Women’s rugby revolution gathers pace but the sums don’t yet add up

A lack of money and gulf in class between the top teams and the rest could undermine progress in the women’s game

What’s that coming over the hill? Nothing less than a monster-sized new era for women’s rugby. Between now and 2025 the list of big opportunities to help nourish and grow the female game is long and exciting: a high-profile World Cup in England in 2025, the launch of World Rugby’s annual WXV international tournament later this year and, for good measure, a revved-up Allianz Premier 15s domestic league as well.

Sprinkle over the top the more imminent attractions of next month’s standalone England versus France TikTok Six Nations fixture at Twickenham, set to attract 40-50,000 attendees, and Saturday’s rescheduled ‘Big Game’ – 53,000 tickets have been sold to watch the men and women of Harlequins and Exeter Chiefs – and the message is clear. Women’s rugby’s Cinderella days are numbered.

There is just one teensy problem. Money. And, specifically, paying the players enough to fulfil their part of the crowd-pleasing bargain. It has been confirmed to the Guardian that the ‘remuneration cap’ figure for clubs competing in next season’s Premier 15s will be £190,000. That’s for an entire squad. “You try to split £190,000 between 50 players,” says Susie Appleby, the head coach of table-topping Exeter. “As a player you can’t even cover your expenses. It’s ridiculous and yet they want to have the most professional league in the world. It just doesn’t work.”

In fairness, the ‘hard cap’ is set to rise incrementally to £430,000 per team by 2026-7, all things being well. A new limited company owned by the Rugby Football Union and the clubs has been set up to administer the league, with Belinda Moore as its independent chief executive. Moore, the wife of Brian, the ex-England hooker, is busy finalising how many clubs will feature initially but some £220m of joint investment is promised over the next 10 years, ideally twinned with a free-to-air broadcast deal.

This push towards a fully professional league must be properly sustainable. No one wants weekly mis-matches or for the league to end up mimicking the men’s Premiership, from which Wasps and Worcester disappeared beneath a sea of debt last autumn. The starting base was always going to be low: not so long ago the Premier 15s cap was £60,000 before being increased to £120,000 in 2021.

But listening to the passionate Appleby as she rattles through the current obstacles facing her side it is hard to avoid the impression of a sport seeking to look modern and progressive on the one hand while offering insufficient reward, at least initially, to those at the coal face. “We call ourselves semi-pro but we haven’t got enough money to make the players semi-pro,” says Appleby bluntly, outlining how tough her managerial juggling act is becoming. “As things stand we’ve probably spent £330,000 on players – including flights, accommodation, local investment and salaries – and we’re successful. Now I’m having conversations with 50 players over the next two weeks to tell them how I can support them.

“Understandably people are having to make life plans. These players make life choices – we don’t call it sacrifice – to be here but they have to survive. It’s really difficult.”

Exeter head coach Susie Appleby is frustrated by the lack of funding in the women’s game.
Exeter head coach Susie Appleby is frustrated by the lack of funding in the women’s game. Photograph: Bob Bradford/CameraSport/Getty Images

Appleby says more clarity is also urgently needed. “The basic contracts were meant to have been sent from the RFU a month ago. But we haven’t got any confirmed salary cap rules, we haven’t got anything. It’s so frustrating but there’s no point moaning. You just have to find a solution and do the best you can.”

For women’s teams such as Exeter, who attract regular crowds of more than 2,000 after two and a half years of playing existence, there are other issues to overcome. Up to now the Chiefs have recruited heavily from overseas to accelerate their progression. From next season, 13 members of every matchday squad must be English qualified.

“We always planned for us not to have so many overseas players but at the same time they bring excitement to the league,” says Appleby. “Investment in women’s rugby is massive but there also needs to be a product on the table that is going to attract support and sponsorship. We have consistently been competitive because of our overseas players and others have grown alongside them.”

Another bone of contention is that the wages of centrally contracted Red Roses, who typically earn between £22,000-30,000, are set to sit outside the cap. This means London-based clubs like Quins and Saracens, with bigger international contingents, will effectively have an extra £150,000 of talent to play with. Appleby, once an England scrum-half herself, is “trying to entice” three international squad members to move to the south west but, recruitment wise, is the playing field a level one? “No it isn’t. That’s what frustrates me. Me and [Exeter chairman] Tony Rowe have been bashing our heads against brick walls.”

It is just the tip of a massive logistical iceberg, on top of concussion and welfare concerns, for women’s rugby in general. Last December the Irish Rugby Football Union trumpeted new contracts for their international players, only for it to emerge many deals were worth just €15,000 and relied on the recipients being based in Dublin. World Rugby, meanwhile, sees women’s rugby as the sport’s main driver for growth – this year’s inaugural six-team WXV 1 tournament will be held in the southern hemisphere with South Africa the likely venue – but there remains a stark gulf in quality between the world’s top three or four sides and the rest.

For that reason, the mooted possibility of a female British & Irish Lions tour is not everyone’s perfect vision for the women’s game globally. More immediately pertinent is that Wales have this week doubled to 25 the number of full-time contracted national squad members, while England’s head coach Simon Middleton believes that, physically, today’s young wannabes “look far more advanced than players from five years ago”. As Quins and Exeter will demonstrate at Twickenham, women’s rugby is surging ahead on the field. The next step is to make the sums work off it.

Contributor

Robert Kitson

The GuardianTramp

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