Monday, August 18, 2014

England's Invisible World Cup Winners

Those of you who know me will be aware that I’m not one for nationalistic flag-waving. But let me set my internationalism aside for one moment to rejoice in the fact that England have won the World Cup! What? You didn’t know?

Yesterday England’s women defeated Canada to win the rugby World Cup in France. The chances are that you weren’t even aware the tournament was taking place, and the first many will have heard of it will have been the (limited) attention the team received this morning. It’s rare for women’s rugby to make the back page and the final came on the same weekend as the start of the Premier League season, the final day of the test series between England and India, and the climax of the European athletics championships. It’s unsurprising that the game was farmed out to Sky Sports 4.

Which is a shame because as a sporting spectacle all the ingredients were there for a memorable encounter. England faced a Canadian side with whom they had managed only a tie in the group stages, leaving the final perfectly poised. And it followed a hat-trick of consecutive final defeats in the last three World Cups for England. Fourth time’s a charm. The game had enough drama to keep fans on the edge of their seats. England led 11-3 at half time courtesy of a try from Danielle Waterman and two penalties from Emily Scarratt. After the break Canada clawed their way back into the match, moving within two points of England before Scarratt added another penalty, a try and a conversion to her impressive points haul. England won 21-9. It is the first time in twenty years that they have lifted the trophy and yet still the coverage has been minimal.

Compare this to when the England men’s rugby team won the World Cup in 2003. Despite arriving back in the country in the wee small hours of the morning they were greeted by thousands of supporters at the airport and what followed, according to the BBC, was “an unprecedented national day of celebration, with the team greeting hundreds of thousands of fans from open top buses in a victory parade through London.” They were invited to Number 10 for some champagne by Tony Blair, a man desperate for some vicarious glory following a year of anti-war protests. Then it was on to Buckingham Palace to meet the queen for cucumber sandwiches. I expect they were on their best behaviour for this one but part of me wonders if they resorted to type and acted like the rugby club blokes I knew at university, randomly insulting passers-by and pissing on the corgis.

And it didn’t stop there. Clive Woodward, the England team supremo, was knighted in the New Year’s honours list. Captain Martin Johnson picked up a CBE and most others in the squad MBEs. Then, finally, in what can only be described as an insult to the very notion of dictionary definitions, Jonny Wilkinson was crowned BBC Sports Personality of the Year. Perhaps I’m wrong, but I just don’t see England’s women receiving the same accolades.

What we can say for sure is that women’s rugby is on the rise. The International Rugby Board says,“Women's Rugby is one of the fastest-growing forms of the Game with over 200,000 registered women actively competing in Fifteens and Sevens and 800,000 women and girls participating in leisure Rugby in all its forms around the world.” And in this country alone there are, according to the Rugby Football Union, more than 14,000 women and girls playing the game every week, meaning that participation is at “an all-time high”. Despite these advances women’s rugby, indeed women’s sport in general, lags a long way behind the men.

Women are still dissuaded from taking part in ‘muscular’, ‘masculine’ team sports and instead are patronised by government ministers and encouraged to consider more appropriate forms of physical exercise like aerobics, cheerleading and ironing (ok, I made the last one up, but you get the sarcasm). And there still exists, of course, a strong element whereby female athletes are judged on their looks rather than their sporting skills. Tennis player Maria Sharapova remains the most highly paid sportswoman in the world, despite negligible prize-money winnings. Rugby, with its rucks, mauls and cauliflower ears is a full-blooded, front-on crash tackle to society’s stereotypes of femininity

The one major, headline change that would help push women’s sport to the fore – namely a significant increase and improvement in the current levels of television coverage – is simply not on the cards. For all manner of historical reasons, men’s sport still draws the biggest audiences, and the more viewers you have the more you can charge your advertisers. For someone like Sky, a massive corporation driven by the profit motive, a long-term commitment to women’s sport doesn’t make financial sense.

That is not to say there haven’t been improvements recently. Sky did cover the rugby World Cup; BT Sport and BBC radio are running more coverage of women’s football. Hell, even the last edition of the Wisden almanac carried an article on the history of women’s cricket. I suspect this is a reflection of the growing number of women playing and watching sport at the grassroots level, as well as continued pressure from those campaigning for more balanced sports reporting. However, women’s sports are, in the main, still seen as secondary to those of their male counterparts, curious adjuncts to the ‘proper’ games played by the men. The disparity between the sexes can be illustrated with an example drawn from the athletics world where inequality is (arguably) not so great. If Christine Ohuruogu – the UK’s most successful female athlete of all time –was a man she would be one of the most feted and celebrated sportspeople this country has ever known. As it is, most people won’t even recognise her name.

So what can England’s rugby World Cup winning women expect when they return? Dinner with dignitaries? Fame and fortune? More sponsorship deals than Joe Hart can shake a stick at? Not likely. Yet, while it may not make up for the wrongs of a misogynistic world, they can take heart from the fact that they’re more successful than the men.