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WXV – Crowds, what crowds?

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Sally Horrox, in charge of women’s rugby at World Rugby, was on the back foot as she tried to explain the tiny crowds at WXV matches thus far.

The closest we got to an attendance figure for the first round of WXV1 was a combined 8,200 at the Sky Stadium, Wellington. But Horrox didn’t give breakdown numbers for the three matches. We can assume that the vast majority of spectators were at the Black Ferns game. That is a repeat of the pattern of the recent World Cup also held in New Zealand.

Let’s get the good excuses out of the way first. WR knew it was far from ideal for WXV to coincide with the men’s World Cup, even more so since the All Blacks were unlikely to lose every pool-stage match they contested. So Kiwi interest has been maintained right through to the widely expected final against the Springboks. The clash still continues. But WXV had suffered enforced delay already. TINA: there is (was) no alternative.

Kiwi Indifference

What has been harder to comprehend for non-Kiwis is the lack of interest in the Black Ferns. The captain, Ruahei Demant touched on the point after their European tour of 2021. She admitted that the Ferns were not widely followed across the country; the All Blacks claim nearly all the publicity. The BFs’ performance since then, especially their win in the final of the latest RWC, did help to redress the balance, but not by much.

With the ABs reclaiming their prime position in France, the result back home has been large acres of empty stands for WXV1.

The Way Forward

Horrox claims it is right and proper for the top-tier matches to play in stadiums fitting the occasion. Quite right. But it raises the old problem, which is preferable: a packed gate of 5,000 at a small ground, or a sparse gathering in a large one?

An even greater conundrum is how to build interest when the home team is not performing. The crowd at the opening Australia-England game was pitiful. Where else would it have been larger?

At one extreme: the RFU knew they were taking up a huge challenge in offering Twickenham for the France match in the 2023 Six Nations. Their courage was rewarded with a record crowd. Next, the bigger challenge of filling the remaining 24,000 seats.

The immediate prospects for the Round Two matches this weekend look no brighter for NZR or World Rugby. The Forsyth Barr Stadium has a capacity of around 35,000; the people of Dunedin have been denied the sight of a Black Ferns team for two-and-a-half decades. Will they come rushing in to make up for lost time? At present Horrox suggests no.

So she takes up a firmly defensive posture. WR are building for a bright new future; the women’s game will go on growing. All very true.

Then we wonder how many nations came into consideration as venues for WXV. Its division into three tiers now looks eminently sensible. But three separate countries to accommodate them? It would be well nigh impossible for one nation to carry the full weight of the operation; 540 players to start with, plus all the ancillary staff, then everyone else including media to be housed, fed and watered.

So three countries were selected, South Africa and Dubai the other two. SA is a major rugby-playing nation, but, like New Zealand, the focus is almost exclusively on the men’s team. And unlike the Black Ferns, the Women Boks are still finding their feet at international level. So the crowds have been tiny.

Dubai was a much more questionable choice. A venue with no history of interest in 15s rugby and a climate militating against player welfare. Regular water-breaks are no help to a game that is trying to speed up its processes. So we have to look at other reasons for WR’s choice. Gold ingots float before my eyes.

Future decisions will be fascinating. Since the WXV is an annual undertaking, three more venues have to be selected every year. You can count on the fingers of one hand the nations that can achieve 5-figure attendances at women’s tests, and not even England do that every time. France stands alone.

WR looks optimistically at the USA as a future El Dorado, but such hopes must surely be long-term. We must all be patient.