AUCKLAND – Rugby bosses hope a show-stopping end to the women’s Rugby World Cup will spur much-needed investment in the women’s game after decades of neglect.
New Zealand’s 34-31 defeat of fellow-heavyweights England before a capacity crowd at Eden Park on Saturday was a fitting end to the grandest edition of a tournament more often regarded as a niche event since its inception in 1991.
Record crowds, including 40,000 for the decider, moved World Rugby chairman Bill Beaumont to hail the six-week, 12-nation tournament a “massive success”, even though it made a substantial financial loss.
He said a shortfall in sponsorship and broadcast rights was partly due to a lack of commitment World Rugby itself had made to the women’s 15-a-side game.
“It’s a recognition that it has needed more investment,” Beaumont told journalists.
“The standard of play here has been so much better and … the margins between the winners and losers has got less and, as a spectacle, it’s been a great advert for the game of rugby,” he said.
Beaumont believed a renewed focus over the next decade would spark more growth, catapulted by a tournament in New Zealand that has raised the bar.
In anticipation of more money flowing into the women’s game, World Rugby has increased the number of teams from 12 to 16 for the next three tournaments – in England (2025), Australia (2029) and the United States (2033).
England’s event will have a wider geographical spread than New Zealand – where costs restricted matches to just two cities – while triple-header fixtures in group play will instead be double-headers or even standalone games.
An annual global WXV competition, to be played by 18 teams in non-World Cup years, will be introduced in September 2023 to maintain momentum between tournaments.
It will be split into three divisions of six teams and incorporate a promotion-relegation format. World Rugby chief executive Alan Gilpin said WXV would bring certainty to a historically barren calendar.
The biggest funding discrepancies exist at the domestic level, with many national unions choosing to devote their women’s resources to the seven-a-side game.
England introduced full professional 15s contracts in 2019 and its domestic league is on a larger scale than any other, reflected in the national team’s run of 30 successive wins before its upset by the Black Ferns.
Fourth-ranked Canada has no professional setup, representing the sort of discrepancy the sport’s leaders addressed at a women’s rugby summit in Auckland.
Gilpin said different countries would introduce professional contracts at different stages.
“It’s a young sport, so we’ve got to get it right rather than go too fast and over-professionalise too quickly,” he said.
“What this tournament does – with its platform and visibility and wonder – is it allows hopefully more unions to be better equipped to go to governments and other investors and say ‘we need more money from you because this is a development opportunity for young women’,” Gilpin said.