I wrote this articlein 2016 just before we saw the start of the Premier 15’s, a lot has happened in both the world of cricket, with the much hated Hundred and the world of Women’s rugby. I would judge as a fan of Women’s rugby that the quality has improved immensely at the top level which is the Premier 15’s. What doesn’t seem to have changed is disappointment for clubs already in existence. The removal of both Wasps and Worcester from the Premiership has seen the women’s teams removed from the Premier 15’s. Alongside them neither Sale Women nor Darlingtpn Mowden Park Sharks have been given a place.and Leicester Tigers and Ealing Trainfinders have been found a place in what at the moment looks like an 8 team league. They will play alongside Loughborough Lighting/with an added Northampton, Bristol, Gloucester-Hartpury (formerly just Hartpury), Harlequins, Saracens and Exeter. It feels strange to see Ealing in there, unless the RFU are expecting them to enter the Premiership. As I and others suspected the women’s league is becoming a mirror of the Premiership. If that was the intention from the start, some honesty and transparency would’ve been good! Of course what the 2023 Premier 15’s league looks like is a Midlands and down league at least the men’s competition features Sale Sharks and Newcastle Falcons! In the words of The Telegraph – “With 4 teams to be omitted from next season lack of sides north of Loughborough seems myopic and counterintuitive” I could not agree more!
WHERE IT ALL STARTED – THE ORIGINAL ARTICLE!
I’m going to start this article about RFU plans for Women’s Rugby by looking at the world of cricket, which might seem odd but you’ll get my drift as you read on. The ECB, an organisation which is basically ‘owned’ by the 18 Counties in Division 2 is proposing to introduce a new T20 competition. There has been a social media outcry as the establishment sees something that could be a threat to the ways things are right now. That social media outpouring is being added to by meeting at all of the counties where members disquiet is being made plain. Any proposal will now not be put into place until at least 2020 after much work and discussion involving the stakeholders.
Moving on to Women’s rugby, currently the structure sees the following leagues
- Women’s Premiership – 8 teams
- Women’s Championship South 1 – 8 teams
- Women’s Championship North 1 – 8 Teams
- Women’s Championship Midlands 2 – 8 Teams
- Women’s Championship South East 2 – 9 teams
- Women’s Championship South West 2 – 9 teams
- Women’s Championship North 2 – 9 teams
- Women’s NC Midlands 1 – 8 teams
- Women’s NC North 1 – 8 teams
- Women’s NC South East North 1 – 8 teams
- Women’s NC South East South 1 – 8 teams
- Women’s NC South East West 1 – 6 teams
- Women’s NC South West 1 – 6 teams
This list contains 103 clubs , there are then a further 12 leagues – that’s an awful lot of clubs and stakeholders within the 25 leagues. Promotion has been possible from the 2 leagues in the second tier in the following way – the lowest placed team in the Premiership plays against the winner of the Championship 1 North-South playoff. If the Premiership team wins, there is no promotion and relegation that year. That has been the state of affairs with the exception of a World Cup year. In other words there has been something to ply for and aspire to in Women’s Rugby, something to attract sponsors with.
I went to talk to Dean White, Director of rugby at Thurrock RFC, about the changes being planned for Women’s rugby by the RFU. He’s been at the club for 16 years and has been and is heavily involved in the Thurrock T Birds. This is a team that has a history of England players including Rachel Burford, Emily Scott, Kay Wilson and Heather Fisher all now centrally contracted as well as Sally Tuson, and Mercedes Foy. They’re a club who have been in the top tier and are looking to be there again.
The first game of the both the Premiership season and the Championship took place on the weekend of the 10/11th September, Thurrock had a sponsor on board and a team capable of playing their way to promotion. They were in for 2 surprises, firstly the centrally contracted players were informed that they would not be watched if they continued to play for teams such as Thurrock, they should move to a Premiership team if they were to be considered for selection for their country. That will have dented Thurrock’s chances somewhat, a decision taken by the RFU at Board and Council level on 28th September and 14 October respectively removed all prospect of promotion.
All RFU member clubs, universities and colleges received a letter dated 28 September outlining a tender process and inviting initial expressions of interest to become part of a new structure to be in place for the 2017-18 season. That letter outlines the reasoning as well as the process, bearing in mind the ‘goal posts’ are being changed once the season has started.
Quoting from that letter –
Following the agreement of a strategy for women’s rugby, which supports the overall objective to produce winning teams in 7-a-side ad 15-a-side rugby, the Rugby Football Union (RFU) wishes to develop a new competition at the highest domestic level of the women’s game which will transform the environment in which players are identified, developed and prepared for international rugby.
So, the clear objective of the RFU as I interpret those words is to win silverware, not to increase participation or to promote the game at grassroots. It might be thought that silverware might do that, however the strategy after England won the World Cup was to remove the players from their clubs and put them into training rather than have them available for their clubs for fans and future players to watch and want to aspire to.
In the past 12 months a review of the current Women’s Premiership competition has been conducted, and proposals formulated to institute a new competition in its place. This will be based on minimum operating standards, which will ensure the provision of high quality training facilities, coaching and support services in clubs and the maintenance of an intense competition which demands high and consistent levels of performance.
Again I can see the benefits for the England team of the requirements for the top tier, although I find it highly regrettable that growing the game and participation seems to be of no interest at all. It is also beyond belief that these changes are to take place once the season had started.
Interested parties will receive application packs once they’re circulated on 14 November with the submission deadline of 9 January 2017. The RFU will evaluate the applications 9 days later with successful applicants confirmed by the end of April.
Having seen a transcript of a conference call that took place between the RFU and the club it seems to me that they really haven’t thought the whole thing through, including what will happen to the clubs outside of this top league, yet to be named, oh but it should include the words women’s and rugby!
The ?? women’s rugby league will be a closed shop for 3 years, each of the proposed 10 clubs will received £75,000 a year which will I’m sure keep it as a closed shop. can this be good for the wider women’s game?
One more interesting point as I sign off, The Aylesford Bulls Ladies team, currently in the Women’s Premiership and historically based in Aylesford, Kent as the name suggests were formed in 1998 and have worked their way into that top tier. They now seem to be decked out in Harlequins livery and to be playing at the Surrey Sports Park, Quins training ground, 56 miles from Aylesford. This is in spite of a Harlequins Ladies team which was formed in 1995 playing in the NC London North 2 league. That’s all very strange!
The Thurrock T Birds – will they be given chance to enter the top Women’s Rugby League? The answer looking in 2022 is clearly a very loud and certain NO!