Post-Rugby World Cup years always whet the appetite.
With the end of the four-year cycle often comes a raft of retirements, both from a playing and coaching point of view.
Squads take on a new look as a result and speculation mounts as to whether the balance of power is likely to shift from one country to another.
It all adds to the excitement of what lies ahead. And 2023 is no different.
But before we look forward to a year that promises so much, let’s take a breath and look back on what has been a momentous 12 months in the women’s game.
Barely a week seemed to pass by in 2022 when an attendance record wasn’t broken, starting in the Women’s Six Nations and culminating in the final of the delayed Rugby World Cup 2021 in New Zealand.
For the second year in a row, the Women’s Six Nations had its own standalone slot in the crowded sporting calendar and together with the arrival of TikTok as the first-ever title partner, that has helped to promote the Championship and broaden its appeal.
Tickets for matches in all the competing countries were in demand like never before with all the Home Unions – England, Scotland, Ireland and Wales – playing in front of their biggest home crowds in history.
As a result, the 2022 edition of the Women’s Six Nations saw crowds increase by 62 per cent compared to 2019, the last season before COVID-19.
England, as the number one ranked team in the world at the time, were the biggest box-office draw.
The Red Roses broke their home attendance record not once but twice in 2022. The 14,869 that watched England beat Wales 58-5 at Kingsholm in Gloucester at the start of April was a record that stood for just 15 days before nearly a thousand more spectators (15,836) turned up at Welford Road in Leicester later in the month to see the 69-0 win against Ireland.
Scotland (3,988 v England), Wales (4.875 v Scotland) and Ireland (6,133 v Wales) also broke new ground in terms of their home support.
France still hold the overall attendance for a women’s international outside of a Rugby World Cup when the visit of England to Grenoble in the 2018 Women’s Six Nations attracted a gate of 17,440, while Italy’s crowds have been growing in line with their on-field improvement.
The popularity of women’s rugby as a spectator sport continued into Rugby World Cup 2021, the 12-month delay in staging the tournament only serving to increase anticipation.
Consider this, before the Rugby World Cup, no one had paid to watch women’s rugby in New Zealand. But by the tournament’s conclusion, a thrilling 34-31 win for New Zealand against red-hot favourites England, 150,179 fans had come through the turnstiles.
The final at Eden Park was watched by 42,579 fans, another new attendance record and also a record for a standalone women’s event in any sport in New Zealand.
As a spectacle, Rugby World Cup 2021 did not disappoint.
In winning the tournament, New Zealand brought a strategy and playing approach to the tournament that was unique to them. It was a game that revolved around distributing the ball at pace, in all parts of the pitch and by all players.
The final, in which New Zealand outscored England six tries to five without a single penalty goal kicked, was just one of many games that went right down to the wire between teams evenly matched in the World Rugby Women’s Rankings powered by Capgemini.
Four of the five matches between teams in the world’s top four were settled by one score, while encounters between the other eight teams were also tight with an average winning margin of just eight points.
All told, it was one of the most competitive tournaments on record with 20 per cent of matches settled by five points or fewer – a big increase on the seven per cent at Ireland 2017.
In addition to the increased competitiveness, spectators are flooding through the gates because of the quality of rugby on show.
With less tactical kicking and set-piece action than men’s rugby, ball-in-play time averaged a very respectable 35 minutes and 37 seconds, those fans are getting plenty of ‘bang for their buck’ in the entertainment stakes.
England’s 13-7 win over France in the pool phase doesn’t appear to have been that much of a crowd-pleaser, but it reached the 40-minute mark for ball-in-play time (41 minutes and 37 seconds), which is almost unheard of in modern-day test rugby.
After a hugely successful and delayed Rugby World Cup 2021 on so many levels, the stage is now set for women’s rugby to keep pushing back the boundaries over the next 12 months.
The first Women’s Six Nations with professional players in every squad is nearly upon us and then, later in the year, the launch of WXV will take the women’s game onto another level altogether.
The RFU have confirmed that 35,000 tickets have been sold for the Women’s Six Nations encounter between England and France at Twickenham, on 29 April, meaning the attendance record is once again under threat.
Given the trajectory of ticket sales, a full house at Twickenham for the final of Rugby World Cup 2025 at Twickenham seems a very real possibility.