Women’s rugby union health check for 2022: Which stars are waning, who is on the rise and what is the looming crisis?

Which stars are on the wane?

New Zealand, who have won the World Cup a record five times and have enjoyed an illustrious history in the women’s game, face their greatest test yet if they are to defend their title on home soil this year. After losing heavily to England and France last autumn, they are no longer the dominant force we have come to know, especially considering Stacey Fluhler was the only New Zealand player named in World Rugby’s 2021 team of the year. 

From an England perspective, it will be intriguing to see whether long-term absentee Cath O’Donnell, who has been regularly talked up by head coach Simon Middleton during her time out with persistent leg injuries, can force her way back into contention in Red Roses’ already jam-packed second row. The Loughborough Lightning lock made her first international start in almost two years during last year’s Six Nations before experiencing another setback to miss the autumn period. It is a similar story for Bryony Cleall, whose long-awaited comeback in last year’s Six Nations was a roaring success, before injury forced her to miss the tail end of England’s unbeaten 2021.

Mo Hunt was an integral player to Team GB women’s sevens team at the Tokyo Olympics, but a return to an international fifteens career looks all but over with Leanne Infante and Claudia MacDonald currently locked in a tussle for the starting scrum-half shirt. One also wonders whether Rowena Burnfield, a stalwart of the women’s game who earned her 50th cap against the USA last November after being named in England’s matchday squad for the first time since February 2019, will feature for her country again. 

Which stars are on the rise?

Led by their experienced captain, Manuela Furlan, expect fireworks from Italy in 2022. The Azzurre hit all their major objectives for 2021 – which saw them oust their European rivals Ireland and Spain to qualify for this year’s delayed World Cup – and performed admirably against a well-drilled England in last year’s Six Nations despite limited preparation time because of Covid. 

South Africa have made significant strides under the leadership of high performance manager and former Ireland international Lynne Cantwell. Keep an eye on Zintle Mpupha, the Springboks’ only professional female player who signed for Exeter Chiefs last September. Another one to watch will be Emilie Boulard, an unconventional full-back who was the breakout star of a fierce French backline last year.  

For England, exciting young prop Maud Muir has continually impressed, while Harlequins wing Heather Cowell has also put herself in the frame for a plane ticket to New Zealand after stepping up for club and country while Jess Breach was out with a lengthy injury.

Hottest ticket of 2022

The Rugby World Cup final on November 12 at Eden Park. Organisers are planning on selling out New Zealand’s largest sports stadium for the pinnacle of the tournament, which was pushed back a year because of the pandemic. Having thrashed reigning champions New Zealand across two Tests last year, England are the overwhelming favourites to reclaim the trophy they last lifted in 2014 given their formidable 18-match winning streak. Wales have also qualified for the 12-team tournament, while Scotland are two winnable games away from taking the last remaining qualifying spot next month. 

Given New Zealand’s strict travel restrictions because of Covid, the bulk of the fans for the tournament are expected to be from the host nation, which may pave the way for TV records to be broken. England enjoyed unprecedented coverage on BBC2 last year and should they reach the World Cup final, the 2.65 million who tuned into ITV to watch England lose the 2017 World Cup final could easily be surpassed.

A looming crisis in the sport is…

With the catastrophic extent of head injuries among male players from the game’s amateur era only beginning to be fully realised, it is crucial that rugby’s authorities look at the women’s game through a female lens. Women are twice as likely as men to experience concussion, but resources and research to support female players remain scant, which is why a huge data drive has begun. England wore special mouthguards containing head-impact monitors during training sessions and last year’s autumn Tests and the Rugby Football Union is hoping to roll out saliva tests that have a 94 per cent accuracy in diagnosing pitchside concussion in the Premier 15s from next season.

One positive step is that World Rugby recently established a women’s player welfare steering group to focus on initiatives which could benefit female players, but much remains to be done to ensure women are not simply treated like small men. Early research, for example, has already suggested women are more susceptible to concussion by hitting their heads on the ground rather than in big collisions, which is routinely linked to the men’s game.

One prediction

2021 was the year women’s rugby found its voice. Last month, a group of 62 past and present Ireland internationals wrote to their country’s government outlining a loss of “all trust and confidence” in the IRFU in relation to their handling of the women’s game. They were seemingly inspired by the 123 former Welsh players who last September launched a petition to improve the state of the women’s game in Wales. Their efforts were not in vain – later this month the Wales Rugby Union will announce 10 professional contracts for its women’s team.

Domestically, Bristol Bears flanker Alisha Butchers flagged the precarious financial support available to players who are in need of major surgery which led to the formation of the first players’ union for the Premier 15s.

With adequate levels of funding and off-field support being scrutinised more than ever before, do not be surprised if more players stick their head above the parapet in 2022. 

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