Sport is currently navigating unchartered waters, as the coronavirus wreaks havoc on fixtures, training and global participation.
Rugby’s Six Nations tournament was one of the first events to feel the strain, when it was announced that Ireland vs. Italy in Dublin would be postponed at the start of March. Some matches went ahead while others were postponed before the final weekend was indefinitely postponed.
The tournament looks like it won’t be concluded until long into the autumn, for both men and women, but the women’s game was already facing its own struggles before the pandemic took hold.
Both storm Ciara and Dennis impacted the conditions sides were playing in but in Donnybrook, Dublin the Wales women’s team also had to endure cold showers after they were subjected to treacherous conditions on the field of play.
Wales lost to Ireland in freezing temperatures, but the headlines were made through the lack of provisions for the visitors in the changing rooms, once again highlighting the disparity between male and female sport.
While record numbers now have a vested interest in the women’s game, it’s been left in the dust of men’s rugby when it comes to battling for sponsorship and equal pay.
Rachael Burford, capped 84 times for England, took a gamble in committing herself entirely to the game but it was one which most certainly has paid off.
During the 2010 World Cup, where England narrowly lost to New Zealand in the final, Burford was juggling two jobs in order to give herself the best possible chance of clinching the gold.
The Harlequins centre worked as a personal trainer early in the morning, in order to free up the day to train and prepare, before looking after young children as a nanny, in the evening.
“Throughout my working life, I’ve done jobs that have allowed me to be as flexible as possible,” Burford told ESPN.
“Rugby always came first and career second. I did any job that enabled rugby to be my priority.”
Coronavirus: Postponements and cancellations in sport
Scotland women’s player released from hospital
How Storm Ciara postponed the Scotland-England clash
Italy Six Nations clash postponed due to coronavirus
While it seems unfathomable that any male international counterpart would have to perform such a juggling act in this modern era, Burford is far from alone.
Rochelle ‘Rocky’ Clark may be England’s most capped player of all time, but she has seen first-hand the balancing act that is required by women to play at the top of their game.
The 2014 World Cup has a fond place in her heart, as the Red Roses went one better than the tournament before, taking gold, but Clark remembers the build up to it being particularly intense.
Three months before the tournament, the Roses were given full-time contracts but their work had begun much earlier than that.
Clark recalls her days being very long and struggling to fit everything in, but as is typical of her selfless style of play she recalls how other members of the team struggled more.
Sophie Hemming, a tight head prop, was a vet during this period. She trained in the early hours of the morning, worked a full day, before rounding it off with a two-hour rugby session in the evening. Clark told ESPN that Hemming was “absolutely ruined” by the end of it.
The World Cup winner is hopeful that the women’s game can continue on its upward trajectory and not revert back to the days that she experienced.
“We went back down to semi-professional after the 2014 and 2017 World Cups, after being full-time a few months prior to the tournament, but they can’t take that step backwards anymore,” Clark said.
The 28-full time contracts for Red Roses players not only enables them to put in quality training hours together, but afford the players time for their bodies to recover from the gruelling impact of the sport.
The Rugby Football Union (RFU) confirmed that the contracts run up until August with the idea for them to remain in place post-World Cup. This is a step forward from the previous two tournaments, where they were rescinded hours after the final whistle.
The Roses have such depth in their squad, even their bench is an all-star line-up, which has meant that they have more than 28 players available to feature for the national side.
But the RFU confirmed the additional Red Roses were paid on a camp-by-camp, or match, basis which they believe works for those balancing other commitments, especially the younger members of the squad that are still in education.
Winger Abby Dow is one of the players outside of the contract list, who has featured heavily for England during the 2020 Six Nations tournament.
The 22-year-old has made the most clean-breaks of any player in the women’s tournament, at the same time as balancing the study of mechanical engineering at Imperial College, London.
However, England women’s success during the tournament has really highlighted the disparity between the Red Roses and the other nations, most of whom are not professional outfits.
Their drubbing of the home nations proves just how beneficial it is for athletes competing at top flight to have the luxury of training full-time and ability to access all of the resources that come hand-in-hand with it.
Ten Scottish players have contracts with Scottish Rugby Union, Ireland’s players get paid a set figure for each day they play, whereas Italy and Wales get their expenses paid.
England, while they will have to wait for confirmation due to postponement of the tournament, as a result are hurtling towards a second successive Grand Slam.
Both Scotland and Ireland failed to get on the scoresheet against them, with the score line 53-0 and 27-0 respectively, while Wales were overpowered during their clash but were awarded one penalty try which saw them lose 66-7.
