The double-header here means playing a women’s match either before or after a men’s match on the same ground. They have been warmly welcomed by most experienced women administrators and players. They benefit by introducing women’s rugby to enthusiasts who might otherwise hold it in low regard or have no opinion about it at all.
The ideal – still, sadly, to be placed far into the future – is that all women’s matches would stand alone and attract equally large attendances. Gates are increasing everywhere, helped by increased TV coverage and live-streaming, but they lag far behind the men’s game. Until that day dawns, let us accept that the double-header is an asset whenever it can be arranged.
The question is: before or after?
Anyone who has arrived a shade late at Twickenham to see the Red Roses take on international opposition after the end of the men’s match, will have experienced uncomfortable sensations: having to fight their way through huge crowds returning to Twickenham station; then, once inside the stadium, fighting even harder to force their way through throngs of spectators; chatting, singing, dancing and drinking, as loud music blares out under the stands to attract the largest audience possible.
What is far more disheartening is to see hundreds (or thousands) of women and girls trooping out of the stadium as the women’s match kicks off, the very people the game is catering for.
This happened last season on 25 November as the Red Roses played their third match against Canada. 82000 dissolved into 12000 watchers, but vast numbers stayed just outside the seating areas to carouse the night away. The overhead cameras showing the England-Canada game were totally ignored.
Contrast the sequence when the woman’s match is played first. Instead of having thousands of people drifting out of the stadium as the players enter, they experience an ever-growing number of spectators, many of whom may well be viewing the women’s game for the first time. This surely is the preferable option. A prime example occurred at the final match of the Red Roses’ tour of New Zealand in June 2017. Their third match, the big one, was against the Black Ferns at Porirua as a curtain-raiser to the B&I Lions game against the Maori All Blacks. Up to half-time it was possible to pick out familiar faces on the screen, relatives of the players who had come out to support them. By the end of the game, they were hidden in a vast sea of humanity, many sporting the colours of the Lions.
Was it pure coincidence that that game figured amongst the very greatest the Red Roses have ever produced (a win 29-21)?
Surely the best way forward would be to ensure that any double-headers planned for the future should operate that way round. Gone are the days when the groundsman would object to having his sacred turf ploughed up before the Big Match takes place under the stern gaze of the TV cameras. Psychologically, it must be far better for players to have an ever-increasing audience, not the reverse.
The RFU needs to turn its thoughts to solving the logistical dilemmas these games present.
It would also help if they took it as their responsibility to ensure they provide a proper programme for all women’s internationals, unlike last year.
Lead photo shows Red Roses reaction to beating New Zealand in June 2017.