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England players know P45 awaits whatever the World Cup result

The Guardian logo The Guardian 07/08/2017 Gerard Meagher
Abbie Scott, left, and Sarah Hunter meet with fans and well wishers as they fly out to the Women’s Rugby World Cup. © The RFU Collection via Getty Images Abbie Scott, left, and Sarah Hunter meet with fans and well wishers as they fly out to the Women’s Rugby World Cup.

As England’s women face the prospect of their successful defence of the World Cup this month being met with the end of their professional contracts, it is worth recalling the £6m shared jackpot on offer to the men in 2015. Comparing men’s and women’s sport can often be dangerous ground but such a stark contrast highlights the backdrop against which Simon Middleton’s side head to Ireland – a P45 rather than a payday awaits.

The decision has been widely criticised by former players and MPs, staunchly defended by the Rugby Football Union who will shift its focus back to sevens, and greeted with a stiff upper lip by the players and management. Regardless of whether it is the right or wrong decision, timing is everything and in this instance the RFU’s leaves plenty to be desired. The richest governing body in the sport has pointed to investment in the women’s game elsewhere and when the news became public on the eve of the tournament it revealed that the players were informed in April. England’s preparations, up until then going swimmingly, have been stained.

Swimmingly, because, as the captain, Sarah Hunter, and her team-mates have pointed out, professional contracts have made a huge difference. “There’s more time to do everything,” she said, when the 28-strong squad was announced last month. “The detail, we’re doing more in terms of training and conditioning but the quality is better when you don’t have to rush off to get to work. It’s something I never thought would happen in my playing career.”

Soon after the contracts were introduced, a first Six Nations title since 2012 was secured this spring – the grand slam sealed with victory in Dublin – and this summer Canada, Australia and – most notably – New Zealand in Rotorua were swept aside. As a result, England are favourites to retain their title and their cause has been aided with a relatively straightforward pool draw. The 12 competing teams have been split into three pools of four with the winners and the best runner-up of the three advancing to the semi-finals. Canada – the beaten finalists in 2014 – and New Zealand are pitted together, as are France and Ireland, England kick off their campaign against Spain – who overcame Scotland in a playoff – on Wednesday before facing Italy and the USA.

New Zealand are expected to provide England with the sternest challenge but they were left licking their wounds by England, unable to deal with their driving maul, described by Middleton as a work of art. Sevens will soon be the focus but if England are to defend their crown then the platform for success will be forward power.

Fifteen of the squad who lifted the trophy in 2014 feature again, including Emily Scarratt, who steered England to victory in the final three years ago, while in a squad that contains 1,207 caps, Rachel Burford, Rochelle Clark, Tamara Taylor and Danielle Waterman will be at a fourth consecutive tournament.

Such on-field optimism does not chime with off-field distractions and this will be no cakewalk for England. The tournament has been billed by the organisers as “the most competitive, best attended, most watched and most socially engaged women’s rugby event to date” and along with the Black Ferns and Canada, France and Ireland are part of a strong European contingent – the host nation also determined to impress off the field as hopefuls to stage the 2023 men’s World Cup, but have been dealt the considerable blow of losing their captain, Niamh Briggs, to injury.

The World Rugby chairman, Bill Beaumont, is certainly impressed with what he has seen. “The sheer level of social and traditional media anticipation and interest is reflected by the fact tickets for the pool stages are sold out. It all points to what will be a defining, record-breaking Rugby World Cup.”

That the World Cup will be broadcast on free-to-air TV for the first time in the UK (just as it was in France in 2014 to hugely successful effect) would appear to support Beaumont’s claim and the relative success of England’s cricketers and footballers heightens the sense of anticipation on these shores.

England’s U-turn over the contracts is not the only contradiction within the women’s game. This World Cup comes at a cost of €4m (£3.6m), made up of contributions from World Rugby, sponsorship, partnerships with Dublin and Belfast city councils and ticket revenue. Yet the model of hosting pool stage matches consecutively on one day, at a campus venue in Dublin, before moving to Belfast for the knockout stages is risk averse. It may mean sell-outs but it also means thousands of potential spectators are turned away and it keeps the women’s game reliant on World Rugby’s financial support.

Attendances and TV audiences across the Six Nations suggests women’s Test rugby is prospering but after the tournament sevens becomes the biggest show in town. Pushing XVs to the margins until the next World Cup can hardly be considered progress whatever records are broken in Ireland.

Five players to watch

Kay Wilson, England The holders’ deadly finisher, Wilson made history by scoring seven tries in the 64-0 victory over Scotland during this year’s Six Nations. Formerly a fl y-half, she has made the wing position her own and has scored 28 tries in 44 games. She was a member of the 2014 World Cup winning squad, chipping in with two tries against Samoa, one against Spain and another against Ireland in the semi-final. She also travelled to Rio 2016 as a non-playing reserve.

Safi N’Diaye, France An extremely powerful ball-carrier and crucial to France’s hopes of advancing to the latter stages of the competition. A promising basketball player in her youth, N’Diaye soon found her calling and caught the eye with some impressive performances at their home World Cup three years ago. France go into the competition ranked fourth in the world and they will need N’Diaye at her best if they are to reach the fi nal.

Portia Woodman, New Zealand A sevens star with blistering pace, Woodman helped New Zealand to silver at Rio 2016 before switching back to XVs. Sevens may be her natural game but her speed makes her an undeniable threat at outside-centre or on the wing. Voted the 2015 World Rugby Women’s Sevens player of the year, Woodman is a former netball player but has rugby union in her blood - her father Kawhena and uncle Fred represented the All Blacks in the 1980s.

Karen Paquin, Canada One of Canada’s few sevens players to return to the XVs fold for the World Cup, Paquin is a speedy fl anker and one of the survivors of the squad who lost the 2014 fi nal to England. Formerly a chemical engineer, Paquin relishes her role in the back row, saying recently: “I love the position because you can do everything.” Along with fellow 2016 Olympian Magali Harvey, Paquin’s presence is a huge boost for Canada.

Claire Molloy, Ireland The flanker has assumed the captaincy after Niamh Briggs was ruled out of Ireland’s home World Cup and is a consistent performer for Tom Tierney’s side, comfortable at either openside or blindside. Molloy, a doctor based in Wales, plays for Bristol and will appear in her third World Cup this month. Diminutive but packing a punch, she was involved in Ireland’s first grand slam in 2013 and their Six Nations title win in 2015.

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