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Successive Grand Slams no surprise for dominant Red Roses

England’s wide margins of victory against all but their nearest rivals France paint a picture of dominance. Another title secured with a game to spare. A team which appears far ahead of all others. Whilst the achievement cannot be dismissed, England secured back-to-back Grand Slams on Sunday with a win over Italy, is it particularly surprising that the Red Roses are so dominant? 

The financial disparities between the teams are evident. For the 2019-20 season, England had 28 women on full-time contracts, providing the opportunity to focus solely on rugby. No other Six Nations competitor enjoys such luxury, with set-ups ranging from a core group of contracted players (as is the case for Scotland and Wales) to Italy which covers just expenses for travel and medical insurance. 

It therefore seems entirely unsurprising that less well-financed teams are less competitive. Whilst there are occasional shocks, the predictable nature of the competition seems to increase year-on-year. England have still done the job in front of them, but the odds appear on ever more stacked in their favour. 

One impact of professionalism is on the frequency of training. Whilst England players have training or club practice during the week, Scotland’s preparation has been limited to weekend training camps. England players themselves acknowledge the advantage this provides. Katy Daley-Mclean told Talking Rugby Union, “You could argue that the amount of time that we have had together, the opportunities that we have had to train full-time, really started to tell and I think that is probably the difference with the other unions and the other girls. They are not getting that level of support.” 

England’s head coach, Simon Middleton was somewhat pessimistic about the potential for other nations turning professional. Before the pandemic hit, he stated, “The logical thing to say is; get all the home nations full-time. Whether that is practical or not, I don’t know. I think they’re doing as well as they feel that they can at this moment in time.” Seasoned coaches believe that greater competition can only come about with more professional set-ups.

Growing the game surely requires greater professionalism, with the hope of engendering better competition. People would be more likely to watch (either in stadiums or on TV) games where the outcome does not seem certain from the outset. Whilst the 2021 World Cup may come too soon for that, more funding and bigger sponsorship deals would offer more women the opportunity to dedicate their time to rugby and reduce the disparities between nations in time for future editions. 

With the impact of Covid-19 on rugby finances in general it is paramount that the women’s game is not unduly hit. Even with the re-scheduled Olympics just one year away, England has already cut funding for its Women’s Rugby 7s programme. The potential for cuts affecting the 15s side seems clear. Rather than a shift to greater professionalism, there is a danger of backsliding among the nations with centrally contracted players. One year out from the World Cup, it is key that national programmes have sufficient money to continue as they are, while leaving room to push for greater professionalism in the near future. Well done to England – the results demonstrate a high level of play and some of the rugby has been scintillating. However, here’s to a more competitive Six Nations with more professional teams and less predictability.

Image Credits: J. Walton via Flickr