The inclusion of Rugby Sevens in Rio this year was undoubtedly crucial towards the progression of women’s rugby, but can we expect to see the same progress as seen in women’s football after its first inclusion in the Olympics back in Atlanta 1996?
19 years on from Atlanta the 2015 FIFA Women’s World Cup in Canada attracted audiences of up to 26,000 per match as well every game being broadcasted worldwide. Meanwhile, not even half of the matches from the 2014 Women’s Rugby World Cup were broadcasted and the final was played in a far from full 20,000 seater stadium.
The inaugural Women’s Rugby Sevens tournament in Rio was a highly entertaining affair. The three-day tournament saw Australia coming out on top, beating New Zealand 24-17 in the final. Canada completed the podium following a victory over Great Britain in the third and fourth place play-off. The all important question remains, however – how will this help improve the stature of women’s rugby?
Women’s rugby must capitalise on the entertainment factor of sevens as well as less players being needed to form a good team. Sevens has more of a wow factor than 15s, making it more entertaining for those new to the sport. An example can be made of both Kenya and Fiji’s men’s sevens teams. A major focus has been placed on the sevens version in both countries and has reaped the rewards. Fiji have won back-to-back sevens series and are now Olympic champions. Kenya won their first series title in 2016 and have the all-time top scorer of the series on their side, Collins Injera.
There are great disparities engrained in the HSBC Sevens circuit. The women’s circuit only has five different stops. These include Clermont-Ferrand in France and Langford in Canada. This is in stark contrast to the locations to which the men’s circuit travels to, such as Las Vegas, London and Paris. The featuring of women’s rugby at Rio should open the door to an expansion of the women’s tour, thus attracting larger audiences and a more significant investment.
The inclusion of women’s rugby in the 2016 Olympics might not be the springboard it could have been. To begin with, the venue was situated some distance away from the centre of Rio and the main Olympic park, thus attracting fewer people to watch. This was clear to see on the TV coverage, and was a widespread issue at the games in Rio mainly down to the extortionate ticket prices, pricing out the majority of locals.
One can imagine that if sevens had been introduced back in London 2012 it would have attracted larger audiences. Secondly, it would have been far more beneficial to play the women’s tournament at the same time as the men’s. Men and women compete at the same time in other events such as swimming and athletics, the same could have been done in rugby sevens.
TV coverage could have been far more continuous, as seen on the sevens circuit. The attendance would have been the same for both men and women, and audiences would have been able to see that the women’s version is equally as entertaining as the men’s.
Aside from the sevens success, Rugby World magazine recently reported that the RFU has awarded 48 professional women’s 15s contracts. This is an unprecedented occurrence that will allow the 15s players to devote themselves to the game, and should benefit the sport as a whole.
Jay Williams, Pundit Arena