Authors: Rio Sports
As first impressions go, turning up for the first day of the Women’s World Cup at UCD – a prestigious university that boasts James Joyce and Brian O’Driscoll among its alumni – to be greeted by directions to the Dublin Horse Show was an inauspicious start.
Take nothing away from the equine exhibition but details such as this matter with Ireland in the running to host the 2023 men’s World Cup and determined to show their ability to stage major competitions. That the UCD venues – two pitches a well-struck seven iron away from each other – were not easy to find, and that advertising for the tournament throughout the city was in such short supply also neatly sums up the conundrum of the women’s XVs game at present.
Organisers of the tournament have not been shy in letting us know tickets for the pool stages have been sold out for a while now. Yet hosting the pool stages in three blocks – three days of fixtures on which all 12 teams play – is conservative at a time when TV viewing figures, and attendances for international Tests are on the up. Spreading out fixtures may bring down average crowds but would almost certainly increase total attendances and encourage footfall on the day. It is hard not to perceive those stalls in the fan zone (now a mandatory addition for any global gathering worth its salt) attempting to attract newcomers to the game as largely preaching to the converted.
Having said that, a tournament curtain-raiser in which England were never in danger of doing anything other than winning handsomely is not the greatest advert for the game, regardless how competitive the organisers assure us this World Cup will be. Similarly, Wales were no match for New Zealand – a contest that kicked off 45 minutes after England v Spain and both were attended by plenty of neutral supporters, in position early for subsequent matches. Ireland’s opener against Australia, much later in the day, was the main event and by giving it headline billing, organisers ensured a steady simmering of anticipation.
And so, a campus, festival-like feel is the order of the day and in fairness, the fan zone was a popular attraction on an opening day that had its chaotic moments but that, offered “a hundred thousand welcomes” as promised by the Irish Union. There is no doubting the format works, even if it seems as if the event passes off in a bubble – in truth it could be taking place anywhere – but it gives teams such as Hong Kong and Japan their days in the sun. Spain, despite shipping 50 points to an England side determined not to peak too early, did not let their heads drop but in a bigger, emptier stadium it may have been more tempting to do so.
To maintain interest and keep the length of the tournament manageable however, that means games every three or four days and it is questionable whether that is long enough, considering England’s male counterparts are given a full week in their corresponding tournament.
The greatest issue is that XVs is increasingly becoming the poorer relation within the women’s game, with sevens and its Olympic allure, taking over and that will only become clearer as the tournament progresses. England, just as Canada and Australia to name two, have done, will put their resources behind the shorter form but it is the very fact they have financially backed their XVs players with professional contracts for this tournament that will expose flaws in women’s Test rugby.
There is no doubt skill levels are improving, players are quicker, faster and stronger but it is a great shame that XVs is not the priority it once was, England, for one tournament only, aside. When the sevens season picks up again, those supporters who have made the pool stages a sellout will largely be deprived of the chance to see the stars of this tournament in action, perhaps even until the next World Cup cycle begins and in a sport that is struggling for household names that is not the way to address it.
There is plenty to be positive about following the opening day of a compact, colourful, charming – if slightly chaotic – World Cup but its legacy is already cause for concern.
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