Last Word on Rugby, by Fiona Thomas.
This September will see the relaunch of ‘Inner Warrior’ camps – a nationwide campaign by England Rugby to encourage more girls and women to pick up a rugby ball and play the game. But this initiative is taking place against a controversial backdrop – the termination of England Women’s professional contracts, which has stirred growing demands for equality at the top of the women’s game.
Last Word on Rugby takes a look at whether the ‘Inner Warrior’ campaign – a positive message, embedded in the heart of English grassroots rugby – whether this is the only viable option to keep pushing the women’s game forward in England.
2017 wasn’t the fairy tale ending that the Red Roses expected. Relinquishing their Rugby World Cup title in a heroic, valiant fashion wasn’t meant to be part of the script. Yet sport’s unpredictable nature has once again run its course. Here we are – over a week after New Zealand won their fifth world cup title – digesting not what went wrong for the Red Roses, but more importantly ‘what must be righted’.
As the first and only professional team in this summer’s tournament, these thorny examinations become pricklier after the Simon Middleton’s outfit were overpowered in the Cup final. Beaten by a side whose players juggle their rugby commitments, with their day jobs away from the pitch. The outcome of last week’s final defied England Rugby’s script, yet it is one that Emily Scarratt and her teammates accepted with heavy hearts as they trudged off the pitch.
Later, speaking to the media at the Kingspan Stadium in Belfast, their robotic words were perceptibly tinged with resilience, determination and desperation.
“We have to make sure that we push on from this and the unions push on from this and everyone grasps hold of it and this keeps getting driven and it doesn’t drop off until the next World Cup when it spikes again,” said England’s fly-half Emily Scarratt, gracious yet defiant in defeat.
“That is the challenge; it is not something we are totally in control of, it’s the people behind the desks doing the posh jobs.”
Could Scarratt have been indirectly referring to one of the hot-topics of women’s rugby over the past few months? The poorly timed announcement prior to the World Cup, that contracts would lapse, and not be renewed.
England’s professional contracts have already been discussed at length this summer. Most will feel the disappointment in Scarrett’s comments. The RFU would not be renewing the XV’s contracts, to instead focus on fine-tuning the sevens program, ahead of the Gold Coast Commonwealth Games and Rugby World Cup Sevens next year.
Over a week since that pulsating finale, England Rugby; despite assuring that all players who won’t be moving onto the sevens program will be “looked after” have stayed true to their word.
2017: A Year of Commitment to Women’s Rugby?
“England Rugby has demonstrated its commitment to the women’s game,” hummed Chief Executive Ian Ritchie last October, when the RFU officially unveiled the ‘Red Roses’ as the official identity for England Women’s team.
But the level of commitment to the women’s game in this country – and how such commitment has been demonstrated – remains open to criticism when drawing comparisons with the men’s game.
Eddie Jones’ men’s squad receive payment of £22,000 per game for turning out in a white jersey. While the women are bereft of such sums of money per match, with their full-time contracts – rumoured to be £18,000 – payment for games surely has to happen in the future.
Remuneration aside, after the Cup final last week, Brian Moore – who has been a tremendous servant to the coverage of the women’s game over the past fortnight – was one of the first to indirectly challenge the RFU’s ‘commitment’ to the women’s game. One which seems to have backfired.
Thought it was wrong for the England Women’s rugby to concentrate on 7s after last world cup – even more certain it’s a mistake this time.
— Brian Moore (@brianmoore666) August 26, 2017
This isn’t the first controversy in the women’s game this year; the untimely revelation during this years’ Six Nations that Lichfield Ladies, one of the England’s top elite female sides, would be excluded from the new elite Super Rugby national competition.
Across the country, rugby communities are wondering ‘what are the people behind the big desks, doing the posh jobs are actually doing?’.
RFU Developing Inner Warrior Camps for Women’s Rugby
In truth, they are doing something – more in fact than any other nation in the world. This month will see ‘Inner Warrior’ camps re-launched across the country. Organized training sessions held at women’s rugby grounds, to baptize new players into the sport and evangelize the women’s game. This demographic has seen player numbers nearly double since England’s World Cup triumph in 2014.
