The Women’s Six Nations typically runs parallel with the men’s fixtures but this year has seen the tournament postponed to the beginning of April, whilst the men’s competition commenced in the first weekend of February as planned.
Over the past twelve months, the pandemic has served to acutely highlight the gender disparity in sport at an elite level. Such issues have developed on both a domestic and international stage across a range of women’s sports over the course of 2020 and 2021 so far.
In regard to the global context, the postponement of the Women’s Six Nations clearly highlights the different treatment women’s rugby, and female sport more broadly, has faced throughout the pandemic.
All of the teams contesting the men’s tournament are filled by fully professional athletes, whilst in the women’s games, only the England team boasts professional contracts for all of their players. France offers semi-professional options for their female athletes whilst the remaining teams of the other four nations fill their squads with amateur players.
The issues with the lack of full professional contracts for female players within rugby has been underlined by the pandemic as it has required players to form training bubbles for international games, away from their home lives. Whilst it is a standard expectation across the elite tiers of the men’s game for rugby to form their main employment, the majority of those women expected to compete in the Six Nations this year have traditional day jobs.
It would thus not be financially viable for these women to be out of work for such extended periods of time required to contest the competition in this manner. The beginning of April has instead been suggested for the tournament to begin in the hopes that the situation will have improved enough to allow players to compete but also return to their primary employment between fixtures.
Again, similar issues have manifested on the domestic stage within England in recent months. The Women’s Allianz Premier 15s did not run throughout January as funding for the league was insufficient to provide adequate testing for the players to address the prevalence of coronavirus amongst this community. With the resumption of the league in February, there has been a shift toward more regular testing for players to allow for fixtures to continue and to ensure player safety.
These responses show how there are efforts being made to ensure that women’s rugby does develop but it ultimately still proves the great disparity between the respective sports currently, as the Gallagher Premiership for the men’s teams has not suffered the same setbacks.
There is no doubt that the women’s game draws in far less revenue compared to the men’s game, both domestically within England and in an international context. This certainly goes a long way to explaining the issues surrounding the disparity witnessed but it begs the question of where women’s rugby can go, without sufficient funding or financial backing from sponsors or the Rugby Federation Union. It is also difficult to determine and predict the commitment of other nations to the women’s game to ensure the development of a competitive international field.
Problems at an elite level, as seen by the postponement of both the Women’s Six Nations and the Allianz Premier 15s, pose troubling questions for the progression of the women’s game more broadly, with the potential to undermine recent progress.
The trajectory prior to the pandemic appeared upward, as seen by the introduction of professional contracts for the England women’s team at the beginning of 2019 at an elite level and the growing engagement with women’s rugby as greater numbers participate at an amateur level.
There is hope from those involved in the game that the introduction of professional contracts will be mirrored more broadly across the globe once more normal life resumes, as France and New Zealand have witnessed a transition towards semi-professional status for their female players in recent years.
Yet, there is still significant work to be done, especially with the recent recommendation by World Rugby that the Women’s World Cup, originally scheduled for September 2021 in New Zealand, should be postponed until the following year. A certain degree of irony can certainly be noted as this advice has been coupled with intense efforts by those involved in the men’s game for the Lion’s Tour to still continue in some capacity this summer.
Such contradictory discussions illustrate the gender disparity in sport that has been acutely highlighted by the pandemic, given the priority ascribed to the men’s games.
Whilst women’s rugby, amongst a range of other female sports, has been neglected over the past year with the introduction of numerous restrictions on participation, it is hoped that with the vaccine rollout and the route out of lockdown mapped out in recent weeks, women’s sport can continue to grow unimpeded in the coming months and years.
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