Stella Mills: “I challenge anyone to say women’s rugby isn’t entertaining” - Ruck

Stella Mills: “I challenge anyone to say women’s rugby isn’t entertaining”

We always knew this Six Nations campaign would be different, but these past few weeks have been something else. I challenge anyone to say women’s rugby isn’t entertaining, from record breaking crowds to crazy comebacks this tournament has had it all. 

It’s also hard to argue against the benefits that the stand-alone window and title sponsor have brought, TikTok being involved with the tournament has skyrocketed the growth and interest of women’s rugby. 

In terms of media coverage, we saw a heavy amount of media interest in this tournament, the Sun even put out a record breaking 10 page pull out to preview the tournament. The competition has had unprecedented broadcast coverage on a global level, with 137 countries covering the championship across terrestrial and streaming services. 

Speaking specifically on TikTok, the #SixNationsRugby hashtag has generated over 3 billion views on the social media platform, with content linked to the #W6N hashtag generating over 130 million videos. 

One of the highlights for me, was seeing the women’s fixtures specifically advertised and promoted at pubs across the country, which was previously unheard of when the tournament was operating in the shadow of the men. 

In terms of viewing figures on the BBC, the TikTok Women’s Six Nations matches attracted higher peak audiences than the Women’s Super League, which is interesting considering that women’s football is often considered to be further ahead than women’s rugby. What makes this even more interesting is that the Italy V England match was originally not due to be shown live on BBC, however the decision was u-turned a few days before broadcast, which obviously worked in favour of the 710k fans tuning in to watch. 

However, now the competition has run its course we must now look to the future, to understand how we can not only sustain but also build on the growth of the women’s game. 

The Red Roses walked away with their 16th Grand Slam this year, on a hefty 23 game win streak. In fact, England have won 18 titles overall in the Women’s Six Nations. But why? Is there a secret ingredient to the success of the England team? Is Simon Middleton onto something that the other nations aren’t? 

The answer is simple: investment. The RFU have invested in a fully professional women’s team, and they are reaping the rewards of doing so. The Red Roses were handed contracts back in 2019, and the team currently has 29 players on contracts. Also, the domestic league in England is one of the best globally for competitive talent. It’s so good that it’s currently, and controversially, drawing talent from all around the globe. Meaning Simon Middleton has his pick of the bunch when it comes to a conveyer belt of talent. 

I want to draw specific attention to my choice of words there, I purposefully used the word ‘investment’ because that is exactly what it is, an investment. The classic argument of women’s rugby not making any profit is no longer an excuse not to invest in the game. As with all business decisions, you don’t invest in something and expect immediate returns profit wise, so why are we seeing this excuse? The audience is clearly there, the product is only going to improve, so why are we yet to see other unions backing the game with contracts? 

This year’s tournament brought with it some big conversations around professional contracts, spurred on by the announcement of Italy awarding their squad with semi-professional contracts, and the Irish squad having to return to work just 24 hours after playing England in front of a record-breaking crowd. 

Looking ahead, the TikTok sponsorship of the tournament will run until 2025, and with the women’s game growing at a rapid rate it’s hard to see anything but growth in the near distant future, but we need unions to step up and come to the party. 

This year’s tournament was hailed as a huge success, but imagine how much better it could be should all teams involved in it become professional. 

The narrative around women’s rugby is shifting, players are no longer grateful for being included, they are finally stepping up and asking for what they rightly deserve. 

As we end the 2022 competition, the only fully professional side is England. Hopefully, as queen of all things women’s rugby Ali Donnelly suggests, this will be the last time we see amateur teams playing in this competition. 

For players, contracts are not just about the financial rewards, they are also about basic respect. You can see the monumental change that even a small investment from a union has by looking at the Welsh team’s performance throughout the campaign. For a team who finished bottom of the table last year, to jump up to third is no mean feat, and certainly no coincidence that the team has been given contracts. 

As with everything in women’s rugby, time will tell. Most teams involved in the TikTok Women’s Six Nations will have a fair few testing times between now and the next tournament, with a World Cup and Autumn internationals to squeeze in before 2023. 

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