Among the many logistical challenges created by the COVID-19 pandemic is a particularly undesirable scenario affecting women’s rugby. The delayed Tokyo Olympic games are now scheduled to be held from 23 July until 8 August, just six weeks before the 2021 Rugby world cup in New Zealand.
This could create a dilemma for women’s rugby players: which of these events do you prioritise if competing in both is not an option? Whilst a 6-week turnaround is conceivable for players to manage, it will undoubtedly hamper individual world cup preparations if they are indeed required to play in the Olympics beforehand.
One of the major reasons why this is such a difficult turnaround is the difference in format of the two events. At the world cup, the 15-a-side and 80-minute form of the game we are more used to watching is played, whilst the Olympics will see rugby sevens, this is 7 a side with 7-minute halves.
Anyone who has tried to play both codes will attest to the fact there are vastly different fitness requirements for each. Whereas the 15s game is based around power, 7s requires a large degree of speed and an even larger lung capacity, which I can confirm has found many an amateur player wanting in the past.
Women’s sport, in general, is at a critical moment. There has been huge growth across the board in recent years with a record crowd for cricket at the recent World T20 final, and a record crowd for international rugby set between France and England in 2018.
Women’s rugby is a sport on the brink of professionalism but yet to fully make the leap. The ceasing of any action and subsequent cancellation of the top flight of women’s rugby, the Tyrell’s Premiership 15s, has caused the women’s game in England to feel a little undervalued. Ex England captain Catherine Spencer recently suggested this demonstrates “the stark reality of the difference between men’s and women’s sport”, with the women’s league cancelled at an early stage of the pandemic but major efforts and allowances being made to complete the men’s equivalent.
As a reflection of the infancy of women’s international rugby, there is still a large variation in contracting structures. Whilst this rescheduling is unlikely to be an issue for England’s women due to the distinctly separate squads for sevens and 15s, other countries such as France, Wales and Canada do not have this system so players would be able to compete in both competitions. This means some unions will be hit worse than others, creating an uneven playing field. The overall number of dual-code players has dropped since Rio 2016, so the impact is mitigated to a degree, however, it is still an unwanted scenario.
As mentioned not all unions will be affected by the scheduling, but it does throw up the dilemma of which competition would you choose if a decision had to be made.
Being a team sport, most people would associate more strongly with a world cup over the Olympics. The world cup is considered the holy grail of the sport. The images that stick with you are rarely a team with gold medals around their necks, they are the captain with the trophy aloft, champagne flowing and jubilant teammates.
The rugby world cup is also the more established competition, having held the first edition in 1991, the tournament has been held every 3-4 years since, culminating in the 2017 edition in Ireland where a record attendance of 45,412 supporters across the 30 matches were achieved. This looks set to grow in 2021 with the tournament held in New Zealand, a nation that lives and breathes rugby and is home to the world cup holders.
On the other hand, the Olympics is a huge global event. Whilst it may not have the pedigree for a rugby player of the world cup, the global audience of 3.6 billion and viewing figures of 45 million in the UK offers a far greater potential following. The opportunities this creates for individuals in terms of profile and exposure is massive. The number of people that could stumble across rugby through the Olympics could trump those that actively seek out the world cup.
Being a part of your national team at the Olympics is a rare opportunity and one not to be underestimated. Experiencing the opening ceremony, athlete’s village and top-level sport wherever you look is a massive opportunity and potentially life-changing experience. These are things that with the current profile of women’s rugby alone could not be achievable through the single-sport tournament, making the Olympics tournament hugely appealing.
Choosing between the two biggest tournaments in your chosen sport is a difficult position for any athlete, and you can’t help but think a more satisfactory solution would have been found if this were a similar dilemma faced in the men’s game due to the bigger commercial draw.
World rugby have said they have explored avenues for moving tournament dates but due to other events, this is not possible. It must be said not all teams will be impacted by this scheduling, and concessions will have to be made in all sports when competitions resume. But this scenario does serve as a reminder of the progress that can still be made and the current contrast between the men’s and women’s game.
This article was written exclusively for golear.co.uk