Source: Bruce Perkins

Women’s Sport – last in the Queue again?

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Three Months since the Last International

It’s exactly three months since the England-Wales 6 Nations match took place at Twickenham Stoop in Round Four. It feels like three years or even three decades. That was the end of the line.

How quickly we have had to adjust to abnormal times. After Round Three I wrote: ‘We thought the events of a fortnight ago were pretty extreme (snowstorms), but the breaking news from Milan put them firmly in perspective…the coronavirus menace cost two lives in the locality.’

Those two deaths seemed appalling at the time. They still do. But since then we have had to adjust to hundreds of thousands more around the world.

Is Women’s Sport losing out?

Criticism is mounting about the way women’s sport is lagging far behind men’s as they struggle to come to life again. The authorities in cricket, football, hockey, netball and rugby have all had the finger of blame pointed at them. They have no precedents to guide them. If they look to higher authority, it is equally unsure of itself. In England the next level up is Sport England. Their mission statement reads: ‘We’re building a nation where everyone, everywhere feels able to get active in a way that’s right for them.’ That of course dates back to pre-Covid. Their aim now is to keep everyone as active as possible.

They in turn are answerable to the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport. This many-headed beast can take advice from a host of interested parties, but it must heed the line taken by its boss, central government. That government keeps reminding us that it follows best medical advice. Unfortunately that advice is divided. As it cautiously allows certain sports to resume, loud warnings come in from scientific experts that this is most unwise. No wonder our sporting bodies find it hard to hand on clear instructions.

Each of those five sports has its own characteristics; for example only netball is practised indoors. The degree of personal contact varies enormously too. The first game of cricket has been played in the British Isles, in Guernsey at the end of May. Players turned up already changed; there were no high-fives, and everyone enjoyed themselves. The rest of us turned green with envy. But the other sports, especially rugby, involve encounters of a closer kind.

As efforts are made to plan future calendars, the authorities have to act with their eyes masked. There are so many unknowns: When can we start again? Can all the game’s rules be enforced straightaway? Will the players be fit enough? That is a particular worry in rugby where estimates of the time needed to regain match fitness range across several weeks; some experts say six, others ten. That immediately sets back any possible restart date.

New Zealand has taken the lead. With the nation now officially at Level One on the Covid ladder, women’s rugby is scheduled to restart in August. That allows them more time to return to full-bore rugby than the rest of the world. And their Sevens players can join in – the end of the World Series leaves them free.

Latest Developments on the England Club Front

England rugby is still trying to escape total lockdown. It has hindered the efforts of Exeter Chiefs and Sale Sharks to construct new teams (almost) from scratch. On 2 June Sale announced six new signings: Alicia Calton, Beth Stafford, Carys Hall, Freya Hellin, Georgie Perris-Redding and Scarlett Fielding. Then four days later two young Scottish internationals, Nicola Howat (lock) and Lucy Winter (flanker), both from Edinburgh University.

As feared, Sale’s sources of incomers were limited. Those first six names all come from Waterloo, though Perris-Redding spent last season with the Warriors.

Once more we are left wondering whether ex-Waterloo players and Scottish bench players will provide enough strength keep Sale’s newly launched ship afloat.

As for the Chiefs, it’s hard to find a separate women’s twitter account; does one exist? And there’s no visible mention of a women’s section on their main website. They were hoping to make a number of signings from abroad, so they may not be wanting a prompt restart to the new season.

There was a slight possibility of amalgamations as the new-look Premier 15s took shape. They have happened, but not as I feared they might (for a ridiculous example, Quins and Sarries merging). But there have been a few sensible tie-ups: Gloucester-Hartpury have linked with Cheltenham, a flourishing club a few miles to the east of Hartpury. Loughborough Lightning have just announced a similar link to Loughborough Town RFC. Both moves help to improve pathways and give people more options for playing meaningful rugby. Universities from Durham in the north to Exeter in the south-west can now benefit from a close relationship with elite clubs. It’s in the best interests of women’s rugby for these to be extended as far as possible.