TOMORROW we host our #InnerWarrior taster session! The more the merrier, sign up here ➡️ https://t.co/DlkVf9cwqk #TeamNuns #rdg #rdguk pic.twitter.com/az19tRqQHA
— Abbey Ladies RFC (@AbbeyRFCLadies) September 1, 2017
The level of commitment to the Red Roses is there to be seen outwardly, but the stark imbalance between prioritising the sevens game over the XV’s game more recently, has crippled the latter.
“Our goal is to have full-time contracts for XV’s and sevens players but we haven’t got there yet in terms of money available to fund them,” the RFU’s director of professional rugby Nigel Melville, has infamously reiterated.
As a governing body, the RFU made a record-breaking profit of over £400m last year, overtaking the FA as the richest sports governing body in the UK. When, then Mr Melville, will this goal be achieved? When will the RFU actually get there? Why is women’s rugby taking a back seat?
Red Roses Contract Termination an Unfair Blow
According to those in the posh jobs behind the desks, the women’s game is ‘cyclical’. This is the adjective England Rugby have chosen to justify their termination of the Red Roses’ contracts by. That action has attracted widespread criticism, from MPs Tonia Antoniazzi and Barbara Keeley. Having just staged the eighth world cup since its inception in Dublin and Belfast, along with the Six Nations, cyclical might have as well been referring to a woman’s menstrual cycle–you’d be none the wiser.
Another huge blow for women with contracts being slashed by England RFU @ScrumQueens https://t.co/0MYIJFjIEM
— Tonia Antoniazzi MP (@ToniaAntoniazzi) July 23, 2017
2017 won’t just be remembered for what has just been the most successful World Cup tournament in the history of women’s rugby. From an English perspective at least – not to mention the outspoken Ruth O’Reilly on her take on Ireland’s home soil failure. Some say ‘2017 will be recalled as the year when women’s rugby finally found its voice’ among rugby players, athletes and politicians.
A voice that has cried out for equality and shrieked in dismay by the omnipotent, oligarchy that has failed England’s players with its ‘glorious blueprint’ for World Cup success.
Wow. No holding back from Irish prop Ruth O’Reilly (just retired) on the problems in the Irish set up. Brave, honest, pretty explosive. https://t.co/ssLD15TUBr
— Scrumqueens #wrugby (@ScrumQueens) August 26, 2017
Yet – and there is a big yet – England Rugby cannot entirely be maligned for their unwavering commitment in their preaching of women’s rugby on the national and international stage. They have done something. In fact, they have done a lot.
Other rugby governing bodies might eye England’s novel status at this year’s World Cup. A group named in an amateur rugby tournament, that had shined briefly in a new, semi-professional world of women’s XV’s rugby, only to have the carpet pulled from under their feet. While the politics behind the scenes seemed contrary to high performance, the Red Roses blossomed in this tournament and did everything asked of them.
Like the main picture at top of page, Sarah Hunter and her team are an inspiration for young women to show their Inner Warrior. But one hopes, without the financial backing once available, that these women can continue to shine less supported than they had been, only six months before.
Women’s Rugby Now Back to the Drawing Board for RFU
The criticisms will always be there. This conversation is imperative though if the women’s game is to be grown, valued and pushed forward as Scarratt has duly demanded. The RFU’s blueprint for XV’s glory might have come up short against the best rugby nation on the planet, then yes it did not reach it’s objective. And now it is back to the drawing board.
Interestingly, speaking of boards, the RFU in March refused to follow the FA this year, in making 30 per cent of it’s board female. Their on-field adversary New Zealand have [in Dr Farah Palmer] so our advice is for the RFU to reassess and brainstorm their long term plan, toward a happier outcome for women’s rugby.
For now though, women, girls, the recommendation from the England team and from Last Word on Rugby is to ‘go out to those Inner Warrior camps and enjoy yourselves’.
You can implement change from the bottom, because it will be slow coming from the top.
Show the top of the pyramid that you have a voice too. You are the Inner Warrior, and you love our game of Rugby.
“Main photo credit”
Embed from Getty Images