Ex England captain Catherine Spencer on the future of women’s rugby - and why she's optimistic
Former England rugby captain Catherine Spencer says she is ‘hopeful’ the women's game can survive the coronavirus pandemic.
In an exclusive interview with NewsChain, Spencer said clubs at grassroot level may expose the ‘pecking order’ in women's rugby and in women's sport more generally.
But, at the elite end, it could be a moment of opportunity.
“There's lots of talk about women's sport being hit the hardest by the pandemic. The one that everyone is talking about is Fylde football club, they've disbanded their women's team already due to financial pressures,” she said.
The Women’s National League team became the first women’s football team to disband as a result of the coronavirus pandemic.
The third tier club could not keep their women’s side afloat due to financial problems the pandemic had inflicted upon the club.
She added: "There are different pressures from clubs themselves, financial pressures, what goes first? We always talk about women's sport not being at the top of the pecking order and we may see that more and more in reality as clubs are squeezed for finances.
"They have to look at what draws in the crowds and brings them to the bar which will be a difficult decision for many and that's one thing to look at.
"But at the top end, at the elite end, maybe it's an opportunity.
"Sponsorships will be tight for some organisations and perhaps sponsoring women's sport may be a more viable option as there are a few less zeroes involved!
"But it's going to be tough isn't it, there's already evidence to suggest participation levels in rugby [will drop], less women are taking part as they may be taking on more tasks at home.
“They are working at home, parents will have parental duties and time is being squeezed for other activities.
"For a lot of people cash will not be readily available for when we come out of this period of time and watching and participating in sport may get squeezed out.”
When it comes to rugby specifically she hopes the women's game has ingrained itself enough in the community that it will be as ‘protected as the rest of the game’.
"It's really difficult, it's always a challenge to keep grassroots women's team's running but if the pandemic had happened five to ten years ago you'd see a lot more teams disappear.
"I think now women's rugby is much more embedded into the rugby community and rugby family, so I hope we won't see too many teams disappear.
"That's my hope I suppose. The whole sport [of rugby] is struggling at the moment and clubs will struggle to stay afloat as a whole.
“I hope it's [women's rugby] protected as well as the rest of the game, it's difficult for any of us to make predictions. I hope the growth of women's rugby over the past few years has secured its future.”
While the future of the game is uncertain, one thing that has been confirmed is the fate of the top tier of women's club rugby, the Premier 15s.
The current season has been ruled null and void and the league is targeting to come back in September for the start of a new season.
However, the men's Premiership is still seeking an end to their current season - they are looking to restart their games in late summer.
Spencer has said while the two competitions are run by different governing bodies, the difference of treatment between men's and women's rugby shows how far the female game has to go.
"Firstly, the women's Premiership is governed and run by the Rugby Football Union so they can have that control over it and make decisions.
"Whereas, the men's Premiership is external to that and it is run separately, has huge TV rights, sponsorships and other stake holders involved so it's a much more complex process.
"I guess the difference [in treatment] marks we are still a way to go in women's sport, we are still way behind them!
"It was obviously a difficult decision to make but looking where we are now, in May, it was the right one and making an early decision allows people to make decisions for the future.
“It's just such a shame for Richmond and Firwood Waterloo to have finished their Premiership era without playing on the pitch.”
The two teams dropped out of the Premier 15s following a re-tendering process that saw Exeter Chiefs and Sale Sharks take their place for the next three-year cycle of the league.
Spencer reflected on how sad it is the two sides couldn't say goodbye to the league in their own time.
"It would have meant a huge amount to them [to finish the season]. Both clubs are long-time servants of the women's game.
"Richmond have been in the Premiership forever, they're a very successful club and have ran three teams in the past.
"Waterloo took years and years to work their way up to the Premiership. But for the players themselves, if they knew they were going to be removed from the Premiership, they would have wanted to go out and give everything in those last few games.
“And actually when you know the fate of your season already it can unleash some flare on the pitch as you're playing without pressure, so it is a real shame for those players.
"I'm sure some will stay with their clubs [but] some would have wanted to prove themselves on the pitch to go to other clubs so it's a real shame, for coaching staff as well.”
Looking ahead, Spencer said there things she would change,for instance - an independent Six Nations tournament.
It has been proposed that the women's competition will be moved to another time in the calendar but, due to the pandemic, the change is one we may see in a few years, according to Spencer.
"There's so many rumours and unknowns at the moment. My take on the Women's Six Nations is that we are in the shadows of the men and we need to go out on our own. We either need to be fully integrated or completely separate.
"There has been an increase in numbers of spectators and viewers [in the women's competition] but we are far away from where we need to be, so I'm probably in favour of moving the women's tournament.
"It means general rugby media can access it much more easily than when they play on the same dates as men. So I think I am in favour of it but it depends on what is happening with the men's.
"With moving the women's I presume that was to get it separate from the men's, but if they do move the men's [next year due to the pandemic] you'd think they wouldn't move it to the same time in the calendar. But there's so many challenges coming up with competitions and how they can do that.
“There's also talk of the next Six Nations being under threat so they do have to look at a different road map for now and then make a more permanent model from 2022 onwards.”