News on Tuesday that Tyrrells would not be renewing their title sponsorship of the Premier 15s for next season seemed on the face of it a blow for top-flight women’s rugby, but with clubs having been assured that their funding from the RFU remains ringfenced, and some in the sport not exactly mourning the crisp manufacturer’s departure, mood at the top of the game remains buoyant.
Last week the former England captain Catherine Spencer welcomed the fact that women’s rugby is now free to find “a more engaged sponsor” that “wants to be linked to sport”. The suggestion is that the sport has grown considerably in the three years since Tyrrells signed up, and thus a different partner is now required.
“It would be a disappointment if we don’t have a title sponsor for the league, but outside of that it doesn’t change a massive amount for me,” says Giselle Mather, director of rugby at Wasps. “What I look at won’t be different except for the logos on the post protectors and balls. I see it as a massive opportunity for a new sponsor, who is inheriting a product much better than the one we started with.
“It’s the close of a chapter to go to the next one. Tyrrells didn’t do all the things they could have done to promote the game but they gave us a title sponsor, they gave us the start and enabled us to crack on and get the product right. Now we need a sponsor that does come to games, does get the grassroots coming in, get the women coming in so the game really builds.”
Atlanta St John, the head of Harlequins’ women’s programme, has a similar view. “Everyone in rugby knew this was going to be a big success, but Tyrrells were still brave to put their hand up,” she says. “It’s been a good few years, and now we’re looking at a very exciting, positive future. What I love about women’s rugby is it’s evolving at a rate of knots. Every week and every month is different. People are starting to understand the potential of women’s sport. It’s growing at such a rate compared to men’s sport. A sponsor needs to realise what they’re aligning with – so many stories, such diversity. That’s why it’s such an exciting thing.”
But for the coronavirus pandemic, which forced the competition’s curtailment in mid-March, Sunday would have been Premier 15s finals day. Thoughts now turn fully to next season, which will start with the arrival of Exeter Chiefs and Sale Sharks and is due to end with the potential double boost of the Olympics, which for the second time will have rugby sevens in its schedule, and a World Cup in New Zealand that starts the following month.
“It’s going to be a highly competitive year, with new teams coming in, and a huge season for women’s rugby” says St John. “We’re going into year one of the next three-year cycle and it’s going to be right at the forefront in terms of women’s sport, a showpiece year for women’s rugby that will give the sport a strong and visible platform. You’ll hopefully get new fans from the Olympics, realising there’s a top global competition to watch just a few weeks later.”
The rising quality of the league, and the unprecedented amount of exposure it would receive over the next couple of years if the international competitions are a success, has allowed many involved in the league to see Tyrrells’ departure as an opportunity rather than a disappointment.
“The quality of games, the quality of the athletes, the whole infrastructure that sits behind women’s top-level domestic league rugby, has improved exponentially,” says Mather. “The athletes who were playing before had this within them, but they didn’t have the back-up, the coaching, the analysts, the expertise. They’ve got that now and the potential has flooded out of these athletes. The women’s game is where there’s the biggest growth, the product is there, and if we’re organised and ready for when Covid releases then women’s sport – not just rugby – is going places.”