Despite a restructured approach to the practical element of international matches, the men’s 2021 Six Nations proved to be one of the most dramatic and closely fought contests for years. The final destination of the title was finally decided on the final play of the final game, with the winners not actually being in action. The fact that this game was a postponement due to issues related to COVID was a mere addition of drama and excitement as this stand alone fixture decided the destiny of a bizarre yet enthralling competition. At the end of it all, Wales were crowned as Champions after Scotland snatched victory from France’s fingertips in Paris with an overtime try.
The draw to the men’s Six Nations is huge, with ITV reporting that Scotlands’ opening weekend victory against the defending Champions England was watched by a peak audience of 8.7 million viewers.
In contrast, the Women’s Six nations competition has found itself in a position whereby it is difficult to find the results and standings in years-gone-by, let alone provide a platform from which a viewing audience of millions can be reached.
Exposure for Women’s Rugby
Ahead of a truncated 2021 tournament, the Women’s Six Nations broke new ground with major broadcasting deals that saw the Championship being broadcast across every continent. Fox Sports, a major player in the US television market, purchased the rights for North America with the Championship being broadcast in 130 territories in total, reaching over 100 million households. Within the United Kingdom, the BBC coverage of the Women’s Six Nations was set to take the Women’s game to new heights with the competition being shown with full coverage across 4 consecutive weekends.
Despite the evident traction surrounding the 2021 edition of the competition, there were still hurdles for the women’s competition to overcome. Last years’ friendlies with France drew in a combined audience of 1.91million on BBC Two, so the network stepping in at short notice to buy the rights for this years’ Six Nations once approval was confirmed with regards to COVID-19 implications, set the tone for an exciting platform for the women’s game to flourish.
With England Women being the only fully professional programme in the competition, showcasing the skill level available within the game was a huge opportunity to grow the game domestically within the country. Instead, the preview of England v Scotland was a blank screen that provided no pre-match build-up or opportunity for new fans to familiarise themselves with the sport. In addition, the game was not deemed worthy of the main network, only being shown through the BBC iPlayer. In comparison, Ireland’s national broadcaster, RTE, showed all of their matches on the main network, despite their women’s team being entirely amateur.
The Women’s competition faced a difficult and unenviable task of showcasing itself across a shortened 4-week period due to COVID restrictions. With the majority of games hidden away through interactive and online services, opportunities to reach the masses through main network positions were pivotal to promoting women’s rugby. The most high profile issue that arose was surrounding the shows that took the place of England’s matches. Their opening match against Scotland was shown on BBC iPlayer whilst BBC Two showed 1978’s ‘Death on the Nile’. England’s game against Italy was snubbed a platform of main network coverage in place of a 2014 episode of ‘Flog It!’ That had previously been shown 6 times.
2021 Women’s Six Nations Tournament
The truncated format of this years’ competition saw 2 pools of 3 with a playoff match occurring against the corresponding position in the opposing group. Whilst 8 of the 10 games not involving Italy were settled by 1 score or less in the men’s competition, the opening rounds of the Women’s Six Nations painted a different picture. Winning margins of 42 and 64 points against Scotland and Italy respectively left England top of Group A whilst Wales losing 53-0 and 45-0 to France and Ireland respectively left the home nation cut adrift at the bottom of Group B.
England women secured back-to-back Grand Slams in November 2020 at the delayed Championships and secured their route to this years’ final in dominant, albeit very comfortable, fashion. On a bumper Finals’ Day that saw all three games televised, England’s final against France was featured on BBC Two and was their closest match of the tournament. A 7-0 half time lead was narrowed to 4 points in the second period, eventually allowing the hosts to win 10-6 to claim their third straight Six Nations Championship. Poppy Cleall’s try, converted by Emily Scarratt proved to be the difference between the two sides as Scarratt’s late penalty was enough to settle the nerves in the final minutes.
With the World Cup in New Zealand beckoning in 2022, the opportunities for selection and exposure for the squad in the build up will be crucial for the progression of the side going into next years’ tournament.
How can Womens’ Rugby Grow?
Like any form of growth, within the sporting world and elsewhere, exposure is the key component. A platform such as the main network of domestic broadcasting can provide a plethora of opportunities for both squads and individuals alike. Most importantly, exposure in this format can provide opportunities to integrate new audiences and fans to the sport, giving a greater understanding of the game as a whole as well as providing a platform from which the RFU can develop and grow stars of the game, both to carry the women’s game forward and to inspire the next generation of players.
Whilst, in its most simplistic format, this approach to the women’s game can provide a platform from which it can grow domestically and internationally without much in the way of additional financial backing and support beyond that which it has already achieved. So much interest comes with an understanding of the sport and subsequently the teams and individuals that play it. This understanding can be garnered through exposure and providing the platform from which these players and teams are able to shine.