BY Stella Mills.
A few months ago, I wrote that 2022 would be the year for women’s rugby, and so far, I am yet to be proven wrong. From the TikTok Women’s Six Nations to the Allianz Premier 15’s, we have been treated to some impressive displays of top-flight women’s rugby.
The focus on women’s rugby is now at an all-time high, from record breaking crowds to record breaking coverage, it seems like the sport is only going one way, and that is up.
The Allianz Premier 15’s league is considered one of the most competitive women’s rugby leagues in the world. It currently attracts players from far and wide globally, which is often a point of contention, especially amongst those who believe young English talent is being overlooked.
As the league is heading into it’s sixth year, with attention on the English domestic competition having never been so high, it’s important that the makeup of the Allianz Premier 15’s is right. The league is now going through a tender process, with teams being given until July to submit an application for interest.
This season, attention turned to DMP Durham Sharks, who finished bottom of the table, with no points to show for it. There is an obvious, and growing, gap between what DMP and other clubs can offer players, with no ability to compensate players financially, it’s understandable as to why the team are struggling to retain and attract talent.
The stark reality here is that we must ensure this league is as competitive as possible to give it the best chance of growth. We have to ensure that week in, week out we see competitive rugby on show. Whilst it is natural to have teams that are more progressed than others, it isn’t right to have constant foregone conclusions before the ball is even in play. After all the league is considered one of the best in the world.
To be crystal clear here, the fault doesn’t lie with the players themselves. As DMP player Ellie Pigford rightly pointed out, they turn up to play and give 100% each game.
So, what’s next?
Plenty of teams are chomping at the bit to get involved in the 23/24 season, the likes of London Irish, Bath and Leicester have all expressed public interested in applying for the league.
However, a big worry for new teams coming into the fold would be that they fail to meet the necessary standards, and we end up with a similar issue to the one we have now with a lack of competitiveness.
Currently, the details of the minimum operating standards to be imposed by the RFU for the 23/24 season are yet to be defined.
One point of contention, which was recently widely discussed on twitter by various individuals involved in the women’s game, is the number of England-qualified players in the league.
Opinions came to a head this season when, for the first time, Exeter secured a spot in the final against Saracens. The club, which only secured entry into the league two years ago, has been widely talked about for its recruitment of international players.
Interestingly, when questioned on this, head coach Susie Appleby explained she had approached various England internationals, but none of them where prepared to make the relocation.
It’s hard to blame Exeter for finding a loophole in the RFU framework and rolling with it, as technically they aren’t breaking any rules. The RFU currently advises clubs to have at least 16 England-qualified players in a matchday squad. If clubs fail to meet this minimum standard, they forego £7,500 of funding from the RFU, which is a drop in the ocean to some.
For clubs to be truly incentivised by this, they must feel as if they are really missing out on a chunk of funding – which means that number needs to be vastly increased if the RFU insists on going down the carrot method as opposed to the stick.
The other debate to stem from this is the spread of the Red Roses across the league. It is no secret that most of the players are dispersed among a select few clubs, and without intervention it’s hard to see this improving.
A recent example of this is England hooker Lark Davies moving away from Loughborough Lightning to Bristol Bears. It’s hard to criticise players on these moves, as they will want to be in the best environment possible to develop and grow their own talents. Some have suggested the RFU should step in to officially disperse the Red Roses, but for me at the moment this seems like an unfair move, especially when we aren’t always talking about full time, professional contracts.
The word “unprecedented” gets thrown around a fair bit, especially in recent years. However, this year really has seen a huge jump in coverage for the league.
Coverage started off strong with each match in round one being live streamed. However, the big turning point came in November when the BBC announced it would be broadcasting one game per round on BBC iPlayer. Fast forward to today, and we saw both the Semi-finals and the final being broadcast live on BT Sport.
According to the RFU, over 1 million people have watched the Allianz Premier 15’s this season across BT Sport, BBC Sport and the Premier 15’s.
The appetite for this league is massive, it feels as if we are breaking new rugby ground. I recently listened to Ben Gully speak on The Rugby Pod about the growth of the women’s game and one quote in particular struck me:
“The women’s game will benefit the men’s game, rather than the men’s game benefiting the women’s game”
He went onto explain that the women’s game has potential to attract a whole new audience, whereas the men’s game doesn’t, and I have to agree with that.
Already, thanks in part to TikTok’s sponsorship of the Women’s Six Nations, we are seeing the game being put in front of fresh eyes. Record breaking crowds didn’t just happen for no reason, they were a direct result of smart marketing and a boost in investment. The RFU’s efforts of marketing the Red Roses throughout the tournament was significant, I just hope that next season a similar effort is afforded to the AP15’s.
Now the season is over, it’ll be interesting to sit back and look at player movements from clubs. I have a feeling we will see a few more surprises over the coming weeks.