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Comment: New Zealand-Hong Kong mismatch does women’s rugby no favours

The Guardian logo The Guardian 14/08/2017 Gerard Meagher
Portia Woodman evades the Hong Kong defence yet again. © Action Plus via Getty Images Portia Woodman evades the Hong Kong defence yet again. From the moment the draw for the Women’s World Cup was made, it was a match the tournament organisers would have been dreading. Hong Kong, ranked 23rd in the world, facing the might of New Zealand, just four days after taking on the 2014 beaten finalists, Canada.

It took 52 seconds for the dam to burst and 79 minutes later the Black Ferns, champions in four previous Women’s World Cups, had helped themselves to 19 tries in a 121-0 victory – Portia Woodman contributing eight of them. We were promised a record-breaking World Cup but this is unlikely to be what the organisers had in mind.

Thrashings like this – as oddly captivating as they can be – do women’s rugby few favours. They are by no means limited to the women’s game, and it must be remembered that Japan, victors in the most memorable men’s World Cup match in history in 2015, conceded 145 points to New Zealand in 1995. But such a mismatch does little to enhance the claim that this is the most competitive Women’s World Cup to date and, considering it took place in Dublin, it brings to mind the old joke that a good result for Irish swimming was where no one drowned – Hong Kong were treading water throughout.

Their heads did not drop, the scrum-half Jessica Ho made a wonderful try-saving tackle on Woodman and we can only hope that they will be better for the experience but the stark reality is that a competition fighting for column inches needs precisely that, competition, and while there have been truckloads of tries in Dublin, three teams have scored the majority of them.

Part of the problem is the skill level of the elite sides such as New Zealand and if that sounds contradictory it is not the only one that exists within women’s rugby. Woodman is a star in the making – a relative novice at the 15-a-side game having scored 142 tries in two seasons on the sevens circuit – she has a remarkable turn of pace and deft footwork to match. England’s Danielle Waterman is another back enjoying a superb campaign and there can be no doubting that the speed and skill demonstrated by the very best teams is at an unrecognisable level to even the previous World Cup three years ago.

Goal-kicking remains an area where there is room for improvement but that can perhaps be explained by the fact that the heightened skill levels are at least in part down to the heavy investment in sevens – which now has the carrot of an Olympic medal every four years. It remains to be seen, however, if XVs and sevens can co-exist without one bowing to the other.

After this tournament, Woodman will no doubt return to sevens and considering XVs is in desperate need of some global household names, it is a considerable blow indeed. England’s fourth-placed finish at the Six Nations directly after the 2014 World Cup is evidence of what happens when sevens is prioritised and it can only be considered as a missed opportunity by the RFU to boost the profile of the women’s game. Furthermore, the plight of women’s Test cricket must act as a constant warning with regards to XVs.

All the evidence suggests that sevens is the future of the women’s game, however. World Cups have been limited to 12 teams since 2006 and while there is commendable investment by World Rugby in raising participation levels, sevens is the priority. It is a shame because there is a wealth of talent in Dublin and the knockout stages will be compelling viewing. While it must be acknowledged that the pool stages have been set up for grandstand finishes on Thursday, with Ireland against France and New Zealand taking on Canada, England’s anti-climactic 10-try victories against Spain and Italy highlight how this is a slow-burning competition.

There remains hope that it truly catches alight – there is every chance it will do when it moves to Belfast’s Kingspan Stadium for the last four – but it is hard not to wonder if a tournament with fewer teams may have made more sense. Two pools of eight would have all but guaranteed closer contests in the early matchdays and avoided a scenario where teams are playing five matches in such a short space of time – if the finalists are not at their best because fatigue has set in it will be genuinely disappointing.

A closed shop is not being suggested here – just look at Japan’s development in the men’s game as a reason why that must not be allowed to happen – but would Hong Kong not have been better off taking part in a preliminary competition against teams who will not have scored more than 50 points against them by half-time? It may sound regressive but too much expansion has been rugby union’s achilles heel in recent years. The viewing figures for this World Cup so far have been hugely positive but it pays to remember that shooting fish in a barrel is not a great spectator sport.

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