RFU shows commitment to women’s team despite economy-class-gate

Controversy surrounding decision to fly women’s team to New Zealand in economy class discounts financial context

It wasn’t the best of looks. When the French cycling team boarded its 19-hour flight to Australia for the World Road Championships earlier this month, its nine senior male members were escorted to business class, while the seven senior women and all the juniors were directed towards economy.

The French Federation’s technical director, Christophe Manin, defended the choice of expenditure by insisting that the lads had better prospects of winning medals, so he might have been a bit morto when they returned home with precisely the same number of gongs as the ladies: a silver apiece.

Considering Eglantine Rayer had flown for 19 hours with her knees up her nostrils not all that long before coming second in the junior road race, she should have been upgraded to gold.

It was reminiscent of the time, four years ago, when Barcelona flew their men’s and women’s teams to the United States for a joint pre-season tour - and, yes, the lads flew in luxury while the lasses had to slum it with the riff-raff back in steerage.


“They travelled comfortably,” Barca spokesman Josep Vives insisted, like they were Chihuahuas in the hold, “generating controversy over an issue like this is merely a way to attack us.”

The Japanese Football Association responded in much the same rather defensive fashion when it flew its men to the 2012 Olympic Games in business class, while the women were placed in the cheap seats.

If success - or the potential for success - determines these decisions, then they were on the thinnest of ice: the women had won the World Cup the year before, the men had been eliminated in the first knock-out round of the 2010 finals.

“I guess it should have been the other way around,” said Homare Sawa, the 2011 women’s world player of the year, of the travel arrangements.

For the same games, Australia sent its male basketball team to London in business class, its women in economy. The men were knocked out in the quarter-finals, the women won bronze. Just sayin’.

The Google will furnish you with nigh on limitless amount of similar examples of sporting bodies never having heard of the term optics, never mind having the willingness to be sound on matters of this sort.

Once in a blue moon, though, the ire is misdirected, like this week when economy-class-gate erupted over the English women’s rugby team flying in the cheap seats to the World Cup in New Zealand.

Now, sportswomen are habitually told that it’s not a good time to air their grievances, that they should leave it for another day because there are more pressing matters at hand, to which, generally, they should respond: shove your more pressing matters where the sun don’t shine.

But in a week when Worcester Warriors’ Ollie Wynn revealed that he had been made homeless by the club that was put in to administration on Monday, having not been paid for the last three weeks, only saved from his potential fate by a kindly teammate, the dodgy optics were produced by those complaining about economy-class-gate.

When English rugby players are losing the roofs over their heads, then having to slum it in economy suddenly seems like quite a small thing.

Two Worcester Warriors players, Lydia Thompson and Laura Keates, are in England’s World Cup squad, so, as the BBC reported, when they return home after the tournament they may have no club to play for. As things stand, they won’t even be able to train with Worcester because the club can’t afford insurance.

English rugby is enduring a severe financial crisis, its union (RFU) making 119 of of its staff redundant after the calamitous impact of Covid. Eighty-five per cent of its revenue comes from attendances at men’s matches in Twickenham, so the empty stands during the pandemic left its finances in tatters. Come November 2021, it announced a revenue shortfall of £120m.

England’s men get 80,000-plus whenever they play at Twickenham, the women set a record last April when 15,836 turned up for their Six Nations game in Leicester, when they trolleyed Ireland 69-0. If half the people complaining about economy-class-gate turn up at their first standalone Twickenham game against France in the next Six Nations, the news of which was announced on Wednesday, then English women’s rugby would be in a decidedly healthier state.

As it is, despite the team’s success - a record 25 wins in a row making them favourites to win the World Cup - they’re a loss leader for the RFU, who became the first union to offer full-time contracts to their international women in 2019. The players didn’t quite become rich as a result, the salaries ranging from £26,000 to £33,000, and earlier this month their match fees for their World Cup warm-up games were reduced from £800 to £400 in another cost-cutting measure.

Still, despite its severe financial restraints, the RFU has shown the best commitment it can muster towards its women’s team.

But come the squad’s transportation to the World Cup, there was a problem. The RFU’s partner is British Airways, but they don’t fly direct from England to New Zealand, so any of those indignant comparisons with the first class treatment of the boys when they set off for Australia this summer were, well, daft.

Instead, the women had to fly with Emirates, who could have earned brownie points by upgrading the squad - instead, by all accounts, leaving them sprinkled in economy, not even seated together.

That’s the thing, major global companies still aren’t getting the potential commercial value of treating elite female sportswomen like, well, elite sports people. Emirates could have earned themselves several thousand likes by shifting the English squad to comfy seats.

But the RFU got the brunt of the ‘MISOGYNIST!!!!’ abuse, despite their statement that the women’s set-up had opted to use their budget to bring “additional physios, rehab therapists, performance coaches, a nutritionist and a full-time psychologist” to New Zealand, instead of flying business class. In straitened times, a sensible choice.

Rugby writer Stella Mills asked a good question, though. “If England bring home the trophy, will they be flying in economy?” Emirates? Get your upgrade button ready.

Mary Hannigan

Mary Hannigan

Mary Hannigan is a sports writer with The Irish Times