CASTRES, FRANCE – I’ve barely dipped a toe into 2015 and already I’m feverish with excitement about what the year holds for women’s rugby. I was going to write ‘on both sides of the Pond,’ but the truth is, women’s rugby is booming all over the world, thanks to competitions such as the the World Cup, Six Nations, the Sevens and (deep breath…) the 2016 Olympics.
But I’m getting ahead of myself. Let me take a moment to review the key moments from last year before I start drooling about 2015. As always happens, the last few days of December 2014 gave us journos a chance to cast an eye over the previous 12 months, whether it’s news or sport.
Interestingly, last year women featured more prominently than ever in these round-ups – and I couldn’t have been more pleased. A quick trawl of the Internet garnered several articles, all with stories about women’s rugby front and centre.
While the headline for Will Greenwood’s round-up of 2014 might focus on a negative aspect of the men’s game, who would have thought a few years ago that a Women’s World Cup competition would have nicked top spot in a top 10 countdown of rugby union highlights? (American readers take note of who made it to 10th place – Yay! – the USA Eagles!)
That same victorious England squad went on to scoop the Team of the Year award in the annual BBC Sports Personality of the Year bash, while 20 players would go on to gain professional contracts. Yes, not only were they huge achievements for Katy McLean and her England side but, taking a wider view, it’s a quantum leap for the women’s game that such media coverage even exists.
Even more happily, it wasn’t the only new ground that was broken in 2014.
In November, Nathalie Amiel, Gill Burns, Patty Jervey, Carol Isherwood, Anna Richards and Farah Palmer became the first women ever to be inducted into rugby’s Hall of Fame. If that wasn’t enough to have us cheering, we got an early Christmas gift at the beginning of December with the news that Helen O’Reilly became the first female referee appointed to Ireland’s top-level National Referee Panel, which means she can now officiate at Guinness Pro12 and European competition games.
Even for me, with my pitiful knowledge of the women’s game, it’s impossible to ignore the magnitude of these events. For women to be recognised at this level, as players or officials, demonstrates a level of maturity that exists within rugby union that other male-dominated sports (yes, I’m looking at YOU, soccer) lack.
The acceptance and recognition of women in rugby may have been a long time coming, but it looks like it’s just about here – and it’s not just happening in Europe.
In America, the fast-paced and furious Sevens competition has gone from strength to strength, with the US Women’s Eagles, including the likes of Jessica Javelet, leading the charge. Martin Pengelly’s insightful and informative article explores how the women’s game in The Land of the Free is on the cusp of hitting the big time, with new talent being sought out and nurtured.
Soccer gets another mention as it provides the template for each new sport hoping to crack America, but where soccer made mistakes, rugby can avoid them. Educating the masses about the game is the next step to growing its audience. Rugby Wrap Up’s Karen Ritter has already explored the issue of safety when getting youngsters involved a game as physical as rugby, and there’s no reason why her arguments can’t be applied to girls.
Anyone in need of proof of just how exhilarating the women’s game can be should read about the December clash between New Zealand and Australia in the Dubai Sevens, or watch England’s demolition of Canada in the 2014 World Cup final in August.
It’s not surprising, in the face of just these tasty morsels, that I’m thrilled at the thought of what 2015 will bring for the women’s game.
Quite apart from the Six Nations, which will run alongside the men’s competition, there’s more to come from what has been a gripping Sevens series. As that builds to a crescendo, fans around the world will be crossing their fingers that their side makes it all the way to Rio – and the 2016 Olympics.
Why? Because for the first time, women will play alongside men in the Olympic Sevens competition – and every single team member of every single nation in the Sevens series will want a piece of that action.
Yet the Olympics represent SO much more than an opportunity to grab a medal.
Around the world, rugby union is taking hold, in places such as Brazil and the Far East. So when billions tune into the greatest sporting spectacle on Earth in a little over a year’s time, there will be no doubting the size of the platform onto which women’s rugby will step.
Much will rest on the Olympics, with fixtures and figures jostling for top spot in the minds of the money-men (and money-women). That means the pressure will be on the teams – from top to bottom – like never before.
So much was achieved in women’s rugby during 2014 that it’s almost easy to assume the momentum will continue well into the coming months. I genuinely hope it happens, because even I, as a relative novice, can see that 2015 is a gift-wrapped chance to prepare rugby’s new female stars for how to deal with the truly big occasion.
Far be it from me to patronise these incredible women, but as someone who has seen a seemingly unstoppable New Zealand side bottle it more than once, only a fool would underestimate the unique pressure an Olympic competition brings.
I want to see the women’s game EVERYWHERE. On TV, on the radio, in the papers, and all over the Internet. I want to see massive crowds baying and screaming and doing that weird tribal thing that takes over my brain when I’m pitchside at Castres Olympique.
I want to see top-flight female players offering their thoughts as pundits and contributors, writing columns, chucking out the soundbites, getting themselves in the public eye, making themselves known.
Then, when they are used to having the eyes of the world on them, will they be ready to take on the Olympics and put on a show we’ll all be talking about for years to come…
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