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England may not have won World Cup but they have changed women’s rugby | Women’s Rugby World Cup 2021

It was not the rose-tinted outcome that England wanted, but Saturday’s World Cup final was still, in many ways, a significant triumph. As the beaten Red Roses captain, Sarah Hunter, emphasised following her side’s agonising 34-31 loss: “People have finally woken up to what women’s rugby is all about.” This was the weekend that changed not just how female rugby players are perceived, but could also yet have a transformative effect on the men’s game.

Everyone who attended the final left Eden Park saying the same things: the atmosphere was more family-friendly than the men’s equivalent, the players’ visible enjoyment and sense of adventure was delightfully infectious and the game itself had fewer stoppages, barely any box kicks and a refreshing lack of caterpillar rucks and reset scrums. In many ways it felt like a springboard to a new age of rugby enlightenment.

With England due to host the next women’s World Cup in 2025, the Rugby Football Union’s chief executive, Bill Sweeney, did not hesitate when asked if he now believed a capacity crowd of 82,000 at Twickenham might be feasible in three years’ time. “We’ll fill Twickenham,” he replied confidently. “We’ll get 82,000 people there for the final and hopefully for the semi-final as well. I’m confident we’ll do that.”

He went a step further still, suggesting the entertainment offered by the Black Ferns and Red Roses was better than the current men’s equivalent. “Watching that match last night you didn’t feel it was a women’s rugby match. It was a competitive, highly intense sporting event. In many respects it was probably more entertaining than the men’s game,” he said.

The RFU is already optimistic, despite the result, that 30-40,000 fans may show up to next April’s Women’s Six Nations game against France, with potential interest from advertisers and broadcasters also now likely to increase. “I think this tournament has really kicked off more interest in the women’s game,” Sweeney said. “New Zealanders were saying 70% of the fans in the stadium were new fans … they’re not your old diehards. I think you’ll see the same thing in the English game as well.”

Sweeney also believes the rest of the world are urgently investigating ways to catch up and offer full-time contracts to their best female 15-a-side players. At present the depth of competition is shallow but a lot of eyes have been opened. “I think people have been surprised how this tournament has gone,” he said. “All the other unions have been here and they’ve seen the effect a successful women’s game can have. I think you’ll see other unions starting to invest.”

England’s Abby Dow and Lydia Thompson embrace after the final whistle
Abby Dow and Lydia Thompson embrace after the final whistle. England more than played their part in a groundbreaking tournament for the women’s game. Photograph: Brett Phibbs/PA

The new WXV format, designed to give nations more competitive games, is set to commence in 2023 and should help maintain the momentum, but there is a slight caveat: England’s decision to bankroll full-time contracts in 2019 did not, ultimately, deliver the trophy. By contrast New Zealand Rugby, roundly criticised for not supporting their women’s players properly, has come out on top having invested far less.

Its trump card, though, was the appointment of the remarkable Wayne Smith, who has presided over one of the all-time great coaching makeovers after taking over a downtrodden, underperforming squad in April. By encouraging his players to stay true to themselves and to back their instincts, Smith sowed the seeds of the Black Ferns’ compelling attacking brand of rugby and reminded every other coach in the world that brute force and orthodoxy are not the only viable tools at the top level. “We play our best rugby when our minds are free and we’re playing with joy,” said Ruahei Demant, his outstanding fly-half and skipper. “I guess that’s where the calmness really came from.”

New Zealand celebrate their World Cup triumph
New Zealand celebrate their World Cup triumph. Photograph: Michael Bradley/AFP/Getty Images

Smith also played a blinder in the final when he sent a message down to his forwards to contest the crucial last-gasp lineout from which England were hoping to steal victory. His opposite number, Simon Middleton, admitted the pain of defeat would never leave him. “I don’t think I’ll ever get over it,” said the Yorkshireman, who had previously steered his side to 30 successive Test wins. “I’ll learn to live with it, worse things happen. I’m immensely proud of the team and what we’ve achieved. But when you put yourself in high performance it’s to win and we pulled up a little bit short. We didn’t get what we came for and that will be my lasting memory.”

For him and his players, the disappointment was intensified by the reality that several senior players will now be fading into the sunset. “When you come on these journeys you hope you’re going home with the trophy but sport doesn’t give you those fairytales all the time,” acknowledged Emily Scarratt, who will be 35 when the next World Cup kicks off and is not yet sure exactly how long she will battle on. “I said to my mum when I saw her afterwards: ‘Brace yourself, we might have to do another three years of this.’” Her teammate Abbie Ward was similarly gutted: “Finals are always brutal … it’s a cruel, cruel sport.”

Ward could, however, see the bigger picture. “Hopefully that’s a slingshot now for women’s rugby. We want to see full stadiums in France, Italy and England. Let’s sell out Twickenham in the Six Nations. Results aside, if we’ve inspired boys and girls to take up the game, then that’s bigger than the World Cup. It’s about a legacy.”

Absolutely right. The Red Roses may have fallen just short, but they were a key component of a tournament that has changed the face of the game.

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