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 I am proud to say that I am a fan of women’s rugby, a convert; the views of yesteryear are outdated.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.Embed from Getty Images
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.Embed from Getty Images
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.
Match schedule and match officials confirmed for Rugby World Cup 2021 Europe Qualifier
World Rugby has confirmed the match schedule and match officials for the Rugby World Cup 2021 Europe qualifier, which will be hosted in Parma’s Stadio Sergio Lanfranchi on 13, 19 and 25 September, 2021.
Scotland kick-off their qualification campaign against Italy on Monday 13 September (kick-off 2pm BST / 3pm local time), before facing Spain on Sunday 19 September (kick-off 5pm BST / 6pm local time). Scotland’s final match of the tournament will see them take on Ireland on Saturday 25 September (kick-off 5pm BST / 6pm local time).
The top team will secure a spot in Pool B at Rugby World Cup 2021, playing in 2022, and the runner-up will enter the Final Qualification Tournament.
An experienced team of match officials have been appointed for the tournament, including Aurelie Groizeleau (FFR), Nikki O´Donnell (RFU), Hollie Davidson (SRU), Clara Munarini (FIR), Maria Beatrice Benvenuti (FIR) and Maria Pacifico (FIR), alongside Television Match Officials Andrea Piardi, Gianluca Gnecchi and Stefano Penne (all FIR).
The opening match day will see Aurelie Groizeleau take charge of Scotland’s meeting with hosts Italy at 15:00 local time, before Nikki O´Donnell oversees Spain against Ireland at 18:00, the first test match between the sides since May 2008.
Hollie Davidson and Aurelie Groizeleau will take charge of day two matches when Italy face Ireland at 15:00, followed by Spain against Scotland at 18:00, respectively. Italy’s only victory in their last 18 meetings with Ireland came at the Stadio Sergio Lanfranchi in February 2019, winning their last meeting on Italian soil 29-27.
While, Hollie Davidson and Clara Munarini will oversee the final match day when hosts Italy face Spain at 15:00, followed by Ireland v Scotland at 18:00 in their first meeting since February 2020. Italy and Spain have not met since Rugby World Cup 2017, Las Leonas winning their pool encounter 22-8 before the Azzurre avenged that defeat by winning their ninth place play-off 20-15.
Nine teams have already confirmed their place at Rugby World Cup 2021, including New Zealand, England, France, Canada, USA, Australia and Wales via their final ranking at Ireland 2017, and South Africa and Fiji who came through the Africa and Oceania regional qualification tournaments respectively.
Rugby World Cup 2021 Tournament Director Alison Hughes said: “We are delighted to confirm the match schedule and a highly qualified team of match officials for what promises to be three exciting and hotly contested matchdays in the Europe Qualifier as all four participating teams will be aiming to claim the prize of a place at Rugby World Cup 2021 in New Zealand alongside the best women’s 15s teams in the world. We continue to work in close partnership with the hosts and all participating unions to ensure we deliver a safe and secure event and give the players the opportunity to showcase their talents on the pitch.”
Dates confirmed for Rugby World Cup 2021 Europe Qualifier
- RWC 2021 Europe Qualifier to be hosted by Italy on 13, 19 and 25 September, 2021
- Italy, Spain, Ireland and Scotland will compete for the Europe 1 place in RWC 2021 Pool B
- Runner up will progress to the Final Qualification Tournament
World Rugby has announced dates for the rescheduled Rugby World Cup 2021 Europe qualifier following the postponement of the tournament as a result of the ongoing global pandemic. The winner of the RWC 2021 Europe Qualifier will secure a place at Rugby World Cup 2021, playing in 2022, in New Zealand, which takes place between 8 October–12 November, 2022.
Nine teams have already booked their spot for Rugby World Cup 2021, including New Zealand, England, France, Canada, USA, Australia and Wales, who qualified through their final ranking at Ireland 2017, and South Africa and Fiji who qualified through the regional qualification tournaments.
This leaves just three places available – one each through the Europe and Asia qualifiers, with the 12th and final spot to be decided at the Final Qualification Tournament.
Following its postponement last year, Rugby World Cup 2021 Europe qualifying tournament will take place on 13, 19 and 25 September, 2021 in Parma’s Stadio “Sergio Lanfranchi”, Italy, home of the Zebre Rugby Club.
Hosts Italy will compete against Ireland, Scotland and the winners of Rugby Europe’s Women’s Championship 2020, Spain, in a round robin format. The top team will book a spot in Group B at Rugby World Cup 2021 and the runner up will enter the Final Qualification Tournament.
Rugby World Cup 2021 Tournament Director Alison Hughes, said: “We are pleased to be able to share the details of the rescheduled Rugby World Cup 2021 Europe qualifier. The global disruption caused by COVID-19 has been frustrating for all unions still within the pathway but we appreciate the patience and flexibility shown by our unions and their efforts to ensure the qualification process can be completed safely and fairly. Next year’s Rugby World Cup is shaping up to be a truly spectacular event and we can’t wait to see the world’s top women’s 15s players take the stage in New Zealand.”
Marzio Innocenti, FIR President, said:“Our successful bid for hosting the European RWC 2021 qualifier perfectly witnesses once more the Italian rugby resilience. We faced an unprecedented struggle over the last months, never keeping our heads down and being focused and questioning ourselves how to retake full control of our destiny, while keeping health and safety of each of our players and Clubs at the very core of our commitment. We developed world-class protocols and procedures, which World Rugby recognized in assigning to Italy the Rugby World Cup Qualifier which will entitle one European team to compete in New Zealand in 2022.
