The postponement of the Women’s Six Nations has been all but confirmed, with the tournament now set to take place in April/May 2021. A Six Nations spokesperson told RugbyPass “a lot of work is being done on the planning of the Women’s Six Nations Championship, factoring the updated and fast evolving measures in each country.” Organisers are set to make an announcement on Wednesday about how the tournament will take place.

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The news, which broke last night, was no surprise. We are less than a month away from the start date, yet not one fixture had been confirmed for the tournament. As most players in the tournament also have full-time jobs, bubbles are particularly difficult to form, and infections are more likely, which has made organising the tournament a particularly difficult task. Under international protocols, women’s players must be tested before training in national camps, but the testing protocols in each nation during the tournament are unclear.

Three of the games in the 2020 Women’s Six Nations, which was stopped in March and restarted in the Autumn, were not played due to them not being deemed as elite sport. This is because of the ‘amateur’ status of Ireland, Scotland, Wales and Italy. England is professional and France is also semi-professional, which is why the teams were allowed to play over two consecutive weekends last Autumn.

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Whether amateur or professional, an increasingly important status for the women’s team is whether they are elite or not. If their government supposes the national team is elite, it allows the team some exemptions to the strict lockdown rules – such as being able to travel internationally and not needing to quarantine. Unfortunately, for whatever reason, the Irish government does not classify their women’s side as an elite team. This could mean that the Irish team cannot travel outside of Ireland for this year’s fixtures. In 2021, it is simply mind-boggling that some governments do not consider their highest level of women’s rugby as elite rugby, but it’s the reality of the current situation.

While Six Nations are persuading Ireland to recognise the elite level of Ireland Women, they are also reported to be working hard to convince the French government that the men’s tournament is safe to go ahead, after they advised against cross-border matches. This may of course impact the women’s tournament, although there is nothing yet to indicate that France will not play in the Women’s Six Nations.

It’s clear that there are a number of issues obstructing the Women’s Six Nations taking place in its traditional February-March window that go beyond the issues of bubbles and travel restrictions. The postponement of the tournament once again puts a spotlight on the inequalities of the Women’s Six Nations. I still chat to rugby fans who don’t realise that England is the only fully-professional side. Watching England win 53-0 against Scotland is not a great advert for women’s rugby. The tournament is long-overdue a shake-up, and if 2020 gave us anything worthwhile, it was a chance to change things that simply don’t work.

The Women’s Six Nations normally takes place at the same time as the men’s, which means that it has long competed with the men’s games for audience share. Not only that, but it has also been excluded in the most part from broadcasting rights. While all men’s games are available to watch on television, the women’s games often aren’t. For the past couple of years, England Women’s games have been available on Sky Sports, but the other nations’ games are either not available to watch, or only available on local channels (such as S4C for Wales Women) or to stream online.

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If the men’s tournament isn’t also moved to April, the postponement for the women’s tournament could mean it stands alone, and more rugby fans will be able to watch it. The Women’s England v France games in the Autumn received a peak audience of 800,000, which shows there is genuine interest in the sport. If the women’s tournament is not competing with the men’s, we could see record-breaking viewing figures for women’s rugby in the UK. If I am being really cynical, which is completely in-character of me, those who have no interest in women’s rugby will have less of an excuse not to watch it. In my experience, most of those who say they hate women’s rugby haven’t watched much of it in the last few years.

I have already seen comments online that say the women’s tournament should just be scrapped, as It will only be won by England or France. Beyond the obvious stupidity of such a statement (one which would never be applied to the men’s game) it’s also just wrong. The Women’s Six Nations tournament is also set to double-up as the European qualifiers for Rugby World Cup 2021, for Scotland, Ireland and Italy. While I don’t think these comments come from a heart-felt sympathy for the inequalities in the tournament, it’s important to remember that these competitions are about a lot more than who wins.

I have concerns about the postponement of course. Players and medical staff may be worried about injuries happening so close to this summer’s Olympic Games, and the Rugby World Cup in the Autumn. Those extra couple of months’ delay may mean a higher risk of players missing out on those opportunities. Whether the postponement throws the Rugby World Cup into the air is not one to comment on this week, as there are too many unknown factors at play. I’m just grateful that the Rugby World Cup is set to be in New Zealand, with a competent leader who has the virus under control. It would be a much different story if England were hosts.

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Another issue is those players who have booked time off work for the tournament. Many have contracts with their employers that allow them to work flexibly around the Women’s Six Nations and other tournaments. Not all players have that of course, but I do wonder if there will be problems for players who will now have to go back to their employer and ask to change their time off – with less than a month before the tournament was set to start.

If the postponement means that players and staff are safer, the games are less likely to be cancelled at the last minute, and the tournament could be watched by more people than ever, then it’s a good thing in my book. What cannot be allowed to happen is that the tournament goes ahead before details like bubbles, testing, and player safety have been ironed out. If the tournament is delayed, it needs to be done to allow for the tournament organiser’s to get everything right.

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