France are the Roses’ closest contenders in the tournament, losing to them by just three points, but they also have several players on professional contracts.
Les Bleues appear to be the most likely to turn fully professional next, which may explain why between themselves and their rivals across the English Channel, they have won two of the past four Six Nations tournaments.
“It’s not something to be ashamed of, or be afraid to say. The players that are full-time professionals in our sport are at an obvious advantage,” Burford said.
“That’s not to say the other nations don’t work as hard as them, or they aren’t striving to do the same.
“It just means that when you don’t have the distraction of a job, you can focus all of your efforts on making yourself a better rugby player, which evidently gives you an edge over the nations that don’t have that opportunity.”.
The news of teams moving towards fully professional outfits is encouraging for the sport, but it is still trailing the likes of women’s football because there is a distinct lack of coverage, funding and sponsorship.
England’s victory over Wales at the Twickenham Stoop — a ground which used to be known as the home of England women’s rugby — drew record breaking crowds. The stadium was filled with 10,974 fans, which highlights just how far the game has come.
“Six years ago, there were so many empty seats at the same ground, for the same fixture — only one stand was open,” Clark said.
“It used to be just friends and families of the players coming to watch us, now we have genuine rugby fans passionate about our game, selling out stadiums.
“It was amazing to see so many fans invested in both fixtures on that day. People watched the women’s win, before moving to Twickenham to watch the men’s team.”
But there is still one fundamental difference between the teams of both sexes.
The men’s team are not only vying for glory in the tournament, but they are also competing for a prize pot of £16 million.
Whereas for the women’s team there is no prize money, as there is no title sponsor.
There is certainly appetite for the women’s game and both Burford and Clark were in agreement as to how much of an impact sponsorship could have.
Increased promotion, media coverage, and awareness could transform the sport and Clark cited the Tyrrells Premier 15s league as an example. The domestic game has dramatically improved since having the backing from Tyrrells crisps.
“It has enabled us to have kit and match fees paid for, strength and conditioning, skills sessions and the promotion of the game has really changed,” Clark said.
She recalls a time of having to financially contribute for the privilege of training and playing for her country, during the early days she coughed up £25 for each England weekend.
“I never played rugby for the money, I have travelled hundreds of thousands of miles and didn’t expect it back, but the difference some sponsorship makes has transformed the sport.”
ESPN did reach out to the Six Nations for comment but didn’t receive a response. Diageo brand Guinness, who are the title sponsor for the men’s tournament, confirmed that they were very proud to sponsor women’s rugby in a variety of ways.
“We have launched a Women’s Six Nations Player of the Championship Award, acknowledging the significant impact and growth of the game, which reaches record breaking audiences year-on-year,” it said in a statement.
Diageo would not comment on future sponsorship of the tournament, due to commercial sensitivity. But did confirm that they are supporting initiatives to increase participation in women’s rugby and support the sport from grassroots up.
As the sport struggles with sponsors, players are inevitably impacted, but as her notoriety in the sport has grown Burford has managed to attract the attention of the likes of Adidas.
By contrast Marlie Packer, one of the best and most experienced flankers, put out a plea on social media at the start of the season looking for a sponsor.
📢 Looking for a sponsor for the 19/20 season!
A unique opportunity to sponsor a World Cup winner and current England and Saracens player 🏉
For a mutually beneficial partnership, please get in touch…. https://t.co/9JZxdIOq6B
— Marlie Packer (@MarliePacker) September 26, 2019
“To have a sponsor such as Adidas, who are a well-known, very credible, global sponsor and to have someone like them align themselves with a team is huge,” Burford said.
“It’s hard to explain the ripple effect and just how much of an impact it has, it gets people looking in at the sport and wanting a piece of it.”
While the tournament may be lacking financial support, and be without a title sponsor, there are many other brands that are championing the women’s game as actively as do for the men’s.
A spokesperson from the RFU confirmed that both Canterbury, who supply kits for both the men’s and women’s teams and 02, shirt sponsors for both, are very balanced in their approach and provisions they provide.
Content or commercial appearances are treated the same for both genders and 02 are already ironing out their plans for the women’s World Cup in 2021, after their successful partnership with the men for the tournament in Tokyo.
There is hope that in the not too distant future, rugby can follow the likes of The Hundred in cricket, who are not only dishing out prize money to both the men and the women, but are splitting the pot of £600,000 evenly.