WOMEN'S 6 NATIONS 2021
SUPER SATURDAY AND THE PRESSURE TO SPARKLE
by Nick Heath, rugby commentator
My father has an uncanny habit of making a champagne bottle more volatile than it is. Should a special occasion merit a glass of bubbly, his anxiety around the cork-popping moment and the need to avoid spilling a single drop means that he unconsciously, hurriedly shakes the bottle as he tries to pour the first few bubbly drops into the nearest flute. It’s an inaccurate pour and his agitated state has only served to rile the contents to flowing out excitedly, messily and all over the place.
There was champagne on Super Saturday and it was duly sprayed by Marlie Packer – my first choice exponent of this fine art – as England lifted the Women’s 6 Nations trophy for a third successive year. It had not been a final graced with expansive, skilful rugby but was nonetheless captivating for how well the two teams were matched.
Indeed, the very nature of the Covid-influenced shortened format and a day of finals matches in the women’s competition ensured that all three games were much closer encounters than any fare which had graced the previous three weekends. The conclusion of the tournament was just as much Super as any of the previous Saturdays must surely be termed Mediocre by comparison.
The need for England v France to deliver hung heavy in the air at The Twickenham Stoop. Not just for the 46 players and half dozen officials who were warming up but for all the media in attendance and those in absentia who have spent many years supporting the women’s game and putting their shoulder to the wheel to increase its interest.
The match was broadcast free-to-air in the UK and Ireland on BBC2 and RTE2. It was broadcast in full on BBC Radio 5Live. It was beamed across the world to the USA, South Africa, New Zealand, Australia and beyond. Flying solo and unfettered in a new April window has to be a new and permanent move for the Championship.
But while it’s right to champion this, it is indicative of where the women’s game currently lies – with one team gently bathing in the shallows of professionalism while the others are not so much on the beach but back in the car park fumbling over old towels and windbreakers – that there is huge, daunting pressure for the game to be at its sparkling best in the one or two annual showcase windows that it has.
I have exchanged messages with some of the ex-players and pundits who were on media duty on Saturday, several of whom have admitted to feeling under huge pressure to promote and sell the women’s game in this rare window of opportunity. It’s like having one day to sell your house but if the cushions aren’t plumped, no one will ever buy it.
England’s Rugby World Cup winner Kat Merchant was on co-commentary on the world feed and replied to me simply stating, “Like it’s a one-shot to prove the women’s game is worth it.” Read that again, “worth it”. This is not pressure akin to feeling pre-match nerves ahead of playing or broadcasting on a World Cup final, it’s pressure that it’s our job to convince new audiences (and future sponsors) of value.
It’s that constant feeling, as a fellow voice on the women’s game often says, “like you’re trying to push water uphill” because while players, ex-players, coaches and a select band of media are devoted to the cause, the chronic under-funding and oh-you-mean-the-women attitude from administrators and penny-pushers is exhausting.
Any pressure to promote the game would be eased if there were more opportunities to enjoy competitive matches. Women’s rugby is stacked with potential but you can trace all of the issues it currently faces back to funding and support. At least three of the unions in the Women’s 6 Nations seem content to wallow in the days of amateurism, with little financial support to their players. Scotland provide limited contracts, France offer a little more and England have a fully professional, if undervalued, contracted elite squad.
Where these countries are all equal is in the commitment, sacrifice and effort put in by their athletes, but how can Michela Sillari nail a Scarratt-esque midfield switch into space or Beibhinn Parsons time that cross-field catch like Lydia Thompson, if they are only able to train together 20% of the time as England have together?
With three much tighter matches on Super Saturday, that suggests that 33% of this year’s matches were closely competitive. But what happens when it goes back, as it likely will, to the full roster of round robin matches next year? What will have changed at five out of the six unions to give their players any hope of closing the gap, when that stat could well drop to 20%?
The journey to the 2022 Women’s 6 Nations has to start now. The organisation’s CEO Ben Morel and his committee need to make decisions as soon as possible regarding dates for next year and any (unlikely) change in format. It has to allow there to be certainty, to give sponsorship managers long sight of what they could be investing in, to give fans the chance to book weekends away (let’s hope) and to let the women’s game focus on improvements that mean we see more competitive matches.
Maybe then my Dad can sit down in front of any of fifteen games on mainstream TV and calmly pour that glass of champagne.