'I wish I was twenty again... I guarantee there are international players who were planning on retiring who now won't'
Last week, a new global women’s rugby competition was announced by World Rugby, called WXV. It will take place every Autumn from 2023, except in Rugby World Cup years. From a player’s perspective, this is amazing news. I’m sure all players will be excited to have the chance to play in a global tournament once a year, and it means every single regional fixture – like the Women’s Six Nations – has a direct impact on another global tournament.
In short, the tournament offers consistent international Test matches to sixteen nations in preparation for the Rugby World Cup expanding from 12 to 16 teams in 2025. Regional competitions, like the Women’s Six Nations, will take place before June each year before the WXV tournament is played in the Autumn. There are three tiers: WXV1, WXV2 and WXV3, which each have teams in them based on their rankings from the regional tournaments: WXV1 is the highest and WXV3 is the lowest tier.
While the top rugby nations get to play fairly regular international rugby, this tournament extends that to other countries. The fact that every year we have a regional and global competition is a great thing for the women’s game, and the fact that we will have an aligned calendar is a great step too.
The regional competitions will dictate the tier that teams play in, which adds that extra level of excitement to competitions like the Six Nations. There’s no doubt how much these games already mean to players, but the added chance of improving your ranking for a global tournament is like another carrot dangling in front of the players’ noses – they will be even more motivated to play and do the best they can.
It’s also been an exciting week for me personally, as I was appointed Head of Women’s Rugby for the International Rugby Players Association. It’s the first time the association has had a Head of Women’s Rugby, and it gives me the perfect chance to develop women’s rugby globally and really get involved with these decisions. The association has also brought in current Ireland international Sene Naoupu, who will be Head of Strategic Projects and will also be involved supporting me with the women’s game. These appointments show a great investment into women’s players. I’ve been working with the association for five years and it’s work I am passionate about. As someone who has lived and breathed women’s rugby, it’s a fantastic place to be.
It’s nice to bring some good news and I’m so pleased to see the increasing signs of investment around women’s rugby. World Rugby is pledging £6.4 million into the WXV tournament, an investment that forms part of their Women In Rugby Commercial Programme. The tournament has been in talks for some time, and it’s great to see that this has finally been announced, especially considering the difficulties faced by the men as they have tried to secure a united global calendar.
There are issues that this new tournament highlights, with some people commenting on the concern for amateur international sides and how they will cope in this global tournament. Simply, I hope that the new global, regular competition will encourage more unions to further invest in their women’s game, especially when there will be more eyes on women’s rugby than ever before. The women will be playing more rugby, which of course adds pressure to their already busy calendar if they are working full time as well as playing rugby. It’s something that unions need to look at closely to try and improve quickly.
— Royal London (@RoyalLondon) March 24, 2021
Looking closer to home, the top three teams of the Women’s Six Nations will qualify for the top tier, WXV1, which adds pressure for teams to finish in those positions. That’s not to say Tier 2 is going to be easy, it will be still be a difficult clash, but I’m sure all nations will want to get in that top global tier of women’s rugby. This again adds pressure to the other Home Nations, Wales, Scotland and Ireland, who may need to invest more in order to secure that position.
The tournament doesn’t start for two more years which gives the nations some time to invest and support their players to compete for their place in the ranks. The more investment in advance, the less likely it is that we will see huge margins in the games, which can only be a good thing for the sport. There are also no promotions or relegations for the first cycle of the tournament, which allows everything to settle. It’s what the Premier 15s did when it started, to make sure that every team had enough time to get themselves sorted. With a global competition like this one, it also allows broadcasters and sponsors to understand what the package is before they invest.
Despite the challenges that could lie ahead in terms of investment, all British and Irish players who I have seen talk about this announcement seem really excited. At the heart of this tournament are players who just want to play more rugby, so I’m sure they will be over the moon with the chance to play this global competition.
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Most importantly, WXV provides an aspirational pathway for girls in more countries. While English girls might be used to seeing their national women’s side facing New Zealand or another overseas team, for many countries this only happens at the Rugby World Cup. Being able to watch your team play in a global competition will keep players in the game, because they know that if they play for their country, they will be playing regular international rugby – not just regional competitions. This drips down to the younger players. I want all girls to be able to admire players in their own national team, rather than turn to a foreign team they have watched. On the other end of the spectrum, I guarantee there are international players who were planning on retiring who now won’t!
There are details to be worked out and a global calendar will never fit perfectly for everybody. For example, the Premier 15s might have to move in the calendar to allow for this autumn tournament, as there will be so many players in the league who will be playing for their national side. The good thing is that this autumn window is fixed, so players and unions can plan around it.
I’ve been asked if the introduction of WVX makes me want to head back into the international game, and it’s a question that I feel I’ll be asked a lot in the next few years! Women’s rugby is growing so fast, and I’m pleased to see the game develop – even if I’m not playing for England anymore. There’s always going to be bigger and better things coming, and I’m genuinely so happy for the players. I don’t think “I wish I was still playing”, I think “I wish I was twenty again”, because I look at the players coming through and I’m just so excited for the future they will have in the game.
Woweeee this is some squad ?? https://t.co/2OuUoM4b80
— Rachael Burford (@RachaelBurf12) March 26, 2021
Now the potential women’s Lions tour is different. How amazing would that be to play in? I’ll be seriously jealous when that happens, but I hope to be involved in some way or another. My new role is more off-field, which is another development that maybe we wouldn’t have seen a few years ago. When I look back at my career, there weren’t many opportunities to be involved without playing, but now there are those roles available. Susie Appleby is a one of the prime examples of this: an international player who has stepped away from playing and is now making a huge difference at Exeter Chiefs. In fact, The Allainz Premier 15 actually has seven previous international players now in coaching or Director of Rugby roles.
For me, any off-field role will never going to be the same as playing, but I feel really proud of how far the sport has gone, which comes before anything else.
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