Is it time to separate the women’s Six Nations from the men’s?
Idea of separating the men’s and women’s Six Nations tournaments being explored
Nora Stapleton: “By having the Six Nations on a separate weekend where there is no other rugby, so the only thing rugby journalists can talk about are the women’s fixtures then that will help I feel.” Photograph: Bryan Keane/Inpho
World Rugby and the Six Nations have confirmed that they are exploring separating the men’s and women’s Six Nations tournaments, as part of a planned global women’s rugby calendar. This move is not only designed to make it possible for an international and regional global women’s rugby calendar, but it is also intended to help promote the women’s game.
The idea behind moving the women’s tournament away from the men’s is that there will be greater media coverage due to the men and women not competing for coverage at the same time of year. Holding the two tournaments at the same time means media coverage is shared, with the women’s teams not getting the same coverage.
“World Rugby is working collaboratively with its member unions, regional associations and other key stakeholders in reviewing the international calendar for the women’s game at both regional and a global level to create a truly global competition offering for women’s rugby,” said a World Rugby spokesperson. “When this process is complete full details will be announced at a later date this year.
“As part of this review, competition owners such as the Six Nations have also been involved and we continue to work collaboratively together in reaching our goal to enhance the global profile and competitiveness of the women’s game.”
A representative from the Six Nations also confirmed they were studying a possible specific window different to the men’s as part of an update to the global calendar for the women’s international game, but this is just a working option right now and that no decision has been made yet.
But simply moving the Six Nations to a different point in the calendar year will not solve the problem of support and development that women’s rugby still faces, according to former Irish internationals.
“I think there’s bigger problems in Ireland, not just that whole media thing about coverage around it, if you look at the situation with sponsorships in the good times, for the last couple of years there’s been no sponsors,” said Fiona Coghlan, who captained Ireland in their first ever win over New Zealand in the 2014 World Cup. “And now we’re in the middle of Covid and going into a recession and the likelihood of getting a sponsor is going to be difficult.
“It’s not just about moving the tournament,” she added. “It’s about everything around it and all the stakeholders involved . . . if you get more media coverage maybe then more sponsorship will come into it, but I think we need to improve the standard of the product . . . and [make it so] that people want to actually view and see it.”
Nora Stapleton, Sport Ireland’s Women in Sport lead and a former teammate of Coghlan, believes attitudes in the media still need to change before the women’s game can get the visibility and media coverage it needs.
“The traditional set-up in nearly every media outlet are journalists who have an interest in that particular sport and those journalists have grown up with the male version of the sport their whole lives, give or take a small percentage here and there,” she said.
“I think that would have to change globally; it is not just within Ireland. How you do your work will have to change and that comes from leadership within media outlets,” said Stapleton.
“By having the Six Nations on a separate weekend where there is no other rugby, so the only thing rugby journalists can talk about are the women’s fixtures then that will help I feel.”
It is not only the amount of coverage and support that bothers Coghlan when comparing the men and women’s games.
“This isn’t just rugby, its women’s sport; the way it is reported on its sort of like: Well aren’t they great?
“We got to the World Cup semi-final, which is obviously an amazing achievement and beating New Zealand, but we were appalling that day against England, we did not perform, and it annoyed me afterwards [that] some of the media coverage was like ‘ah sure they’re the first team to get to a semi-final,’ but I was like ‘no we didn’t play well’.
“Yeah it’s great we take all the headlines when it is good, we beat New Zealand and we take all the plaudits for good matches,” added Coghlan, “but likewise when it’s not a good game of rugby you have to call it out and we didn’t perform well that day.”
Although women’s rugby in Ireland has been fully affiliated to the Irish Rugby Football Union (IRFU) and accepted by the greater Irish public since 1998, and has a greater history even before that, it is still greatly under-promoted and under-supported.