“As FIR President I can’t and won’t hide we’re extremely proud for hosting the event, a pride I want to share with every single Italian rugby player. I’d also want to thank the Emilia-Romagna Region, the Parma’s municipality, the Zebre and the local Clubs for immediately making themselves available to host, support and make this event the best possible one for the Teams.
“Our women built their international credibility over the years, earning respect from their opponents on the test arena and a brilliant place in the World Rugby ranking, boosting the growth of the Game in our Country and across the whole Italian sporting community. I do know how brilliant this bunch of women is, and how strong is the bond between the players and their coach Andrea Giandomenico: they will go on to the end in playing their chances to reach the qualification and represent our Country and our jersey later in 2022 in such an iconic rugby country, as I had the privilege to do when I skippered Italy at the 1987 inaugural Rugby World Cup. Shouldn’t it be the case, credit to the RWC Qualifier winner which will be however bringing a little piece of Italy to New Zealand with them. Maybe, the Final Qualification Tournament will give us a further chance. Go Azzurre!”
Full match schedule for the RWC 2021 Europe qualifier and details in relation to the Final Qualification Tournament will be announced at a later stage.
Scene set for super-charged Rugby World Cup as new dates in 2022 confirmed
- Matches will take place between 8 October–12 November, 2022 in Auckland and Whangārei
- RWC 2021 tournament window increases from 35 to 43 days (including 5 days ahead of first match)
- Match schedule prioritises player welfare with five-day minimum rest days
- Revamped format with all fixtures to be played on weekends with triple-header matches scheduled per day
- New Rugby World Cup 2021 brandmark unveiled, including bespoke te reo Māori version for tournament promotion in New Zealand
Rugby World Cup 2021 will feature increased rest periods for all teams following World Rugby’s confirmation of the revised tournament dates which will now see New Zealand host the tournament between 8 October-12 November, 2022.
With the ambition of super-charging the schedule for players, fans and the host nation, the tournament window, including preparation ahead of the first match, will be extended from 35 to 43 days resulting in all teams having a minimum of five rest days between matches. This aligns with the approach recently approved for the men’s competition.
The extension of the tournament window, also allows for a revamped tournament format that will see all matches take place on Saturdays and Sundays, with no overlap, meaning fans will not miss a moment of the first women’s edition of a Rugby World Cup to be hosted in the southern hemisphere.
With the tournament starting later in the year, players and fans will benefit from warmer weather and longer daylight hours. The pool phase will be played on the weekends of 8-9, 15-16 and 22-23 October, 2022 at Eden Park, Northlands Events Centre in Whangārei and Waitakere Stadium.
The quarter-finals will take place on 29-30 October followed by semi-finals on Saturday, 5 November. The bronze final and RWC 2021 final will be played on Saturday, 12 November, with Eden Park set to create history by becoming the first stadium to host both the men’s and women’s Rugby World Cup finals.
A detailed match schedule and broadcast timings will be announced at a later date.
In addition to the revised tournament dates, World Rugby has also unveiled new tournament brandmarks retaining reference to 2021, the year the tournament was originally intended to take place, while conveying to fans and audiences that the tournament will now be played in 2022. A bespoke te reo Māori version of the new brandmark has also been designed for tournament promotion in New Zealand. This reflects the importance of te reo as an official language of Aotearoa, New Zealand and to signify the desire to celebrate the unique Māori culture for all those connected with the tournament.
World Rugby Chairman Sir Bill Beaumont said: “We are fully committed to accelerating the women’s game at all levels and while the postponement was disappointing for everyone, it has provided the unique opportunity to review every aspect of the event to ensure it is the best it can be for the players, fans around the world and the wonderful and enthusiastic New Zealanders.
“Longer rest periods between matches for all teams is further commitment to delivering comprehensive player welfare standards at RWC 2021.
“I would like to thank all stakeholders for their support and open-minded approach to this process and we can now look forward to a truly spectacular Rugby World Cup 2021, playing in 2022.”
International Rugby Players appointee to the RWC Board, Melodie Robinson, said: “While it’s disappointing that the 2021 tournament had to be postponed, the positive is that we’ve been able to ensure the 2022 event and subsequent Rugby World Cups will have a minimum five-day turnaround for players.
“Just like the men’s tournament, this will hopefully help to level the playing field for all sides and see an increase in competitive matches.”
Rugby World Cup 2021 Tournament Director Michelle Hooper said: “We are delighted that together with World Rugby we have been able to further super-charge the women’s game here in New Zealand with the confirmation of the new dates in 2022 and the amendments to the tournament format. We are excited to be hosting Rugby World Cup here in Aotearoa, New Zealand.
“The momentum for women’s sport is continuously building and we look forward to demonstrating this to the world through the unstoppable energy that will be on display during Rugby World Cup in 2022. We can’t wait to welcome the world’s best women’s rugby players to our shores and share the Manaakitanga so intrinsically linked to our people and our place and rugby in Aotearoa, New Zealand with them and their fans.”
In a commitment to delivering an outstanding Rugby World Cup 2021, playing in 2022, earlier this year World Rugby announced a £2 million funding package to support a Rugby World Cup 2021 high performance preparation and competition programme for qualified teams and teams still competing in the qualification process.
The programme will focus on providing teams with additional monetary support to deliver additional team training camps and coordinating international competition to give them the greatest opportunity to be at their best in New Zealand next year. Further details will be announced at a later stage.
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