THE PROSPECT OF Ireland making their first-ever World Cup final was shattered yesterday, but women’s rugby will have a newcomer in Sunday’s decider after Canada beat France in the second semi-final.
This tournament has been one of notable growth for the game, with a remarkable audience of 1.5million viewers tuning in to watch host nation France’s pool clash with South Africa on television.
Women’s sevens rugby has exploded too in recent seasons, but it is the 15-a-side game that continues to pull in most interest. While New Zealand have been worth their dominance of women’s rugby over the last decade and longer, the improvement of other nations has been a major boost for the IRB.
Perhaps most importantly of all, the quality of the rugby on show in this tournament has been superb. Skill levels, set-piece cohesion, tactical nous and sheer physicality have all been markedly improved on previous editions of the World Cup, illustrating the effects of a rampant professionalism behind the scenes for many nations.
“Definitely from 2010, it [the standard] is off the board,” says Ireland captain Fiona Coghlan. “Every team has risen its game. I know we beat Kazakhstan well, but they are a team that is scoring tries now, which they wouldn’t have done in the past.”
While Kazakhstan – for all their certain improvements – may not be the prime example of why more and more rugby fans have been tuning in for this tournament, Coghlan’s assertion that the standard of play has lifted is easy to agree with.
Anyone who witnessed the excellence and accuracy of England’s wide passing game as they dismantled Ireland yesterday will have been impressed, while Canada’s risk-taking offloading and willingness to run from deep has been a thrill.
France have thrived in the close quarters, with stars like World Player of the Year nominee Safi N’Diaye combining technical knowledge in the tight with sheer explosiveness.
Earlier this week, the French No. 8 told L’Équipe that her approach to strength and conditioning has undergone a transformation in recent seasons, something that has been echoed by the other nations involved.
Ireland’s S&C coach Marian Earls has been highlighted as one of the vital components in their journey to the semi-finals, and her growing reputation has seen her snapped up by Connacht’s men’s set-up for the new season.
And what of the English athletes who picked Ireland apart? Emily Scarratt, Kay Wilson, Maggie Alphonsi, Rochelle Clark and Danielle Waterman are prime specimens, a potent mixture of in-contact power and post-contact pace.
Off the pitch, unions around the world have awakened to the possibilities of women’s rugby and acted accordingly in a financial sense. The IRFU’s most recent annual report showed that the Ireland Women’s set-up was backed to the sum of €1.4million in 2013/14, up from €265,655 in the 2011/12 season.
That has allowed Ireland’s amateur players to operate in a wholly professional environment, where they now enjoy top-class provisions for recovery, analysis, training facilities, nutrition and more.
It is a similar story across the board for the top nations, and the Canadian union deserves praise for the manner in which they have backed the women’s programme. They get their reward with a first-ever appearance in the final.
“Canada, in fairness to them, have put a lot in place in the women’s game,” says Ireland’s loosehead prop Coghlan. “They’ve contracted players for sevens, but they also have really good underage systems.”
In France, les Bleues have benefited from incredible support, with the atmosphere in Stade Jean-Bouin last night nothing short of breathtaking. French rugby fans are usually among the most vocal in the world, but the real pride has perhaps been in the quality of their team’s play.
Similarly, Ireland captured the attention at home with their victory over New Zealand, another first and one that came as a result of work rate, intelligence and a high skill level. Now the IRFU are tasked with using this bounce to push the game on even further.
If you’re standing still, you’re moving backwards.
In Paris last night, Coghlan spoke of “the pathways” that need to be improved in Ireland, providing young players with the chance to progress. It’s one thing backing the national team, but now there is a chance to grow the game at a base level.
Canada have done so, and they’ve made that final step. Now Ireland will look to match them.
It has been a brilliant two weeks for women’s rugby in France, with more to come on the final day this Sunday. The IRB Women’s Development Manager, Su Carty, is enthused.
“We are in a very exciting time for the women’s game, and joining the Olympics has added real impetus,” says Carty. “We have a fantastic blend of up-and-coming unions gaining really valuable experience from this WRWC and we are also seeing new fans becoming engaged in the sport.
“The standard of the play is really impressive and the games are compelling. Looking forward, we will continue to work with member unions to ensure the infrastructure is in place for girls and women to maximise the opportunity.”
What have you made of the Women’s World Cup? Has the standard of play impressed you?