A brief glance around the world, then a closer look at matters European
In April 2019 Sir Bill Beaumont, Chairman of World Rugby (WR), commented on the new pathway to qualify for the next World Cup: “Last year we announced significant remodelling of the Women’s Rugby World Cup format to ensure that the competition continues to be as competitive as possible, while also continuing to engage fans worldwide.”
‘as competitive as possible’ means avoiding one-sided games, ‘continuing to engage fans worldwide’ means hoping for as wide a spread as possible of participating nations.
The trouble is, the two elements don’t match up. and that’s where WR has to tread a precarious path.
In a mostly amateur game the World Cup can’t afford to carry on too long, hence the retention of 12 competing teams, though many people would prefer a larger number (16 or even 20). The programme has been extended to 35 days, but WR hasn’t explained how it expects players to be able to take a minimum of five weeks off work.
But even within the bare dozen, it’s possible to get sizeable disparities in ability. WR is aware of the gap in class between the top 6 and bottom 6, hence its unwillingness to extend. Instead, it plans to increase the number of tests played across the world by non-elite nations.
With the advent of full-time professionalism in 2019 (in one country only), results threatened to become more extreme. In the 6 Nations England topped 50 points against four opponents and 40 against their strongest rivals.
That trend can be countered only if those five unions adopt a similar pattern of professionalism. And even then, the disparity in player-pool numbers makes it unlikely that the smaller countries will be able to compete on level terms.
There have been a few shocks in past WRWCs, none greater than Ireland’s defeat of New Zealand in 2014. For many countries, the target is to reach the knock-out stages; for others to get to the semis. Between 1991 and 2017 only four nations have reached the final: New Zealand, the USA, Canada and England – a pity that all of them are English-speaking.
There are encouraging signs. The number of test matches is growing, but funding remains a heavy burden. A third Oceania tournament took place in Fiji, the hosts claiming a strong win over all-comers.
During the past season both South Africa and Australia have shown a willingness to develop their 15s squad. But there are dozens of countries spread across five continents we would love to see competing at a higher level in the future.
The drawback is of course the attraction of Sevens and the dream of an Olympic medal.
Now here’s a claim:
No nation finds the split between 15s and 7s straightforward. Many would like to keep their two squads strictly separate, but which of them will be brave enough to retain that policy when the 2021 World Cup looms?
Here are five elite nations facing the same poser:
Can we (New Zealand) go without Portia Woodman, Kelly Brazier, Sarah Hirini?
Can we (Australia) go without Sharni Williams, Shannon Parry?
Can we (Canada) go without Magali Harvey, Karen Paquin?
Can we (England) go without Alex Matthews, Meg Jones, Ellie Kildunne?
Can we (France) go without Shannon Izar, Caroline Drouin, Marjorie Mayans?
Within the Six Nations family there were some encouraging signs. Far more autumn internationals were arranged. Wales, Italy, Scotland, Ireland (and Spain) all enjoyed inward visits. This is a major benefit to players and selectors alike in raising standards.
Attendances continue to rise. England claimed its first five-figure crowd, not before time. France still lies way ahead in this field, but all the other nations are attracting larger audiences.
And the media, in their varied guises, are taking a much greater interest in the game.
One remaining gap in the armoury is a European club championship, or at least more club match-ups. Time and money would have to be found, but the possibilities are mouth-watering.
Italy had their best finish ever. But to put things in perspective, they had a points difference of -13. They claimed that 2nd place by posting a fourth try against France to gain a vital extra point (16/15). France’s points difference was 89 better than Italy’s, but still 157 inferior to England’s. Italy couldn’t put Wales away (3-3), and squeezed home against Ireland by 2 points. Can they achieve more decisive results next year?
It would help their cause if they could play their home matches on surfaces conducive to fast-moving rugby.
Scotland: the latest news is highly encouraging. They have encouraged Philip Doyle, the former highly successful Head Coach of Ireland Women to take over the reins from the departing Shade Munro. If the players were sad to see Munro leave, they will be overjoyed to hear who his replacement is. Doyle has achievements on his CV possessed by few others: a Grand Slam for Ireland (2013) and an earth-shattering defeat of New Zealand at the 2014 World Cup, where they finished fourth. He (or rather the players he inspired) then gained a second 6 Nations title the following year.
He has little time available to place his mark on the Scottish squad before they face the qualifying stages of the next World Cup. But few people are better placed to achieve this feat.
It will be fascinating to see how much progress his new charges can make under his guidance. They missed the Irish World Cup after losing out to Spain. Their performances this season have shown how close they have come to winning without being able to do so. It is a sad truth that success breeds success. Doyle will have to find a cure for Scotland’s perennial lack of it.
