The Daily Telegraph

Autumn series hints at thrilling potential of home World Cup

If RFU succeeds in bid to host in 2025, it will be a million miles away from 2010 event, when we stayed in student digs and played at Surrey Sports Park

- Maggie Alphonsi

The hype around England’s autumn internatio­nals this month was unmatched to anything I have witnessed at this time of year before. On four consecutiv­e Sundays, women’s rugby enjoyed an afternoon slot on terrestria­l television. More than one million people tuned into England’s Test against Canada on BBC Two, while the Red Roses’ back-to-back victories over world champions New Zealand attracted crowds of around 10,000. The numbers provided a glorious glimpse of what could happen in four years’ time, should England’s bid to host the 2025 World Cup succeed.

When I first heard that the Rugby Football Union would be bidding for the tournament, it brought back memories of playing in the 2010 edition, which was the last time this country hosted the showpiece event in women’s rugby.

We fell agonisingl­y short against New Zealand in the final – losing 13-10 in front of a crowd of 13,253 at Twickenham Stoop. The defeat was somewhat countered by the realisatio­n that women’s rugby, for the first time, was on everyone’s radar. I remember watching the BBC weather forecast on the morning of the final and the presenter was talking about what the weather was going to be for those attending the match. I was truly blown away by the amount of attention it was receiving.

It was a huge privilege to be part of a home World Cup, but when I reflect on the tournament as a former player who would go on to win it in 2014, it is a million miles away from where women’s rugby is now. The pool games were staged at Surrey Sports Park and the whole atmosphere had the party feel of a rugby festival.

There were pop-up stands, tents, ropes bordering the pitches to separate the fans and we were all put up in student accommodat­ion.

All of those factors would be unthinkabl­e for internatio­nal teams travelling to a major tournament now, given the higher profile the women’s game enjoys. This even applies domestical­ly – Harlequins’ meeting with Wasps on Dec 27 will be the first regular Premier 15s game to be played at Twickenham and shown live on BT Sport.

Like other female team sports, women’s rugby has started to plug its own data gap. Match data and team statistics are now more commonplac­e, helping audiences to connect with the spectacle even more. Take this year’s Women’s Six Nations, where fan engagement went through the roof with the launch of the championsh­ip’s first fantasy league. If the game keeps progressin­g at this rate, the likes of England’s Poppy Cleall and Wales’s Jasmine Joyce have the potential to become household names at a home 2025 World Cup.

But for that to become a reality, the tournament has to be given the same level of respect you would expect for a men’s World Cup.

Fixtures and tickets must be released in good time, and it will be crucial organisers source the right sponsors who are genuinely interested in supporting women’s sport. Staging games in suitable stadiums in traditiona­l rugby union heartlands will also be key. We cannot have referees running over to the touchline looking at replays on a tiny TV screen, which has been an occurrence in women’s Test rugby.

A reliable broadcast partner is a must. In 2010, fans had to be in attendance or watching on Sky Sports to see us on the pitch. Thanks to social media, players now have their own profiles and it is easier for commercial partners to spot them and sign them up as brand ambassador­s.

The RFU can be confident in its bid because it has already done a lot of the logistical groundwork. In recent years, England women’s Tests have been tactfully spread around the country – from Sandy Park in Devon to Doncaster in South Yorkshire.

This nomadic approach is designed to expose the women’s game to new audiences, and you would expect a similar tactic to be deployed if the 2025 bid is successful. The goal will hopefully be to fill Twickenham for the final and, in doing so, set a world record for the biggest crowd at a standalone women’s internatio­nal. The RFU will be looking to hit targets in everything from attendance to media coverage, and create a legacy that ensures the women’s game benefits from a major increase in participat­ion.

It would also inevitably lead to greater investment in the domestic product, with more teams in the Premier 15s likely to lean towards profession­alism – but it is what could happen on the community scene where we could see the real snowball effect.

After any national sporting success, there is usually an uptick in participat­ion. When England last won the World Cup, in 2014, participat­ion among women and girls increased by 70 per cent.

Hockey had its moment in the limelight in 2016 after Great Britain clinched that historic gold at Rio, and when England beat India at the 2017 World Cup final at Lord’s, it was a watershed moment for women’s cricket.

When the England netball team won their Commonweal­th Gold in 2018, playing numbers also skyrockete­d. The word on the street is that organisers are hoping to attract 50,000 new players to the sport. To some extent, rugby will always be competing with football – we are a footballin­g nation, after all.

But to see England win a World Cup on home soil – a feat that has so far eluded both the country’s female football and rugby teams – could serve as the springboar­d for rugby to become the No 1 team sport for women and girls.

It would certainly mark the dawn of a whole new chapter for women’s rugby in this country – here’s hoping it can happen.

If the game keeps growing at this rate, Poppy Cleall could become a household name in 2025

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 ?? ?? Chalk and cheese: England and the US play a 2010 World Cup match in the humble surroundin­gs of Surrey Sports Park; (below) England’s Sarah Bern celebrates a try against New Zealand in front of a raucous Sandy Park crowd last month
Chalk and cheese: England and the US play a 2010 World Cup match in the humble surroundin­gs of Surrey Sports Park; (below) England’s Sarah Bern celebrates a try against New Zealand in front of a raucous Sandy Park crowd last month

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