By Jill Scanlon
With the initial disruption caused by Covid-19 beginning to subside, the primary focus for sport is now on how to move forward. Not unexpectedly most of the chatter has been on the men’s game but what of the future of the women’s competitive sporting landscape in Australia?
Most organisations are reviewing their strategic plans and some pundits are worried that after all the strides which have been made, women’s sport is in danger of losing much of the ground it had gained to emerge into the sporting spotlight over recent years.
For rugby, the situation is perhaps even more precarious.
With a new boss at the helm, Rugby Australia is going through an early spring clean as a first step for recovery, and preparing for the long climb back up the favoured footy code ladder in Australia.
This week’s announcement that the Australian fixture for Super Rugby will get underway early next month would seem to underline where Rugby Australia’s focus is at.
But according to newly retitled General Manager of Women’s Rugby, Jilly Collins, there is every indication that the women’s program is still a priority for the organisation and is therefore getting on with the task at hand.
“There’s quite a lot to work through to make sure women’s rugby, and the progress we’ve made in particular over the past five years, can continue,” she said.
The Aussie 7s squad is back to training hard, while many of the national XVs players should be getting back to club rugby next month, with only the possibility that a Wallaroos call-up could happen before the end of the year.
With all the disruption to the 2020 calendar, many of this year’s planned events have been moved to 2021 rather than be cancelled outright, but that strategy has created new difficulties of its own.
The key focus is on the two national teams and the very busy 2021 schedule which is emerging with the postponement of Tokyo Olympic Games to July 2021 and the Women’s Rugby World Cup due to kick off just seven weeks after that in New Zealand.
With this in mind, Rugby Australia is undertaking a review this month with players, coaches and stakeholders involved in the women’s game, and having discussions around what a schedule would need to look like over the coming 12 to 15 months.
“Our priority is that we need to look at a review of the high-performance program and our national competition holistically, across both XVs and sevens and work out, from June 2020 until October 2021, what that calendar and schedule looks like,” said Collins.
“We want to make sure all stakeholders involved are comfortable and know what we’re trying to achieve.”
“We need to make sure the players know exactly where they stand; and for those that are potentially thinking about playing in the Olympic Games and in the 2021 RWC, and there will be a few of them, that there is a means by which they can do that as well, if selected.”
While the sevens schedule, both national and international, is looking like it will remain on hold for the remainder of the year, there may still be a chance for the Wallaroos to play the Test match series if the proposed trans-Tasman bubble becomes a reality.
With a lot of ‘what ifs’ still in the mix, the necessity to be ready to take the first step is something Collins says they are well aware of. In constant contact with her NZ Rugby counterpart, a Test series with the Black Ferns is very much a reality, if and when the necessary boxes are ticked both within Rugby Australia and by the Australian government.
“We know realistically from a XVs perspective that if we do play Test match rugby this year, it’s (only) going to be within our region,so we’re prioritising that.”
Much is also riding on decisions to be made by World Rugby with regard to revamped schedules in both formats of the game.
As a lead-in to the 2020 Olympic Games, the Women’s World Sevens Series had been increased to an unprecedented eight-tournament fixture, but with the abandonment of that and the postponement of the Games, the pathway for the Aussie 7s women in preparation to defend their 2016 title, remains uncertain.
“There is a bit of an unknown around what Sevens Series will go ahead. There’s obviously wider restrictions including travel that we don’t know about, so we’re preparing the best we can,” said Collins.
Trying to fit both a Sevens and a XVs model into a proposed national and international schedule within a small timeframe will not be easy, and the temptation to prioritise one form of the game over the other is very real.
“We won’t be prioritising one over the other but both programs will complement each-other and the first will more likely be a sevens domestic competition to make sure we give those players who want a shot at the Olympic Games an opportunity to get in that team.”
Collins says on a domestic front, the Aon Uni 7s tournament along with Super W are all still in the mix as a part of the review with the flow from one format to the other underlining the requirements of the new look 2021 schedule possibilities.
“We’re really open to look at potentially Aon Uni 7s being played before Super W, and needing to make sure everything fits together so it provides a good flow,” said Collins.
With that in mind, the sustainability of the women’s game at a community level must also be a concern after seeing several years of strong growth.
“Hopefully by July there will be community rugby being played all around Australia and certainly an integral part of that is making sure women’s club rugby is being played and that the enthusiasm is still there.”
Conscious of the importance of that local connection, is Melbourne Rebels women’s coach Alana Thomas, who is looking forward to seeing her players run around in their local competition after a couple of months of inactivity on the park.
With restrictions easing, most players are finally getting back to combined training and will eventually be back to playing through the impending return of club rugby.
According to Thomas though, it has not been an easy road since the truncated end to the Super W season.
“Having not made the playoffs, we finished Super W and the next week all the players were due to go back to club footy and all of a sudden there was no club footy and we went into lockdown.”
“As restrictions have (eased) off now, a lot of the players are back training at their clubs in some capacity so we are starting to finally get back on the paddock but it’s been challenging.”
“Since they’re not playing rugby, we can’t follow up on all the things we’ve been wanting them to improve on. At this stage, we would have been able to watch games, be giving feedback, constantly talking to the players each week around where they’re at, what they’re doing so that’s probably been the hardest bit.”
Thomas is aware that despite the growth in women’s rugby over recent years, much of the new interest may have been curtailed because of the break and many women may just go back to their old sports rather than giving rugby a go.
“All of that growth we had, but because of the break we haven’t had the opportunity to get them (new players) in and give them the training,” she said.
“But I think the majority of people who are very engaged and involved in it will come back.”
“We have been encouraged by signs of an increase in registrations over recent weeks. We’ll keep monitoring that closely and also make sure we can do everything from a Rugby Australia perspective to encourage people back to the game.”
Jill Scanlon is a freelance sports journalist whose love of ALL sports takes an occasional backseat to her passion for Rugby and her lifelong love of Carlton. She has written for several publications following a long career at the ABC, works in the International Development sector and occasionally lectures in Journalism. Follow her on twitter.