Fresh off brilliantly defending their Rugby World Cup Sevens title and claiming second place on the HSBC World Rugby Sevens Series, things keep getting better for the Black Ferns. The electric New Zealand women’s sevens side aren’t just a tremendous advert for the sport, they are unquestionably one of the most dominant rugby teams in the world. Full-stop. Amazingly though, they have never taken part in a tournament in their home country. That’s all about to change, and it’s a sign of things to come for women’s Rugby Sevens.
The big news for the Black Ferns came this week, when New Zealand Rugby announced that this year’s HSBC New Zealand Sevens in Hamilton will include a new ‘fast four’ women’s tournament that will see home side New Zealand face off against China, England and France in parallel to the HSBC World Rugby Sevens Series leg. Not only will the Hamilton fans get to see the new World Cup winners play on home soil for the first time, but they’ll have a prime-time slot, with the final of the new ‘fast four’ competition taking place just before the Cup Final of the HSBC New Zealand Sevens
It is a brilliant and well-deserved showcase. The Black Ferns, led by standout stars such as captain Sarah Goss and the electric try-machine Portia Woodman, are an incredible unit. Beyond the hosts, the French women’s side are a growing force having made it to the final of the Rugby World Cup Sevens in San Francisco and finishing third in last year’s HSBC World Rugby Women’s Sevens Series. The England Sevens side may have disappointed last season, finishing 8th in the World Series, but they are always dangerous – highlighted by the 2019 squad revealed this week that features experienced stars such as Emily Scarratt and Heather Fisher alongside some talented youngsters. The tournament is completed by China, the newest side on the HSBC World Rugby Women’s Sevens Series who will be out to impress. The women’s game has come on leaps and bounds in the last few years, with an explosion of top talent producing incredible highlight worthy action and some elite teams facing off in epic contests. The fans in Hamilton are set for some incredible entertainment.
The new talent – and the work put in by World Rugby and its partners to develop the women’s game – is having dramatic results in terms of growth and participation. A 2016 report into the future of rugby made the bold claim that “by 2026 40% of rugby players worldwide will be female, representing some six million players worldwide.” The evidence of the past few years certainly supports it. In 2017, more young women played rugby for the first time than men, the first year in which this has been the case. Since rugby’s return to the Games was confirmed in 2009, overall participation numbers have doubled, but the gains have been spectacular at the women’s level. Participation has soared from 200,000 to 2.6 million since 2009, and 29 per cent of all rugby players are now female. In Africa, the number of female rugby players in Africa rose 50 per cent increase between 2016 and 2017. As the women’s sport grows in popularity at both grassroots and elite levels, it is no surprise that the sport continues to be thrust into the spotlight.
The day after the announcement from New Zealand Rugby, England Rugby made their own news by announcing the merging of their men’s and women’s sevens programmes. The move will see the teams share a training base as well as pool coaching expertise and experience. In January, Rugby Australia announced a historic deal that will see their men’s and women’s sides paid the same. Alongside the move to spotlight the Black Ferns in Hamilton, these announcements demonstrate the momentum behind bringing the men’s and women’s games on to a level footing. With the women’s game going from strength to strength, and sevens being a great driving force behind it, this trend is surely set to continue. The joint legs on the HSBC World Rugby Sevens Series last season in Dubai, Sydney and Paris were brilliant spectacles and hugely popular amongst fans. Logistical and financial reasons are often sighted as being the issue in having all legs be shared men’s and women’s events, but with the continued growth of the women’s game, it won’t be long before this changes. Women’s Rugby Sevens continues to break new ground, and the landscape of rugby could look very different, very soon.
Written by James Fenn – 31/08/18