There are talented players in the squad to help show the way.
Ireland is a land of missed opportunities. According to some of its most distinguished ex-players, the sooner they can get an effective pathway in place the better. For all the enthusiasm for the game, proper structures aren’t there to support player-development. It was revealing to hear a club coach admit the gap in quality between his leading AIL side and an English Tyrrells club.
Ireland’s run in the 6 Nations was a stark reminder of failings at the last World Cup, just one win in five.
Wales leaked 50+ totals against France and England, but the rest of the series was much more encouraging. Only a marginally forward pass prevented them from beating Italy; they struggled to beat Scotland away from home by two points, but their win against Ireland (24-5) put them in good heart for next year.
The exploits of their representatives in the Barbarians side that beat the USA 34-33 in Denver was a cause for great pride. Jasmine Joyce scored four remarkable tries, Alisha Butchers covered herself in glory and Elinor Snowsill allowed herself one of her party-tricks, the heel-kick over her head – not a ploy often seen in these disciplined days, but a total delight to the eye.
More and more of their leading players are plying their trade in England. Bristol, Worcester and Waterloo have been the main beneficiaries. Only when they can reach the same standards with their home clubs can the WRU feel it is fulfilling its obligations.
France: their season had the grandest of grand moments: a first-ever defeat of the Black Ferns. As it followed the 2018 Grand Slam, it seemed to portend a great future, but it didn’t quite work out that way. The loss to England was excusable, if not the margin, but the performance against Italy at the end of the campaign revealed a worrying lack of depth. With major figures missing through Sevens, injury or red cards, they were outplayed to the tune of 31-12.
This will cause some heavy thinking in Marcoussis.
It is a pattern England experienced after their World Cup triumph in 2014. The next year saw them reduced to fourth place.
The Top 16 results confirmed the predictions of the nay-sayers: the established clubs put their junior rivals to the sword time after time. Thank goodness one of the latter, FC Grenoble Amazones, has made it to the quarter-finals. The French season continues.
England: at national level this was a season of unbroken triumph and delight. The Six Nations was won decisively – too decisively for those of us who want to see keen competition in every match. But the Red Roses’ quality showed the game in its best light. Names like Sarah Bern and Jess Breach are gaining welcome street-cred.
It’s hard to single out special moments, there were many of them. But one sticks in the memory: Katy Daley-Maclean hoists a high cross-kick to the winger who had allegedly asked her never to submit her to this terror. Jess Breach soared into the air, caught the ball, turned and deposited over the line. This was the start of England’s domination of France – the game that mattered most to them this season.
At club level my pre-season advice to keep your money where it’s safe proved wise. Saracens carried all before them.
Harlequins will be devastated at failing to win the Tyrrells final for the second year running. Once again they let Sarries gain a decisive lead in the first half, only this time they were quite unable to build a late recovery. It was strange seeing their strongest elements – for example Abbie Scott’s line-out mastery and Jess Breach’s finishing powers – so restricted. Could the error-count really be due to big-match nerves? Saracens have strength all over the field, and on the bench. If club memberships remain more or less the same next season, a hat-trick will be theirs for the taking.
Let’s hope there aren’t too many retirements from the game. When Georgie Gulliver left the field at Northampton to prolonged applause she wasn’t the only one to have a tear in her eye. She has been a marvellous servant to club and country. Even up against England’s No 1 choice scrum-half, Leanne Riley, she showed why she had gained so many caps herself.
There were minor triumphs elsewhere, none more important than Worcester Valkyries’ first two wins near the end of their second campaign.
It’s disappointing that the overall picture remained broadly the same in the second year of the Tyrrells. Our one hope for 2019-20 must be for the bottom four clubs, Richmond, DMP Sharks, Firwood Waterloo and the Valkyries, to close the gap on the clubs above them in the table. This amounts to a daunting 16 points.
One way it can be achieved is through the transfer-market. There were nearly as many close-season transfers last summer as the previous year, when the Tyrrells was setting up. It is just possible that some arm-twisting will encourage players to switch clubs. An evening-up of playing strength can’t come too soon.
A heart-warming conclusion
The Barbarians’ latest adventure, mentioned above, showed rugby in its best light. Nine nations combined in the famous black-and-white-hooped shirts to spread the gospel of friendly but serious running rugby. Rob Cain will be heartened that his charges so nearly overcame the visitors, chock-full of multi-capped World Cup heroes.
This was the Baa-baas’ first venture against a national side. In June they will come face to face with a team that plays in white. That should be a contest to stir the blood.
We can spend the intervening period dreaming up a perfect Fifteen to down the English. The entire world is at our disposal. So, Woodman on one wing, Harvey on the other – no, Izar – no Blyde…