At last World Rugby has reacted to widespread calls for adjustments to the structures of the Women’s World Cup. From 2025 sixteen nations will take part in the final stages, not the current twelve.
WR claims the move demonstrates its ‘commitment to accelerating development of the women’s game globally’.
It is another step in ‘its transformational women’s strategic plan 2017-25’.
The question is: why does it take eight years to implement this much needed decision?
Since it comes right at the end of that time-span, we might wonder how successful a global organisation can be in ‘accelerating’.
In it I tried to assess its successes and weaknesses. There was no doubt that correcting the faults was going to prove a hard task.
First, the number of players permitted in each squad; that has already been improved – 28 have now become 30.
Second, the length of the tournament; since the very first World Cup in 1991 it has gradually increased. The latest schedule offers 29 days from start to finish. In 2017 it was a mere 18.
This helps to ensure player welfare, leaving more days for recovery between rounds. But by the same stroke it increases the problem for amateur players – the vast majority of the total – of taking time off work. World Rugby may be generous to competing unions in helping them with funding, but it can hardly negotiate with the employers of around 330 players and any volunteer staff. The longer the tournament lasts, the harder it must be for the individual to explain her needs to a hard-pressed employer.
Is the World Rugby council reacting fast enough?
There have been loud calls from all sides for more nations to be permitted to enjoy the RWC finals. For all the glamour of the draw in Auckland on 20 November, there was less drama than the worldwide audience might have wished. With only twelve nations involved and four bands already determined, there were few permutations available. History tells us that the top seeds will proceed to the knock-out stages, with only an outside chance of an interloper from the lower reaches.
For the record, here are the semi-finalists 1991-2017: England 8 times; France 7; New Zealand 6; Canada and USA 4; Australia, Ireland and Wales 1.
WR is concerned about one-sided matches. But they will occur no matter how many or few nations take part. When sixteen competed in the 2002 WRWC in Spain, these were the highest scores: 53, 57, 62, 63, 77, 87 and 117. Needless to say that biggest total was posted by New Zealand. Are those seven scores unacceptable in a total of 32? When Hong Kong played in Ireland three years ago, they shipped 219 points in two matches.
As the less advanced rugby nations progress, so do the few at the top of the tree. There has not yet been a RWC without heavy defeats for one or two competing nations. Among the nine already qualified for RWC 2021 Fiji rank 21st. Hong Kong ranked 23rd. But Fijiana could yet provide some surprises as well as delights.
If more second tier nations can join in, they will have the added incentive of playing and beating each other. Potential first-timers like Colombia, Kenya and Tonga will be inspired by the thought of more regular appearances.
‘Accelerating development of the women’s game globally’ is bound to entail mis-matches, but they happen at every level. 50-point margins are commonplace among the top ten ranked nations. A recent example: Italy (7th) 0 England (then 2nd) 54.
People who favour a larger format for the RWC believe that the quickest way for standards to rise across the continents is to give more nations the chance to appear at the top table. One of the abiding troubles of the RWC is that it has taken on the appearance of a closed shop.
If WR’s decision had been made in time for the 2021 tournament, then some of the problems the pandemic has caused would have been sidelined. There would have been less need for protracted qualifying stages. We might not have seen those three unknowns in the pool draw.
Sensible Qualifying, Sensible Seeding
As many as seven nations qualified for 2021 by virtue of their final position in 2017. Should it really be so many? If it were reduced to four, you would have the chance of greater variety of qualifiers each time. The four would then head each of the four pools. It is rare in international sport for seeding to be decided across such a lengthy period.
Wales did well to beat Ireland in Belfast to secure the crucial seventh spot. Since then their performances have hardly warranted their untroubled passage into next year’s festivities.*
As with so many other sports rugby is fated to have its different levels failing to narrow. It would be a real step forward if the semis were not fought out between New Zealand, England, Canada and France. But which nation(s) stand a chance of delivering that stroke?
Raising the number of qualifiers to sixteen is a first hesitant and delayed move in the right direction.
*Just for the record, here are Wales’ results against the three Six Nations sides that didn’t qualify directly (2018-20)
Wales 18 Scotland 17 W
Ireland 35 Wales 12 L
Wales 15 Italy 22 L
Italy 3 Wales 3 D
Scotland 15 Wales 17 W
Wales 24 Ireland 5 W
Wales 15 Italy 19 L
Ireland 31 Wales 12 L
Played 8, Won 3, Lost 4, Drawn 1
Points for: 116
Points against: 147
Hardly a ringing endorsement for inclusion