Here are the storyline winners and losers after England claimed their third successive Women’s Six Nations title.
The Women’s Six Nations moving to its own standalone window is undoubtedly a positive thing, not having to compete for coverage and attention with the men’s edition.
It was a decision borne out of Covid, with the biggest women’s rugby tournament outside the World Cup unable to go ahead in its usual guise due to constraints caused by the pandemic.
But the good news is it doesn’t look like the Women’s Six Nations will be reverting to its standard schedule alongside their male counterparts.
Six Nations bosses are considering three options: reverting to a round-robin format straight after the men’s Six Nations, stage it slightly later in the spring or use fallow weeks in the men’s tournament to launch the Women’s Six Nations and then let it run.
While this year’s scheduling gets a thumbs up, those responsible for not announcing fixtures, kick-off times and broadcast details until 11 days before the tournament started should have a re-think on that next time around.
Six Nations say they wanted to announce all details at once, but it’s hard to build up a narrative, storyline and excitement when such basics are left so late.
ENGLAND AND POPPY CLEALL
England claimed their third consecutive Six Nations title win with a hard-fought 10-6 win over France – historically proving to be the most competitive and thrilling fixture of the tournament; this year didn’t disappoint.
One player in particular capped off a superb campaign with another strong performance — and that was Poppy Cleall.
Red Roses head coach Simon Middleton publicly declared her as the best player in the world right now after her side’s opening-round win over Scotland, where she was named player of the match.
English No. 8 Cleall – whose twin Bryony joined her in the England team after returning from injury – crossed the whitewash for the only try of the match.
She is credited with a “phenomenal” understanding of the game, being in the best shape of her life and having a great all-round game – and is being tipped to be a future England captain.
Saturday’s final at Twickenham Stoop saw the hosts lead by a single point – 7-6 – with barely a minute left on the clock before Emily Scarratt secured the win with a successful penalty.
That’s England’s 17th title win out of 26. They are miles ahead.
As for France, full-back Emilie Boulard deserves a special mention particularly for her try-scoring display in the win over Ireland.
Wales captain Siwan Lillicrap has always been a leader for her squad, especially after a few years of turbulent coaching personnel ins and outs.
Having the unenviable task of fronting up to the media in the wake of two huge defeats for Wales in the pool stages, Lillicrap’s leadership qualities have never been more apparent than this year.
The same can be said for her commitment to the jersey, refusing to leave the field against Ireland in the penultimate match despite a nasty-looking ankle injury which kept her out of Wales’ final game.
The 33-year-old previously said: “As captain, you do maybe carry a bit of weight on your shoulders, the weight of the team, it’s tough because we’ve spoken about how we’re going to perform and when that doesn’t happen it’s even harder.
“The reality is we need to remember we are at the start of a new journey with Warren, he hasn’t been in place long with a whole new management.
“It doesn’t happen overnight, and we need games to test it and see where we need to work on and take steps forwards.”
Wales will do just that under their captain’s watch.
Jasmine Joyce’s workrate in defence and attack in her new position at full-back deserves to be singled out, as does the work of newbie scrum-half Megan Davies.
UNIONS OTHER THAN RFU AND FFR
The gulf between the quality and performances of England and France, and the amateur rest, was never more apparent than this year.
The welcomed new experiment of a standalone tournament is good news in many respects, but it did not do Union bosses any favours in the face of criticism about a lack of support.
Scrutiny and debate has never been higher, and the absence of a men’s tournament to compete with is probably to thank.
Ten months after a former WRU CEO spoke publicly of contracts for Wales Women – to afford at least some of them the luxury of not having to work full time while training and competing – Wales’ players were none the wiser as to what the state of play was on professionalising their team. Wales’ Lillicrap revealed players were under the impression contracts were still happening.
As for Ireland, comments by head coach Adam Griggs saying he was unsure who at the IRFU was in charge of the women’s game was a PR disaster, promptly followed up with clarification saying he “wasn’t as clear as [he] could have been”.
A standalone tournament is, of course, welcomed but the competitiveness of the product needs to be heightened, along with parity in Union support for teams, for it to really harness new fans.
As welcome as it was to have a Super Saturday finals day to determine the winner, much like the Autumn Nations Cup last year, not knowing who would win the title until the last day came at the expense of teams playing fewer games.
Instead of a round-robin format, each team played two pool matches before a play-off against the team ranked in the same position from the opposite table.
But women’s international rugby matches are so few and far between, every effort really must be made to maximise the number of Tests available to play when possible.
The perfect solution would be finding a way to incorporate a finals day into a round-robin format. In the short term, that would probably mean scheduling England v France for the last round.
TOO FEW GAMES ON TERRESTRIAL TV
Progress was undoubtedly made in terms of broadcast arrangements for the Women’s Six Nations.
For the first time, all games were available in one place in the UK, Ireland and Italy – as BBC, RTÉ and Eurosport carried all nine matches on a mix of terrestrial and digital services.
