Sunday, 17 September 2006

Day is central to England's final tilt: Wasps star has helped women to the brink, says Anna Kessel.

Anna Kessel

ENGLAND FACE New Zealand tonight in the Women's Rugby World Cup final in Canada, but with barely a squeak about it in the media you would be forgiven for knowing little about it. The vast majority of matches have been broadcast over the internet and Sky screened just one semi-final live from Edmonton.

New Zealand's Black Ferns are the overwhelming favourites to win a tournament that was officially sanctioned by the IRB only in 1998. They are the current holders, having beaten England in the final four years ago, and they have smashed their way through the opposition this time round, conceding 17 points and amassing 177 along the way.

England's own points tally looks impressive - scored 139, conceded just 30 - but their semi-final win over hosts Canada was uncertain right up to the final whistle and the winning margin was slim at 20-14. England are second favourites for the trophy, however, and have a number of experienced players - such as 32-year-old centre Sue Day - to draw on memories of past achievements and narrow misses.

They were champions in 1994, but otherwise England's women have been frustrated in recent years after defeat in two finals and finishing third in 1998. However, the triumph of this year's Six Nations victory will go some way to buoying the team.

Day is typical of the old guard generation of women rugby players who discovered the game late in life - at university - and this year looks as if it will be her last playing for England. But a younger generation with a different knowledge of rugby is emerging, players such as 19-year-old Michaela Staniford, already capped 16 times, who played rugby minis from the age of 12.

This generation are changing the game - by the time they reach their mid-twenties they will have amassed the same number of playing years as Day. The pace and skill of the women's game is on the up.

But the sport still suffers from an image problem. As recently as 2003, a Women's Sports Foundation report revealed that 17.2 per cent of those questioned didn't think that women should even be playing rugby (the same percentage as boxing). And with such poor coverage it is unlikely that many on the street could name the captain, Jo Yapp.

This World Cup has been ground-breaking in recruiting the highest number of female match officials (12) to oversee the games. In addition, the IRB announced that for the first time women's rugby will have a sevens tournament in 2009 running alongside the men's event.

But if England overcome the odds and beat New Zealand - and in addition recruit a decent-sized TV audience despite the midnight kick-off - will women's rugby be given the publicity it deserves? After the men's World Cup victory in 2003, a massive grassroots investment campaign was initiated to revitalise the sport. Between them, the RFU and the Government ploughed in pounds 28.5m to reverse the fall in playing numbers before 2003. Twelve months later, 33,000 new players were attracted to the game, with the biggest rise in numbers being the 7-11 age group, a 32 per cent increase.

There has been nothing like such attention to grassroots women's rugby. There are positives here and there but if the good-luck messages to the women's team from Andy Robinson and Rob Andrew on behalf of the RFU aspire to be taken seriously, much more needs to be done.

In an interview with Observer Sport before the World Cup, Staniford called for better interaction between the personnel of men's and women's rugby. 'Neil Back once came to talk to us, which had a huge impact,' she said, 'but there's still so much that the men's game can offer to us in terms of experience.'

Women's Rugby World Cup final

England v New Zealand, SS3 midnight

The Observer (London, England) (Sept 17, 2006): p19.

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