Rugby World Cup: Women’s rugby to reach new heights as ‘golden age of opportunity’ beckons

Organizers aim to sell out 50,000-capacity Eden Park for Rugby World Cup final
Host: New Zealand Dates: October 8-November 12
Cover: Listen to home games on BBC Radio 5 Live and BBC Sounds. watch live text commentary of selected matches on the BBC Sport website and app.

“Women’s rugby is about to explode. Get up or get out because it’s coming.”

It all starts on Saturday, with attendance records expected to fall on opening day.

But what makes it the greatest and best of all time? And where is there still work to be done?

New Zealand has already embraced it

In February 2020, when Eden Park was named as the venue for the final, filling the 50,000-capacity stadium was the lofty target set by the organisers.

That goal looks very close now that the venue – which will have a capacity of around 40,000 on Saturday – is sold out for the opening day of the tournament, when three games will be played at New Zealand’s biggest sports stadium.

New Zealand are five-time champions and the rugby-loving population has already embraced the tournament as it is being held in the southern hemisphere for the first time.

Jacinda Ardern takes a selfie with Canada players
New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern met players at an event on Thursday

The World Cup will break opening day attendance records, with 20,000 women’s rugby winning since the 2014 tournament in France, and will be a record attendance for a women’s sporting event in New Zealand.

Players say it’s hard to miss that the World Cup is in town, with teams appearing on banners and buses in Auckland and street murals springing up in New Zealand celebrating women’s rugby.

“We are at a different level to any World Cup that has happened before,” England captain Sarah Hunter said.

“I truly believe this will be the biggest and best World Cup ever.

“We feel like we’re on the crest of a wave and it’s going to explode in what women’s rugby can really do.”

What can go wrong?

Only four of the 12 teams at this year’s World Cup – England, Wales, New Zealand and France – have enough investment from their associations to qualify as professionals, leading to wide disparities between some teams.

England have been fully professional since 2019, with this investment helping them achieve a record 25 Test winning streak in a row.

Of course the funds are not endless. They have contract money but England and Wales still threw economy at New Zealand.

The hosts have also upped their game after disappointing defeats to France and England in 2021.

Men’s coaches Wayne Smith and Graham Henry are backing the Black Ferns, with legendary fly-half Dan Carter also lending a hand.

But with no one having beaten England in the last three years, the Red Roses’ dominance could be one of the negatives of the tournament if they win every match comfortably en route to victory.

That’s not guaranteed, as New Zealand could enjoy a perfectly timed revival or a singularly emotional performance from France could turn the tide.

A photo of England to celebrate and the words

Then there is the time difference for a UK audience. The home game with the latest kick-off is the one between England and France at 08:00 BST on 15 October.

England’s Leanne Infante said the team wants to “create a movement” as football’s Lionesses did with their Euro 2022 win, but kick-off times may mean we have to wait until the Red Roses host the World Cup in 2025.

Covid-19 is already having an impact, with New Zealand government regulations requiring anyone who tests positive to self-isolate for seven days.

English prop Shaunagh Brown isolates and will miss the opening game – with players on alert to make sure their World Cup isn’t interrupted as well.

But the future is bright

Fast track. Transformation. Accelerate. Development.

The message from World Rugby is clear. This tournament is just the beginning and the next one will be even bigger.

World Rugby chief executive Alan Gilpin hopes this year’s World Cup can “launch” women’s rugby into “a golden age of opportunity”.

The governing body aims to support this by launching a new competition called the WXV in 2023, which will allow 18 teams consistent access to test matches at a competitive level.

This, in turn, will make the expansion from 12 to 16 teams for the 2025 World Cup more comfortable if money is invested to give players more rugby time.

World Rugby also wants more women on the line and in 2020 launched an internship program as it aims for 40% female representation among coaches at the 2025 World Cup.

At this year’s tournament, Japan is the only team with a female head coach and 29% of the coaches are women, with the figure rising to 46% when all backroom staff are taken into account.

New fans to the sport are expected, with Gilpin suggesting the more open style of play in women’s rugby could help sell the tournament in New Zealand.

“In many ways there are areas of the women’s game that are driving the sport,” he said.

“The ball plays more. There are fewer parts of the game that new fans might find confusing.”

New Zealand’s Tui put it more bluntly: “We’re here to put on a show, we’re a fun sport, I’m going to entertain you.”

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