gives the tournament the best opportunity to be all it can be for them, all New Zealanders and the global rugby family.

The recommendation is based on the evolution of the uncertain and challenging global COVID-19 landscape. It has become clear in recent discussions with key partners including New Zealand Rugby, the New Zealand Government and participating unions, that, given the scale of the event and the COVID-19-related uncertainties, it is just not possible to deliver the environment for all teams to be the best that they can be on the sport’s greatest stage.  

The challenges include uncertainty and the ability for teams to prepare adequately for a Rugby World Cup tournament both before and on arrival in New Zealand, and challenging global travel restrictions. 

World Rugby can assure teams, New Zealanders and the global rugby family that the recommendation to postpone the tournament will help to ensure that Rugby World Cup 2021 will be all it can be next year for players, fans and the rugby family – one of the great Rugby World Cups.

Further updates will be issued following the Rugby World Cup Board and World Rugby Executive Committee meetings next week.  

Statement Ends.

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Womens Rugby

Former Irish Captain takes up role with South Africa Rugby

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SA Rugby has re-focused its approach to women’s rugby as a major strategic objective for the organisation, Jurie Roux, CEO, said on Thursday.

The Springbok Women will take part in the Rugby World Cup in New Zealand in September and will do so with the support of SA Rugby’s first High Performance Manager for Women’s Rugby.

Roux announced that former Ireland captain, Lynne Cantwell, had been lured to South Africa to fill the role in a departmental rejigging.

“If we’re serious about women’s rugby – and we are – we had to make a serious appointment, and we have,” said Roux.

“Lynne comes on board at a time when we have committed to growing the game amongst women – a directive from World Rugby and a South African national imperative – and she will work closely with Rassie Erasmus (Director of Rugby), Charles Wessels (GM: Rugby) and Springbok Women’s head coach Stanley Raubenheimer to improve the women’s game in South Africa.”

Cantwell, who served as an Executive Committee Board member with Sport Ireland, said: “Globally women’s rugby has been recognised as the strategic growth area for the game where it is experiencing rapid transformation as a result of World Rugby’s focus.

“At SA Rugby, we are committed to progress but recognize the work that needs to be done to repair and rebuild in order to move forward.

“I think the women’s rugby community in South Africa has a unique identity and strength, with a bright future. I look forward to working with everyone to design an environment that allows South African women’s talent to thrive,” she added.

Lynne Cantwell is SA Rugby’s new Women’s Rugby High Performance Manager

Cantwell holds a degree in Sports and Exercise Science from the University of Limerick in Ireland and has a Masters in Physiotherapy from Southampton University in England. The former outside centre, who amassed 86 Test caps for Ireland, said joining SA Rugby affords her a number of exciting challenges.

“I am excited and naturally a bit nervous about the big move over to South Africa for me and my family, but I feel incredibly comforted by the warm welcome I have been given internally at SA Rugby, by the players and management, and the provincial CEOs,” said Cantwell.

“I am intensely motivated to progress women’s rugby and women’s involvement in rugby, and the backing a leadership level from Jurie, Rassie and Charles was central to my decision to join the team.”

Erasmus said the role and appointment was made after a critical re-evaluation of SA Rugby’s approach to women’s rugby.

“We have a rugby department and had a manager for women’s rugby, and we had done as much as we knew but we realised we lacked expertise and experience in the women’s high performance area,” said Erasmus.

“We re-focused our approach and we’re very glad and excited to be able to bring someone with Lynne’s experience and skills into the South African environment.

“We’re realistic about the fact that the short-term impact might not be all that obvious in results, but I have no doubt that the skills transfer and long-term impact will be a massive benefit to women’s rugby in South Africa.”

Press Release from Springboks Rugby

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Womens Rugby

SIX NATIONS RUGBY ANNOUNCES NEW DATES FOR 2021 WOMEN’S & U20S CHAMPIONSHIPS

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Six Nations Rugby Limited has today announced new dates for the rescheduled 2021 Women’s and U20s Six Nations Championships. The 2021 Women’s championship will take place in April with the U20s championship taking place in June and July.

Today’s announcement comes following the recommendation of a working group specifically tasked to examine various rescheduling options after the decision was taken on January 12th to postpone both championships due to the ongoing challenges presented by COVID-19.

Starting on the weekend of 3rd/4th April and finishing on 24th April, this year’s Women’s Championship will see a new and condensed format similar to that of the recent Autumn Nations Cup, culminating in a grand final weekend to crown the Six Nations Champions 2021. The format will comprise of two pools of three teams with each team playing one home and one away fixture. Once the pool round matches are complete, teams will face off against the opposing ranked team from the other pool in the play-offs matches, i.e. 1st place Pool A v 1st place Pool B. The detailed fixture dates, venues and kick off times will be announced in due course.

Six Nations Rugby Limited also confirmed today its intentions for the 2021 U20s championship to take place across June and July in the same format as originally planned, but through a condensed 3-week period. This plan will ensure all 6 Nations provide appropriate experience of such tournaments for the 2021 U20 generation. The tournament is expected to start on June 19th 2021 and further planning work is required to finalise details on fixtures, venues and kick off times which will be shared in due course.

Ben Morel, CEO of Six Nations Rugby commented, “We are delighted to make this announcement today and confirm new plans for our Women’s and U20s championships. The promotion and development of rugby at all levels is a key strategic priority for Six Nations. We see huge opportunity for growth in the women’s game in particular and feel it will benefit hugely from having its own specific window and being firmly placed in the limelight.”

“Our priority has always been to deliver two outstanding tournaments but equally ensuring both competitions can be played safely, taking every consideration for player welfare. A significant challenge we faced in rescheduling the Women’s tournament was the limited available window due to World Cup Qualifiers, domestic leagues, rest periods and World Cup preparations for qualified teams. Following consultation with our unions and federations as well as other key stakeholders, it was agreed that April would be the best window in which to stage the championship.

“The U20 Six Nations Championship is also a hugely important competition in terms of player development and for those representing their country at this level it is a major milestone in any career. We look forward to announcing fixture details for the U20’s in due course.”

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