Source: Mike Lee - KLC fotos for World Rugby

England Women’s Rugby at the Crossroads

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Compare these two statements:

‘The growth and overall health of the women’s game are key and as a strategic priority we remain committed to investing in its future’ (CEO’s Review of the Year, RFU Annual report 2019)

and: ‘Women and Sevens hardest hit by RFU cuts’ (headline, The Guardian, 1 August 2020).

Even before the pandemic swept across the world, Bill Sweeney, the man who signed the first statement above, admitted difficult decisions would have to be taken to ensure financial security for English rugby. Even such an apparently trivial matter as the number of Six Nations games England played at Twickenham (alternately two and three) makes a huge difference to income. Sue Day, the Chief Financial Officer (as well as England Women’s record try-scorer), laid out the (pre-Covid-19) financial situation in great detail.

A copy of the review Sweeney ordered has been leaked; the fall-guys have been identified. An initial decision was taken to support profit-making elements, which essentially means the England men’s team.

So the sufferers are many and varied: community rugby, development officers, Twickenham staff, Sevens players and elite female players.

The Sevens players, male and female, have been shown the door. Their contracts have been scrapped.

Behind this appalling news we grope to understand the possible thinking at Twickenham Towers. The two squads who will represent Great Britain at the next Olympics might be funded by the British Olympics Association. This piece of wishful thinking flies in the face of past history. Till now the BOA has flatly refused to subsidise rugby, claiming it it is well able to look after itself. Not any more.

Will its heart be touched when it receives another request from Great Britain Rugby Sevens Limited, which represents the Rugby Football Union, the Welsh Rugby Union and the Scottish Rugby Union? Just as important, are its finances in a stronger position that of any other British sports authority? Either way, would other sports have to suffer to allow rugby its share of the funds?

There is a move to combine the English, Welsh and Scottish Sevens programmes into a single GB unit. It could then hope to receive funding from UK Sport which receives £125 million Government and Lottery funding. The three nations would be loath to lose their own identities; Wales and Scotland would fear being swamped by English representation, but financially it looks like the most profitable route forward.

How will Scott Forrest and his staff go about advancing the programme for GB Women’s 7s? His task was difficult enough before this axe fell. As he waits for the all-clear signal to restart, he has to discover where the money is coming from to cover all the expenses of such a major operation.

At all events, the future of the elite 7s squads of Scotland, Wales and England would have to survive on other sources of income. Neither the SRU nor the WRU is in a healthier position that the RFU. It is a bleak outlook for all the players. They have only the World Series and the Olympics to keep them occupied. Any further tournaments would involve them in greater expenditure.

By its very nature Sevens is an expensive business, flying a dozen players to far-flung destinations for events lasting a handful of days. A number of the Red Rose contracted players have insisted they will go on training towards Tokyo, come hell or high water.

That leaves the 28 contracted Red Roses 15s players wondering what their fate will be

One hopeful piece of logic insists there are still 30 contracts left over for them, even if they are to be reduced by 25% plus. The severity of that reduction depends on their original size. We must hope it doesn’t leave anybody penny-pinching. It risks taking the Red Roses straight back to the familiar world of amateurism, finding the time to fit in training and playing alongside a full day’s work.

So that might lead to all the contracted players retaining their status, with the possible addition of two other deserving souls. The management wielded the axe last time round; they might again. The calendar is still so uncertain: if the ninth RWC does take place as advertised in September-October next year, then the choices made this time round might go a long way to determining who represents England in New Zealand.

15s players in France and New Zealand have looked enviously at the lifestyle of their English counterparts enjoying full-time devotion to rugby. But the money paying them comes from the men’s game, and there are many other honest claims on its use.

For all the fine words in last year’s annual report backing the women’s game, they meant little when it came to the pinch. There are fears for the ongoing welfare of rugby in general and women’s rugby in particular. The reduction in support for community rugby would be felt country-wide. The recent surge in the number of girls inspired to ‘give rugby a try’ would be threatened.

Even worse, Sweeney fears the RFU’s financial straits won’t be eased for the next five years. There are no quick and easy solutions.

Here is a combined list of the Red Roses affected by this turn of events (Sevens players in italics):

Abbie Brown
Abbie Scott
Abi Burton
Alex Matthews
Amber Reed
Amy Cokayne
Amy Wilson Hardy
Beth Wilcock
Bryony Cleall
Cath O’Donnell
Celia Quansah
Claudia Macdonald
Deborah Fleming
Ellie Kildunne

Emily Scarratt
Emily Scott
Emma Uren
Hannah Botterman
Heather Fisher
Helena Rowland
Holly Aitchison

Jess Breach
Jodie Ounsley*
Katy Daley-Mclean
Kelly Smith
Lagi Tuima
Lark Davies
Leanne Riley
Lydia Thompson
Marlie Packer
Meg Jones
Natasha Hunt
Poppy Cleall
Sarah Beckett
Sarah Bern
Sarah Hunter
Sarah McKenna
Shaunagh Brown
Sydney Gregson
Vickii Cornborough
Vicky Fleetwood
Zoe Aldcroft
Zoe Harrison

*Jodie has switched back to 15s with Sale