Do not damn England for storming Six Nations while others have stood still

Megan Jonescelebrates scoring her second try with team mate Ellie Kildunne

Last Saturday the England Women’s team delivered one of their best performances in the last few years to thump Ireland and meet many of the improvements sought by John Mitchell since his recent arrival as head coach.

The response to this win was, paradoxically, mixed. Some welcomed the outstanding display but others were quick to bemoan the unevenness of the contest and predict dire consequences if this continued.

When it comes to what is seen on the pitch, most people who have watched the England men’s team for the last three years have, bar the exceptional performance against Ireland, had fairly thin gruel. They can stomach a few more wins with a hatful of tries before they get turned off by their regularity.

Moreover, several of the Red Roses tries were not taken as a result of egregious failings from the Irish team. Several were superbly crafted and executed. This was especially so when it came to working out how to find the edge of a defence and exploit the outside centre/full back channel; the most difficult area to defend in rugby.

Those carping at the current position have no better ideas about how to rectify the imbalances. Some advocate a tournament where England and France and one other country play home and away, with the top two teams contesting a final and the third-placed team playing the winners of the group containing the three other Six Nations sides.

If this happened, you would inevitably get the justified complaint from the bottom three sides that they will never get parity with the top unions if they are not allowed to play them regularly. The alternative idea of expanding the tournament to two groups of four teams would simply involve more mismatches and attract the same criticism from the lower ranked teams.

‘The RFU was the first union to back its women’

The open horizon for women’s rugby has been apparent for nearly a decade, as it has been for football and cricket. The Rugby Football Union was the first union to back its women and many unions who are now struggling to make up the performance gap could and should have done likewise. They had – and have – the money but chose not to do likewise. Either they did not have the vision or through a simple disregard for the women’s game.

Take England’s opponents on Saturday. In 2014 Ireland finished fourth in the World Cup, but could only muster eighth three years later and in 2021 they failed to even qualify for the tournament, a fact that led 62 past and present Ireland players to write a letter to the Irish government saying that they had lost “all trust and confidence in the IRFU and its leadership after historic failings”.

It should be noted that during those periods, Ireland’s men’s team progressed to the top of their world rankings.

It was not until late 2022 that Ireland offered professional women’s contracts and Telegraph Sport reported only last year that, after a wide-ranging review, there were irreconcilable conflicts over some of those contracts. More damningly, it also reported that a leading Irish rugby figure said at a President’s dinner at Bective RFC, Dublin: “Who gives a f--- about women’s rugby?”

‘Overall attendances and viewing figures are increasing’

I accept the Irish Rugby Football Union has been making changes to the women’s game at professional and amateur level. However, seeking – as some are now doing – to explain the current disparity in performance by hiding behind the excuse of inferior playing numbers is risible in light of the above blunders and misogyny.

The notion that fans will soon turn away from women’s rugby if the present imbalance persists is not borne out by the facts. In the long run, tournaments cannot thrive if there is no realistic competition between the protagonists, but we are some distance away from this to be applied to the current Women’s Six Nations.

The proof of this is that, overall, attendances and viewing figures for virtually all the games, whoever is involved, are increasing. The crowd at Twickenham for the Ireland game was around 49,000, and while this did not beat last year’s Grand Slam showdown with France, it is still part of an upward trajectory for pool games.

Significantly, last Saturday’s Twickenham crowd contained a different demographic from other fixtures, with more families and children attending. This is due, in part, to the cheaper ticket prices, but you must have a starting point for anybody’s involvement in a sport and as the merchandise sales prove, these future supporters spend more than traditional crowds.

Every England women’s rugby fan wants more competition, but it has to be achieved by other unions matching the advancements made by the RFU, New Zealand and France, and by coming into the 21st century when it comes to women’s rugby.

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