In 2017, the World Cup match between Ireland and France held at the UCD Belfield Bowl broke the international viewership record for a women’s Test match, with a peak of 3.1 million viewers. While this viewership and support shows an improvement, it has not been matched or bettered since, and the average viewership of international women’s matches receives nowhere near the same level.
“I definitely think the crowds started to [grow]; we garnered more attention after that Six Nations win in 2013, and then the crowds have grown since I’ve retired, and the move to Donnybrook,” said Coghlan. “I don’t think we were fighting against the men; they just had the support and we didn’t, and it didn’t matter what we did, we weren’t getting it.”
Similar to viewership and media coverage, union buy-in and access to facilities, while improving, are still not equal to the significant support given to the men’s teams. The men’s teams have access to better training facilities and staff supports than their female counterparts, which is a major issue for Stapleton.
“It all comes down to the buy-ins from the unions and how much they are going to commit to it. We don’t get the same quality of pitches, or resources for the staff,” added Stapleton. “I think if you look at the unions like the IRFU, the staff have to focus on one match and then their focus is always on the next game, which is the men’s game, so that will always get priority.
“You’re not going to get to use the same facilities as the men . . .but I think for the unions it might work if it turns out to be the sole event in their calendar for a particular time in the year then they will be able to spend more time on marketing, more time on sponsorships; just dedicate more working hours to making the women’s tournament a much bigger occasion.”
By increasing the amount of time unions can focus solely on the women’s game, amateur players can end up training to a professional schedule, which could attract better support as it will lead to a higher quality and more competitive matches.
In recent years, England and France have dominated the Women’s Six Nations, with the winners of that match often determining the winners of the tournament as a whole. This is not surprising, as France and England both have professional women’s rugby structures feeding into their semi-professional and professional international teams.
By comparison, Ireland, Scotland, Wales and Italy are all amateur teams, made up of players that have to train and practice in between their day jobs as teachers, physiotherapists, doctors or students. In order to truly promote women’s rugby, it is important to make all women’s matches equally as competitive, according to Coghlan.
“When you get a good quality game like the likes England v France or even the Ireland v Scotland game, you know they’re good to watch and people get engaged with them, but we need a consistency across the whole tournament,” she said.
In order to build this consistency, Stapleton believes making all Women’s Six Nations at least semi-professional should be the goal of the unions.
“At some stage there has to be a decision made and they will have to start contracting the core international players or a core team of players there at a yearly basis, to up the skill level,” she said.
“Personally I think the future lies in the provincial game in Ireland, like our provincial teams end up playing the teams in England and eventually end up with like the Pro14 or the Pro12 or something, because the club game in Ireland is never going to be the next layer underneath the international game in Ireland like it is in England.”
While Coghlan agrees that professionalism should be the goal, she fears Covid-19 will make that move impossible at least for the coming years.
“I would love to have been professional and obviously that’s a rise in the standards, but there’s lot around the sustainability of it and the funding of it,” said Coghlan.
“It’s all good to go and say ‘oh yeah we’re going professional’, but how can you make that sustainable for now and forever more? Because once you turn professional you don’t want to be turning back . . . It is not the most appropriate time unfortunately [due to the impending recession].”
Ultimately Stapleton thinks that now is a good time to separate the men’s and women’s Six Nations, as it should grow the game like it did for women’s soccer.
“If you had to ask me this two years ago I would have said ‘no, they have to stick together’, but I think in terms of growth and opportunity long term you do need to separate them. Long term it is like the soccer World Cup, the Women’s Uefa and all that . . . they used to use the same sponsors for the men’s and women’s World Cup and then they recently went off and decided that . . . the women’s game is going to be strong enough to stand on its own and with the last World Cup they have really shown that that is so true.
“My view would be that a standalone tournament I actually think now could possibly get more visibility because, once it’s not landing on the same weekend as the Heineken Cup finals and things like that, you’ll have rugby writers that will divert their time and spend time trying to get to know the women’s players across the teams.”