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What we learnt from the women's game in 2021

By Lucy Lomax
Zoe Aldcroft of England celebrates after scoring a try with team mates during the Autumn International match between England and USA at Sixways Stadium on November 21, 2021 in Worcester, England. (Photo by Catherine Ivill - RFU/The RFU Collection via Getty Images )

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It’s been a whirlwind year for women’s rugby, with some brilliant steps forward made in attendances, investment, and television coverage (mainly in England), but we can’t forget 2021 has also seen moments of inequality littered throughout, with players, supporters and management still asking for more.

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If we have learnt anything from this year, it’s been that England are unquestionably the dominant force in the world game. The squad contains World Rugby Player of the Year Zoe Aldcroft and nominee Poppy Cleall. Not to mention the team are currently on an 18 match winning streak and scored an embarrassingly high 99 points against the reigning world champions New Zealand during the recent Autumn Internationals.

World Rugby Coach of the Year Simon Middleton has been in charge of the side for almost seven years now and this consistency has paid off as referenced by Wales international Elinor Snowsill in her recent interview.

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England are a side that look primed and prepped to win back the World Cup next year. They were crowned 2021 Six Nations champions and players know what their roles are in any given situation. Even debutants seem extremely comfortable in the Red Roses environment, also every position has a formidable back up option and with the sport’s pinnacle event on the horizon, they’re showing no signs of slowing down.

We also learnt that France isn’t far behind England (they also put a whopping 67 points on the Black Ferns this Autumn) and had two players nominated for World Player of the Year in Caroline Boujard and Laure Sansus.

After missing the mark so frequently against England in the 2021 Six Nations and last year’s Autumns, they’ll be like a dog with a bone at next year’s tournament and it’d be naïve to write them off to lift the World Cup trophy, or at least make the final.

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And what do France and England have in common?

This is by no means new news, but if we needed any more evidence, this year proved that teams who receive significant investment from their unions, who take their women’s team seriously, and play regular Test matches, will thrive. Plus both countries have successful domestic leagues below them drip feeding ready-made international standard athletes into their national setups, it’s a recipe for success.

What also speaks volumes is how a team’s success on the field can influence factors off the field. For example, the BBC showing all four of England’s Autumn International matches on terrestrial TV, opening the sport up to a new, more casual audience and recording one million viewers for the England v Canada match alone on BBC Two- talk about return on investment.

Add to that how the success of the Premier 15s and the standard of rugby also saw the BBC announce they will broadcast the league live for the first time, with a match shown each weekend on iPlayer and the BBC Sport website and app- build it and they will come, as they say.

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For all their bad press earlier in the year and a dismal Six Nations campaign, the November Tests showed us that Wales are picking up, with promising wins over Japan and South Africa and the introduction of contracts appearing in the new year. Wales also finally seem to have nailed down a coach in Ioan Cunningham and fingers crossed he stays in place to offer the players some badly needed consistency and leadership.

Unfortunately, over this Irish sea the scene has not looked so promising. Despite recording recent wins over the USA and Japan, Ireland failed to qualify for the World Cup in September and the year has ended with 62 current and former players writing to their government expressing their loss of trust and faith in the IRFU and pointing out the union’s failing in governing the national women’s programme over a sustained period of time. Hopefully the result of this sees more transparency and long overdue change at the helm of Irish women’s rugby.

Finally, as mirrored by the men’s Autumn results, it seems the northern hemisphere teams are pushing ahead. For the men it’s mid-World Cup cycle but for the women this could prove significant as we are less than ten months away from the postponed tournament in October 2022.

As demonstrated by the Black Ferns returning home winless from their Northern tour, England and France are strides ahead, with the Springbok Women still playing catch up with the remainder of the European nations. The USA also saw a winless Autumn campaign with losses to Canada, Ireland and England.

It could be that regular Test match rugby in the form of the 2020 and 2021 Six Nations has kept the competing northern hemisphere nations afloat during the challenging times of the pandemic, whilst other teams without an annual international competition have struggled.

This has highlighted the fact that New Zealand’s Rugby Union need to buck up their ideas and organise more matches for their Black Ferns. Covid and geography aside, not playing a Test match is over two years is simply unacceptable, especially when the All Blacks managed to squeeze in 18 games in the same period, yes 18!

It doesn’t take a genius to realise that if you don’t challenge your world champions players with top quality opposition for a long period of time, other nations will overtake you. Hopefully, the introduction of Super Rugby Aupiki and the four teams competing in the competition this coming March, will provide the players some much needed Test match standard duals as regularly seen in the top half of the Premier 15s table.

With some teams looking to fine tune their winning formulas and others just starting out on new journeys or embarking on new eras, it’ll be exciting to see what the future brings on the pitch as we prepare for a jam-packed and promising 2022.

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