Women’s Rugby World Cup a stepping stone rather than final destination

Three things usually make or break a World Cup. Not everyone agrees on the precise order but on-field brilliance, uncertainty of outcome and an emotionally invested host nation are generally the holy trinity. Deliver the lot and any tournament will be fondly remembered, regardless of the weather, the political backdrop or glossier other attractions.

The legacy will still be pretty positive if two of the three can be achieved. One is a tougher scenario but survivable. And none? The ultimate Halloween-esque nightmare for every global sporting executive involves one-dimensional, processional games, half-empty stadiums and the creeping fear that the general public’s eyes have glazed over.

So where does the current Rugby World Cup in New Zealand rank on this unofficial Beaufort Scale? It is too early to be definitive, with the pointy end of the competition still to come, but there have been some encouraging snapshots. The queues of locals of all ages snaking along the pavements outside the stadium at Whangarei prior to Saturday’s quarter-final double header, for example, were not there by accident.

It helps, too, that so many Kiwis know their rugby, with affordable ticket prices – $NZ10 for adults and NZ$5 for children (around £5 and £2.50 respectively) – another shrewd move. The matchday experience has been both upbeat and friendly and even the lashing weekend rain in Auckland could not entirely douse the empowering sense of sisterhood in both the stands and the dressing-rooms.

It is equally important to remember the progress that women’s rugby has made in a relatively short period of time. It is only just over 30 years since the inaugural women’s World Cup, organised by volunteers and spanning just nine days in 1991. As recently as 2017 the whole tournament in Belfast attracted a total of 45,412 spectators at an average of 1,514 per game.

This time around a record 34,235 showed up at Eden Park for the opening day’s action alone.

This World Cup, furthermore, is the first to feature teams of professionals, a major game changer in itself. It may be a while before private jets or stretch limos are full of female rugby stars idly checking their share portfolios but the gains in fitness and standards are already obvious. You don’t have to be an out-of-shape, 50-something white, male sportswriter to feel routinely humbled.

And maybe that is why this tournament should be viewed slightly differently. It feels like the start of something, a stepping stone rather than the final destination. The next World Cup after this will be staged in England in 2025 and only then will we truly see how rich the future for women’s rugby can be. The tournament is expanding to 16 teams, the exposure and sponsorship income will be substantially increased and the next generational talents of this World Cup will be granted a significantly bigger stage.

By then the hope must also be that the other home unions, the United States, Australia, South Africa and Italy will have narrowed the current gap between themselves and the world’s best. There is no disputing there have been too many one-sided scorelines for comfort, most recently in the quarter-finals when the average margin of victory was 36.25 points. Had England been operating with something other than a wet bar of soap or had missed fewer kicks it would have been even greater.

If you wanted you could also drill down into one or two other debatable areas, not least whether the organisers should have been more ambitious.

There are bigger cities in New Zealand than Whangarei and grander venues than the 4,900-capacity Waitakere Stadium in the West Auckland suburbs where England and Australia contested Sunday’s quarter-final. As far as many in New Zealand are concerned, this supposed global fiesta might as well be taking place on Saturn.

Which is why it was such a sizeable own goal to allow the men’s All Blacks to kick off in Japan on Saturday at almost the same time as the Black Ferns. To compound the situation, the Tokyo game was a thriller, with the result in doubt until the closing moments. No prizes for guessing which of the two fixtures drew more eyeballs in the pubs of Auckland on Saturday evening.

But hang on. The Black Ferns are not finished yet. If they brush past France this Saturday to reach the final of their own event, it could set up an absolute humdinger. A screaming Eden Park, Portia Woodman and Ruby Tui at full throttle, an England team suddenly on the back foot? Even those who remain agnostic about women’s rugby would be well advised to tune in.

Perhaps the only caveat is that the Red Roses’ preferred method is something of an acquired taste. Even on a dry day they can resemble a big server at the All England Club, all fripperies steadfastly avoided. This, of course, is entirely their prerogative but it makes it harder to sell the game to neutrals. A heavy diet of driving mauls with barely a hint of backline adventure is like ordering a pizza and being served only the crust.

It is an unfortunate juxtaposition because women’s rugby, at this stage in its trajectory, needs all the friends, allies, casual admirers and fan girls it can muster. It would certainly help if the semi-finals and final can help to tick the three crucial boxes every great tournament needs.

There is still just enough time to transform a worthy World Cup into a memorable one.