Big stadium aim for Wales

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The growth of women’s rugby in Wales over the last two years, at the elite level at least, has been exponential. It’s taken the women in red from the depths of European rugby to the top table of world rugby in an incredibly short amount of time.

Rewind to the abandoned 2020 Women’s Six Nations and then into the shortened 2021 version of the tournament, and Wales did not win any of their seven fixtures in which they played all five of their Northern Hemisphere rivals, facing France and Ireland twice each.

There were clearly issues off the field as previous Head Coach Rowland Phillips departed in mysterious circumstances, his replacement Warren Abrahams lasted barely nine months in the role, while assistant coaches came and went via some sort of women’s rugby coaching merry-go-round. Players performing well at club level were overlooked and the set up was overtly amateur.

Since then though the turnaround has been stark, driven by Nigel Walker and the ring-fenced money for women’s rugby invested as part of the CVC equity deal for the Six Nations.

It started with a mix of full-time and retainer contracts being given out in early 2022, journeyed through an improved Six Nations and an encouraging Rugby World Cup, and last month reached a most successful Six Nations for Wales since 2009 as three wins secured a third place finish and a spot in the new WXV1 competition, the top tier of Women’s Rugby’s Autumn series.

Alongside that the crowds at Wales home games have increased dramatically, with a record crowd of 4,962 watching the win over Scotland in 2022 before that was almost doubled as 8,862 packed into the Arms Park to watch this year’s game against England.

15.04.23 – Wales v England, TicTok Womens 6 Nations – Kelsey Jones of Wales takes on Alex Matthews of England

With the Women’s Six Nations now standing alone from the men’s competition across the end of March and April, receiving excellent free-to-air television coverage on the BBC and enjoying much more exposure in traditional media and via social media, the game is more accessible than ever.

Tie that in with an affordable ticket pricing strategy and friendly kick-off times, and you have the recipe for that growth to continue at an even faster rate than it already is. How can that be facilitated in Wales? Simple, the Principality Stadium.

Comparisons to England in the women’s game are fraught with danger such is the advancement of their elite programme. They’ve been a winning machine for over a decade now and that naturally attracts crowds, yet it was only this year that they headed to Twickenham for the first time and enjoyed a world record crowd of 58,498 for the Grand Slam decider against France.

It’s a lesson in the mantra of “build it and they shall come” for the Welsh Rugby Union as Wales prepare to host three home games in the 2024 edition of the competition. Games against Scotland and Italy in particular can be ear-marked as winnable, but the attraction may well be in the ticket prices and the lack of what is now the all-too-normal poor behaviour of supporters at a men’s international fixture.

Put on a big family event at the stadium, price it competitively and emphasise the family atmosphere that women’s test matches have embraced, and there’s no reason why that current record crowd can’t be trebled or even more.

The gap to the top, top teams that are France and England in the Six Nations is a big one, and it won’t be bridged quickly, but getting things right off the field and ensuring there are big crowds on the biggest stages to cheer on Wales, and the chase might be concluded a little bit faster, and in much more impressive style.

Perhaps then the WRU will begin to understand that you have to invest in things to get results, but I won’t hold my breath on that front.

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