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Jeff Probyn: I’m puzzled why women’s game needs a World Cup

With the women’s World Cup starting this week, hope is the excitement that the tournament will generate could be great for the women’s game, if it can manage to attract a worthwhile audience.

There will be many who will watch out of curiosity just to see how the matches are played and also whether or not the spectacle can be measured against the professional men’s game.

Personally, I will be taking the chance to see the highlights on terrestrial TV every Sunday in the knowledge that I won’t be seeing the ‘bash it up’ style of play that has infected the men’s Premiership for the last few years.

As a game, I think the women play a better style of rugby than the men and are closer to the true ethos of the game, with more running and passing and more ball skills on show than in many of the men’s games.

Like all World Cups, this should be a chance to showcase the sport, but somehow I feel this is not the case as far as women’s rugby is concerned and as much as I hate to say it, there are fewer reasons to hold a women’s World Cup than the men’s.

In the men’s game, a World Cup, despite having 20 teams, will in all probability be won by one of five teams. The strain of professionalism is beginning to change that to possibly one of three, as the impact of professionalism tends to weaken the ‘have nots’ and lowers standards.

The women have only 12 teams but are even less competitive, with New Zealand (four wins) and England (two) dominating World Cups and America the only team to spoil their clean sweep by winning the inaugural tournament. Defending champions England, the only fully professional team, are clear favourites having won the last Six Nations with a Grand Slam.

As an England fan, much as I am happy that England are favourites, I am still puzzled why the competition is taking place. The reality is, women’s rugby is still at a very early stage in its growth and is being forced down a road that is costing the whole game money, some would say just for equality.

There is no commercial sense in staging this World Cup with  tickets for the semi-finals day (all matches) and the finals day (three matches) costing a total of just £21. Compare that to the £243 per Test for the Lions and you get the feeling that women are being patronised.

For me, the price of the tickets is far too cheap, instead of encouraging support for what will be an enthralling competition, it has made it look like an amateur contest between poor teams desperate for an audience.

There are people who will argue that it’s not about money, it’s about playing the sport. As much I would like to agree, and although that is true for the players, the truth is that it is all about the money as World Rugby and their member Unions get government funding for promoting equal opportunity.

England is currently the country with the biggest playing population with just under 25,000 senior women followed surprisingly by Mexico who say they have 12,000 (but only 900 men) according to Wikipedia, with USA, not surprisingly, next with around 11,800.

With the RFU getting over £20 million a year from Sport England for participation numbers, it is no wonder they have focussed on the virtually untapped market of women’s rugby to try and increase participation.

Using the money to encourage more clubs to start women sections, and provide the extra facilities required, should help grassroots clubs improve their finances by replacing some of the lost lower teams (3rds, 4ths, 5ths etc.) with new women’s teams.

The latest idea by the RFU is to create a new ‘super league’ hoping it will increase the profile of the female game and the RFU are investing millions to try and make it work. It is also likely the RFU will try to agree with PRL that any future TV deals should include a clause to show the women’s game as a free add-on.

Sadly, as yet there is not a big enough audience for the women’s club game to warrant a TV deal in its own right – but it is hoped the extra exposure will increase sponsorship revenue and help the growth become self-funding.

I am not sure women’s rugby is ready for the super league, particularly as it has been manipulated to be a geographical league rather than picked on merit.

Last season’s Premiership runners up, Lichfield Ladies, a club with an impressive history in the women’s game, was an obvious choice for the new league but missed out on selection.

Lichfield seem to have accepted that  they will lose their England stars to clubs accepted for super league and will have no chance of promotion for years. That suggests the RFU may have included the clause in the PRL contract that says selection for England can only come from the Premiership in the women’s game.

Restriction is the last thing the women’s game needs right now, particularly if, as we are hoping, they win that World Cup.

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