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England have already won one World Cup in the past year or so. The women’s team was crowned champions in Paris last August. Within weeks, many of the players — among them a primary school teacher, a plumber and a police officer — had turned professional and were concentrating on their next target: gold with the Great Britain sevens team at the Olympic Games in Rio next year.
The timing was coincidental. But taken together, the World Cup win, the first professional contracts in England (the so-called central contracts) and the introduction of sevens rugby at Rio are seen as evidence of the rising profile of the sport. It has come a long way in the UK since the first women’s international between England and Wales in 1987.
Attendances for internationals are up — an average of more than 3,000 for games this season — female participation has risen, media attention has increased and sponsorship deals are on the cards. Previous commercial deals have been add-ons to those struck with the men’s teams — for instance, Royal Bank of Scotland sponsors both men’s and women’s Six Nations tournaments. But now the women’s game is looking at standalone agreements with sponsors and broadcasters.
“The World Cup win has started to move the game forward,” says Nicola Ponsford, head of performance for the women’s game at the Rugby Football Union. “Sponsorship is coming and the more we can increase the commercial value of the women’s game, the more options we will have to determine its future,” she says, adding: “People are now choosing to support the women’s game.”
Australia, Canada and New Zealand have had professional sevens programmes for some years. Russia has also introduced one.
England’s decision in 2014 to offer central contracts to those competing in the smaller, quicker format was seen as overdue. Players on the programme receive about £20,000 a year and the opportunity to train full time.
There are, however, only 20 central contracts and no professional clubs in the country. As if to underline the limited resources in the women’s game, one team, Bristol Ladies, last year launched a hardship fund for players who could not otherwise afford to play at the highest level. Compare that with women’s football, where the likes of Chelsea and Manchester City have invested heavily, and rugby still looks like a poor relation.
For some, the central contracts still do not provide players with enough funds to quit well-paid full-time work. Those behind the scheme hope it will continue beyond the Rio Olympics and that it can benefit the 15s game as well.
The RFU has a target of increasing participation in the sport by women and girls by 20 per cent to 25,000 by 2017. It also aims to be at the top of the tree in sevens and 15s rugby. That said, England suffered their worst performance in the women’s Six Nations this spring, just months after introducing central contracts for the sevens players.
“There have been challenges,” admits Ponsford. “Transferring between the sevens and the 15s games at an elite level can be difficult. You can’t train for sevens one day and then play 15s the next.”
Ponsford had a 16-year career as a player and was a part of the England team that played in that first international back in 1987. “We had to buy our own shirts and stay in youth hostels,” she says. “Sports science didn’t really exist. There was nothing like the preparation there is today.
“The speed and power of the players and the technical skills have all improved massively,” she says. “It is still played with an oval ball but it is a very different game.”