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Why 2022 is the year for women's rugby

By Stella Mills
Exeter Chiefs' Patricia Garcia celebrates at the final whistle with team mates during the Womens Allianz Premier 15s match between Exeter Chiefs Women and Harlequins Women at Sandy Park on January 16, 2022 in Exeter, England. (Photo by Bob Bradford - CameraSport via Getty Images)

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This year is set to be a monumental year for the women’s game, with so much going on it’s an exciting time for the sport, which has already undergone significant growth in the past few months.

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I couldn’t write this without first giving a nod to ITV’s Driving Force Series, which sees Judy Murray interview a variety of different women’s sport legends, starting with England legend Maggie Alphonsi. The episode was directed in such a clever way, it took the audience on a journey, showcasing the rich history of women’s rugby, whilst also shining a light on the issues which are still prevalent in today’s game. I would be surprised if anyone watching walked away feeling anything other than respect for all those involved, but also feeling incredibly proud of how much our sport has developed over the years.

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Allianz Premier 15’s

Visibility of women’s rugby is key to driving the sport forward and the classic phrase ‘Can’t see it can’t be it’ rings true in this respect. The domestic league in England recently earnt free to air coverage on BBC iPlayer, which has only served to increase fans’ appetite for watching live games, according to England international and Bristol Bears captain Amber Reed:

“Attendance is massively on the rise at Bristol Bears games, we have seen more people come and watch our games in person than ever before. This is off the back of people watching online and wanting to get a taste for it in person. Attendances at women’s games are growing as testament to the increase in coverage from the BBC.”

She continued to say:

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“The audience we are getting at games is a younger generation, we play at a local club ground and lots of the age group girls come and support us from the surrounding areas. Often, they message players on social media to ask for a photo after the game, which then gets posted online because they enjoyed their experience, which all helps to grow the sport.”

It seems the coverage is working well, as it has clocked up nearly 600,000 viewers for the 2021/22 season so far, according to Premier 15s commentator Nick Heath.

The accessibility of being able to turn on your TV, press a button and watch women’s rugby will only seek to grow the game further. The decision by the BBC to cover the women’s game cannot, and should not, be understated.

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Women’s Six Nations

In a first, the Women’s Six Nations now has a dedicated headline sponsor in TikTok. In addition to this, the tournament is being played in a stand-alone window, separate to the men’s game, which in my eyes is a positive step forward. We now have more time to prepare and market the game, on its own merit away from the shadow of the men’s tournament. But also, we have the chance to keep the momentum running from the men’s tournament well into the women’s to attract and retain new audiences.

This sponsorship deal only highlights that women’s rugby as a sport is growing rapidly, which in turn presents an ideal time for coverage of the game to grow. With the excuse of the men’s tournament being a priority firmly taking a back seat I can only hope editors take this opportunity and run with it. From a media point of view, the women’s game is only going to grow, and with that growth comes increased appetite from rugby fans for access to information around the game.

When asked if this will have impact on the women’s game, RugbyPass spoke exclusively to England international Lark Davies who said:

“You no longer have clashes of fixtures, so fans don’t have to choose between the men’s and the women’s matches, it’s very much a let’s go and physically watch the women’s match or see it on TV.”

“As players we love interacting with the fans after matches, it looks like we will have crowds for the Six Nations, which will be a positive for us.”

Women’s World Cup

The World Cup is set to take place in New Zealand later this year and already the qualifiers have been subject to discussion among rugby fans with Hong Kong and Samoa withdrawing from the qualifiers due to apparent logistical challenges that have been presented thanks to the pandemic.

Looking forward to the tournament, it’s no secret that big events like a World Cup naturally lead to an increase in participation of the sport at grassroots level. However, we do have to take into consideration that the viewing times will be slightly different, with the tournament being played 13 hours ahead of normal UK time.

For me, going into the World Cup I hope to see more targeted marketing around the teams. This is something which the RFU have already invested in, with a rebranding of the Red Roses last year.

As the players will be so far away from home, social media and mainstream media are set to play a pivotal role in the tournament, hopefully providing a much-needed connection between English fans and the goings on of the tournament. Last year we already saw a stark increase in female players using their social media profiles to boost the publicity of the sport, using new methods such as TikTok to break into different audiences.

We are only a month or so into 2022 and already it’s hard to be anything but excited about the next eleven months.

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