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Why women’s rugby is on the fast track to global growth

AuthorsCatherine ForshawWill Ford

7 min read


Why womens rugby is on the fast track to global growth

As set out by Chief of Women’s Rugby Sally Horrox, “women and girls represent the single biggest opportunity [within the sport of rugby] for growth over the next decade”.

Here, Associate and sports law specialist Catherine Forshaw and Trainee Solicitor Will Ford detail the national and international developments set to cultivate this growth and expand the game of women’s rugby.

Huge commercial potential

The Rugby World Cup 2021, held in New Zealand, was a record-breaker. It demonstrated that people are waking up to the quality of women’s rugby and the final saw the then all-time record attendance of 42,579. This has since been broken by the 58,498 who watched England’s 38-33 Six Nations victory over France at Twickenham earlier this year.

Such growth makes it is easy to understand World Rugby’s vision of the “huge commercial potential” in women’s rugby, why it is “working to develop a sustainable commercial model” and why we are seeing exciting developments to the women’s game.

Accelerating growth through investment

Through ‘Accelerate’ — its framework for investment ahead of RWC 2025 (and beyond) — World Rugby aims to fast-track growth in the women’s game. It will see World Rugby partner with brands, national unions and governments as part of a targeted investment approach.

Through the framework, World Rugby will work to:

World Rugby Chief Executive Alan Gilpin said that “[by] working in close partnership with unions to deliver impactful change through Accelerate we can truly ignite the women’s game, increasing competitiveness and driving even greater fan and commercial interest.” It is hoped that the framework’s strong focus on profile building in the USA will assist with achieving this aim, with sights set on the 2028 Olympic Games in Los Angeles and the 2033 Rugby World Cup in the USA.

WXV — new international competition

World Rugby has also launched the WXV, an 18-team three-tier competition. The top two levels will be hosted by New Zealand and South Africa.

WXV 1 will be made up of the top three teams in the Women’s Six Nations and the top three teams from the World Rugby Pacific Four Series. WX2 and WX3 will also feature similar cross-pool compositions. While promotion to and relegation from WX1 is frozen for the first two years of the competition, the last-placed team in WX2 will be relegated and the top-placed team in WX3 will see promotion. The last-placed team in WX3 will have a play-off with the next best side as determined by the World Rugby Women’s Rankings.

Bill Beaumont, Chairman of World Rugby, commented: “[with] women and girls leading our strategy to grow the sport on a global basis, this competition will increase the reach and impact of the sport and drive the overall competitiveness of women’s international rugby”.

Indeed, the WXV will — for the most part — double nations’ international fixtures, which will drive quality and competitiveness through increased international playing experience. This will then lead to higher standards across the board in time for the 2025 World Cup (and for future competitions). Importantly, the WXV provides a route to qualification to the 2025 World Cup, with the five best non-qualified teams at the end of the 2024 WXV achieving a place at the finals.

According to Horrox, “WXV is the flagship of [Accelerate’s] competitions pillar... it is a statement of intent, a vehicle to supercharge the reach, competitiveness and value of elite women’s rugby… projecting the sport to new audiences in new markets”.

With the inaugural WXV competition set to commence in October 2023, it will be interesting to see how the competition plays out. Certainly, from a broadcasting perspective, more international competition will play an important role in garnering the media attention required to continue expanding the women’s game. While live attendances and media coverage are improving, women’s sports make up just 4-10% of coverage in the UK.

Increasing participation

Women’s rugby is one of the world’s fastest growing sports. Sports England figures from November 2022 highlight that the number of women playing rugby has grown from 25,000 to 40,000 over the last five years. As part of its ‘Every Rose’ strategy, the Rugby Football Union (RFU) aims for this number to increase to 100,000 by 2027.

The Rugby Football league (RFL) also has ambitious plans, citing a 214% growth in the number of women’s and girls’ teams since it embarked on its three-stage plan back in 2017.

WSL expansion

The RFL is now at its maximising stage, which is set to begin from 2024 with the creation of a new national pyramid system. RFL Head of Development, Thomas Brindle, set out that from 2024, “the Betfred Women’s Super League (WSL) will expand to a single eight-team competition, underpinned by four feeder leagues in the North, Roses, Midlands and South — establishing a pathway for ambitious clubs from all parts of the UK to earn promotion to the elite level”.

Under this new system, the eight-team WSL division sits at the top of the pyramid. At the end of the season there will be a semi-final between first place and fourth place, as well as a second and third place clash, to determine the composition of a Grand Final which will crown the women’s champions.

The second tier will be made of four regional divisions — North, Midlands, Roses and South — with a playoff system that will result in the last-placed WSL team playing the regional champion for a spot in the WSL. Within this second tier, a new Southern Regions Cup will take place, featuring any WSL Midlands and WSL South teams not competing in the Betfred Challenge Cup. The third tier will be made up of a mixture of local competitions which will be introduced as demand grows — meaning that while there is scope for future growth, the specifics are currently unknown. There will also be promotion and relegation, but this will be dependent upon the situation of the league and team(s) involved. In the men’s game, we have recently seen the RFL take the radical step to move away from traditional promotion and relegation criteria and bring in a new ‘grading’ system.

Exciting developments on the horizon

There are some exciting developments on the horizon in women’s rugby. With changes to the national league hierarchy and the creation of a new international competition, it is clear that sights are set on achieving the sport’s huge commercial potential.

Yet aside from the commercial benefits that these changes bring, it is important to appreciate the wider social impact associated with the expansion to women’s rugby. A new international competition will boost visibility and provide young girls with more chance than ever to watch their heroes on the big stages. As set out by Clare Balding OBE (a previous RFL President), “If you could bottle increased self-esteem and aspiration, career-goals, body-confidence, fitness and a sense of purpose — you would. That’s what developing and supporting Girls’ and Women’s Rugby” does.

To find out more about how we support rugby clubs and athletes, as well as the wider sports world, get in touch with me at

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