Stella Mills: The legacy of the 2022 Rugby World Cup - Ruck

Stella Mills: The legacy of the 2022 Rugby World Cup

With the curtains now fully drawn on the Rugby World Cup, the jet lag slowly wearing off and the dust settling, it’s time to have an open and honest conversation about the competition. 

First, let’s talk about the numbers: 

150,179 fans came through the gates in New Zealand to support women’s rugby 

#RWC2021 hashtag gained 56.4 million views on TikTok alone.

1.7 million people tuned into watch the final on ITV.

42,579 fans attended the final at Eden Park, setting a new domestic record for a stand alone women’s sport event in New Zealand. 

A word on New Zealand – before the Rugby World Cup, no one had paid to watch women’s rugby. This event was the first time that New Zealanders had parted with actual cash to watch their national women’s team compete, and for those who got a ticket to the final – man they got treated to a show. 

Next, lets talk about the legacy. 

The legacy left after this tournament was driven specifically by the players themselves. Often, people don’t fall in love with the game, they fall in love with the personalities involved first. Which is the just one of the reasons that names on the back of shirts is something that is long overdue, but that’s for a different column. 

Take Rubi Tui for example, we already knew she had a brilliant personality, but the Rugby World Cup gave her the platform she and the wider game needed to thrive. From entertaining press conferences, to thrilling post-match interviews – she knows how to do it all. 

These women are likeable, they have personalities that are worthy of media attention. They are approachable, and fans feel like they know them. 

We also can’t forget the history that this tournament was built on. Hundreds of women paved the way for the World Cup to be a huge success, but four pioneers really stand out for me. Without Deborah Griffin, Sue Dorrington, Alice D. Cooper and Mary Forsyth we wouldn’t have had a World Cup at all. They organised the first Rugby World Cup in 1991. From sleeping on hotel function room floors, selling vodka out of suitcases and grappling for media coverage – that 1991 tournament is a far cry from what we saw in New Zealand. 

It was good to see World Rugby recognised these women and inducted them into the World Rugby Hall of Fame. 

Fast forward a few years, and it is clear to see a big part of this tournament was played out on social media. In terms of reaching new audiences, platforms like TikTok are crucial. 

When I was invited on breakfast TV in New Zealand, I touched briefly on the importance of social media for English fans. For most, they would wake up and the tournament had already happened in the early hours of the morning. Social media was the tool that bridged that long gap between the tournament and fans back home who often at times felt a huge disconnect. 

The initial numbers alone back this up, with #RWC2021 hashtag gained 56.4 million views on TikTok. 

I do think some teams maximised the opportunities offered by social media more than others, for what ever reason that might be. Take the Black Fern’s for example, they took every chance to jump on social media and utilise the spotlight they were given to attract and retain new fans. Not only was the content funny, but you also got a clear taste for the player personalities in the team. 

The teams who are branching away from corporate social media posts will reap the rewards, the ones who are stuck in the past will suffer. This is something which should be given thought, especially as we head into 2025. 

So, what is next? 

Looking to the next Rugby World Cup, organisers have their eyes set on selling out an 80,000-seater Twickenham. We will get a taster for this in the Six Nations, as England’s clash with France will be played at the stadium, having already sold out 20,000 tickets. 

For me personally, I would have liked to of seen more of an effort around the general marketing of the event in and around Auckland. Yes, I understand tickets to matches were near capacity, but if we want to achieve massive sell out crowds of 80,000+ in 2025, we need a stronger marketing effort and a longer lead time in the campaign, you can’t just rely on players to push the ticket marketing, it’s not enough to sell out Twickenham. 

The argument that women’s rugby is not entertaining or commercially viable now is null and void. 

After this Rugby World Cup, we no longer can hide behind excuses that the audience for women’s rugby is not present. 

The issue isn’t rooted in getting fans to stay throughout games, it’s getting new fans through the door. Once you show them the product, they are hooked. In fact, research conducted by Professor Toni Bruce of Auckland University on the tournament found that over 70% of survey respondents rated the women’s game as “Really exciting to watch”. A common theme running through various conversations, and this research, was almost a surprise at how good this game actually is. 

One participant said: “I guess I am surprised about how exciting and how good the rugby is.”  

Now, if you can hold back the eye rolls here, there is a lesson to be learned. We still have a huge job to do in terms of changing the perceptions of women’s rugby. 

Exposure of the game to new fans ultimately changes these perceptions, but this is not possible without a robust and solid marketing strategy which considers this. A strategy which will hopefully put player personalities at the forefront of it to push the women’s game forward. Oh, and of course will a little bit of electric rugby thrown in for good measure.