One step forward, two steps backward: RFU killing the womens game

England women’s rugby team recently relinquished their reign as world champions at the Kingspan Stadium, Belfast, to New Zealand in a fast and frenetic encounter. A 41-32 reversal was nothing to be ashamed of and the Red Roses will still return as heroines, yet, in spite of their great tournament, many of the team have uncertain futures and, in some cases, may exit the rugby scene altogether.

In July, the Rugby Football Union (RFU) announced that they would not be renewing the contracts of those in the XV to instead concentrate on rugby sevens as the focus shifts to next year’s Commonwealth Games in Australia and the World Cup Sevens in San Francisco as well as the 2020 Tokyo Olympics.

Sevens contracts take precedence

The RFU followed up this quite baffling announcement with news that they would also be giving 17 sevens contracts for the upcoming season with the likes of Emily Scarratt and Amy Wilson-Hardy – whom played vital roles in this year’s World Cup – returning to the sevens’ scene. Yet, for many others within the England setup, they will simply not be given this chance and, remarkably, will return to their day jobs.

England’s women did the country proud despite defeat on Saturday evening

Some of these day jobs do still revolve around rugby in general. Captain and No.8, Sarah Hunter, for example, is a university rugby development officer. Yet, others have little to do with the game in their “normal” lives. Prop, Vickii Cornborough, for example, will set her rugby career aside to resume her role as a business development manager whilst fly-half or centre, Amber Reed, will take the fall from grace and return as a PE teacher at a school in Bristol.

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Amber Reed will return to being a PE teacher despite being crucial in the Red Roses’ route to the final

Although the players knew the terms of their contracts before they entered the World Cup, this does not mean that all of the squad are secure of their futures elsewhere.

“People roughly know what their plan is…Some people still don’t know what they are doing yet,” — Emily Scarratt.

This is an embarrassing state of affairs for sport whose governing body should have ensured that those players, who would not be rejoining the sevens’ game after the World Cup tournament ended, had the proper means in place with which to be secure, both financially and mentally.

The fact that, just last week IT entrepreneur Simon Pennock, claimed he was willing to offer employment for women without surety of work in his two rugby-related businesses, shows how out-of-touch with reality the RFU is.

“We need to recruit more staff. This is a win-win-win situation – a win for us, for the players and for the RFU,” — Simon Pennock.

Women’s rugby in general

The whole game as a whole needs to be looked at though. For the newly-crowned champions, the Black Ferns, only six of their 28-player squad are on professional sevens contracts. The remaining 22 work full-time in areas as varied as policing, education and the fire services.

For a sport which is trying to grow amidst the popularity of its male version, this is just not right. The whole rugby fraternity need to put the means and security in place to ensure a proper, continuous central contract system, not just deploy one whenever a World Cup comes along. As the RFU proclaimed, it will only award new XVs contracts in preparation for the 2021 World Cup.

RFU’s timing could not have been worse

The fact that the governing body announced this in July, at a time when England’s women lifted the Cricket World Cup and when the Lionesses made their country proud on the football field, was one step forwards two step backwards for the women’s game as a whole and further evidence of a damaging governing body.

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England women lift Cricket World Cup in a summer of quality female sporting achievement

With an estimated 50 women on professional full-time and part-time contracts, the reduction to a mere 17 full-time, fixed-term deals just purely for the sevens programme cannot be interpreted, in any way, shape or form, as good for the female game. This is a cut even more depressing when one realises that the RFU stated that it had accrued record revenues last year of more than £400 million – a kick in the teeth for the women’s game just became a full-on whack, as the money is certainly there.

Gower MP as from June 2017, Tonia Antoniazzi, declared the RFU’s decision was “Another huge blow for women with contracts being slashed by England RFU.”

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Labour MP for Gower – Tonia Antoniazzi – spoke out against the contract cuts

This is such a shame for the sport. The women, who came so close to retaining their title, could now find themselves doing a job that they don’t particularly like or, even more humbling, being unemployed. For the toil, tears, sweat and blood that the heroic players put themselves through, the RFU – even before the tournament had even begun – had cast them (the XVs’ squad) aside, supposedly, ‘in favour’ of the sevens.

Of course, the RFU has strived to defend itself, maintaining that the XVs side will continue to take part in competitions. The RFU also stresses that it has invested millions of pounds in the women’s game. This investment includes £800,000 annually on a new domestic club competition aimed at increasing and improving the talent pool available for selection for England.

Even before the World Cup had started, the governing body’s hierarchy had tried to justify its reasoning for cutting the funding to women’s contracts. These would be women who, in a month’s time, would come home fearing for their futures after tearing through the pain barrier for their country.

“The women’s squad were always aware that contracts would end in September, after the World Cup…The current XVs squad was informed in April that the next contracts will be focused on sevens, reflecting the cyclical nature of the women’s game.

The squad fully understands the position and are focused on the World Cup in Ireland next month.” — RFU director of professional rugby Nigel Melville, July 2017.

RFU need to “grow some balls”

The “cyclical nature of the women’s game” as Melville so eloquently puts it, is utter nonsense. Why can’t the RFU focus on two disciplines at the same time? The sevens and the XVs are completely different and need to be acknowledged as so. It is no good swapping and changing between funding for either, the RFU have to pull their finger out and fund both and, at the same time.

“Those contracted girls have been focused fully on rugby – they are now going to have to balance it with their job again…Quite a few of them have given up good careers to concentrate on rugby. Suddenly it’s going to be taken away from them again.

“It means the women’s game goes back to being professional with a ‘little p’ again.” Vicky MacQueen, former England international.

Popularity soaring

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Vicky MacQueen, capped 34 times for England between 2004 and 2009, highlights the problem of cutting funding for the World Cup players and for the women’s game as a whole

2.6 million tuned into ITV to watch the final on Saturday evening. This shows just how much women’s rugby – and women’s sport in general – has captured and can capture audiences in this country. The RFU need to take heed of this – as do broadcasters – and give women’s rugby the backing it deserves. Cutting contracts is not the way forward. Could you ever imagine this taking place in the men’s game?