Two matches were shown on terrestrial TV in the UK: Wales v Ireland on BBC Wales and England v France live on BBC Two (becoming the first Women’s Six Nations match to be shown on the main BBC network for the first time). Across the English Channel, France TV was putting all of France’s games on national TV.
All other games were on the iPlayer. Especially with younger audiences live streaming perhaps more than watching live TV, that is a huge bonus.
But, as The Telegraph’s Fiona Thomas highlighted, England’s match against Italy was snubbed for a 2014 episode of Flog It! on BBC Two.
When you consider the news that major American broadcaster Fox was to show all Women’s Six Nations matches on TV, how can it be that the publicly-funded BBC cannot show a similar level of support and give it more terrestrial air time?
As Brian Moore noted in a Telegraph column of England v France: “A peak figure of 600,000 viewers on BBC2 was good for a sunny day, as lockdown was relaxed, and three times the audience for the games that were shown on the BBC’s red button. As some form of yardstick, the Premiership’s semi-finals of 2020 had a reported peak of 205,000 viewers.”
SOCIAL MEDIA TROLLS
Unfortunately there is an inevitability about social media trolls and abusers, especially around post-pandemic sport when most viewers are watching from home.
The Women’s Six Nations was no different – although genuine support (and respectful criticism) was aplenty – but players certainly seem to be pragmatic in their response to it.
Wales skipper Lillicrap said: “To see the support of the good people of Wales and people who watch the game and know the game and understand the game, it’s hugely important, it helps us be able to regroup and go again.
“A lot of the people that put stuff on social media, you probably wouldn’t go to them in a time of crisis. The majority of the support has been positive, and as players we really appreciate that.”
THE SEARCH FOR A NEW SPONSOR
Another year, another tournament without a title sponsor.
At the first standalone women’s tournament media launch in March, it was revealed that Guinness are actually a sponsor of the women’s tournament (something which will surely have come as a surprise to more than a few).
Six Nations CEO Ben Morel was grilled on their involvement, who said Guinness funds indirectly go to teams “because a portion of all the revenues are going to the Unions but we are obviously using a lot of that directly in the operation of the tournament to make it a success”.
Pressed on why Guinness did not want to be a title sponsor – as they are for the men’s – he added: “These were decisions that were made when we launched that tournament. It’s more a question for them.
“They’ve been playing an associate partner type of level but are extremely active. They’ve been very active trying to promote women’s rugby.”
So, when will we see a title sponsor?
Morel claims bosses have been “pretty active” in this area – not being seen as a “badging exercise” – with fresh talks being held in recent months.
“It’s really about finding the right partner for the long term that will really actively push the women’s rugby and women’s Six Nations,” he added,
“I’m pretty confident about it. At the same time, I think that part of the uncertainty that the pandemic brings, having a long-term visibility as to who the broadcast partners will be is also essential.
“I believe it’s a fantastic opportunity for any commercial organisation to really champion women’s sport, women’s rugby, and at the same time benefiting from the great power and connection to the Six Nations brand and heritage. So I think there’s a win-win long-term partnership and I am very confident we will identify the right partner but it is not just a badging exercise. It’s a long-term partnership that we’re seeking and we’re putting all the efforts necessary to achieve that.”
NO PRIZE MONEY
Realists will say the competition has to increase its commercial pull before this can happen, but it still remains a shame that Europe’s showpiece women’s rugby tournament doesn’t have a tournament prize pot for its players.
Morel explained: “In terms of prize money, I think the main focus is to bring more commercial and broadcast support longer term and that topic of prize money hasn’t been tabled yet, but definitely the focus is to bring a standalone support behind the women’s game whether it’s at the Union level or Six Nations level so it becomes fully sustainable and becomes that window for the entire sport. That’s the primary objective in the shorter term.”
NO CVC RING-FENCING
Much has been made of the transformational £365million cash injection into the Six Nations courtesy of CVC Capital Partners, who have taken a 14.3% stake in the tournament’s commercial rights.
The WRU will pocket £51m over five years, but none of that cash being ring-fenced for the development of the women’s game will go down as a missed opportunity in some quarters.
It is up to individual Unions to decide how they spend their cash, with no absolute guarantee women’s rugby will flourish from the financial boost.
Morel said of a lack of ring-fencing for women’s rugby: “I know that it’s going to be one of the big areas of focuses for each Union, in terms of investing.
“It’s a big opportunity for the women’s game and that investment coming towards the Unions is a unique opportunity to accelerate the growth.
“We need the Unions to use that available investment to really do what makes sense, and each situation is slightly different for the different starting points so the areas will be slightly different, Union to Union.
“I’m not only confident but I’m pretty sure the investment in women’s rugby will over index in terms of focus. It’s very important – this money is not about short-term cash flow situation, it’s about investing in the future.”
Let’s hope everyone is on the same page.