Women's Game: 2022 Year In Review
Women's Game: 2022 Year In Review
If headlines belonged to the re-emergence of New Zealand as the world's best, then the stories were about the growing professionalism of women's rugby.
If the headlines of 2022 belonged to the re-emergence of New Zealand as the world's best, then the stories underneath it all were about the growing professionalism of women's rugby and the plethora of new opportunities emerging for international teams and players.
From Fiji's inclusion and eventual victory in Australia's leading club competition, the Super W, to first time professional contracts to players in Wales, Ireland, Scotland and Italy - to name just four - and a thrilling World Cup, the women's XV game has enjoyed 12 months like no other.
With more than 100 test games played in one year for the first time, and major brands, such as TikTok, getting involved in the Women's Six Nations, the road to the next World Cup in 2025 in England, with hopefully none of the pandemic restrictions that blighted the journey to New Zealand, looks promising.
The start of the long awaited global WXV competition in 2023 will be the highlight of next year, while the rejigged sevens calendar also will draw high interest, given one of its benefits is parity between the men's and women's event, with all seven rounds featuring combined competitions for the first time.
New Zealand remains the story of the past 12 months, though, and the team's journey from disarray this time last year, to glory on home soil a few weeks ago, surely is one that will spawn at least one book in the future.
I wrote a few months ago that it would be better for New Zealand if it didn't win the World Cup, given the scant support it so often has received from its own union when the Black Ferns had won other titles.
What no one could quite have bargained for was the wild support the Black Ferns generated from their own fans, so often reticent about turning out to support the women's game.
That record and passionate home support, and the brilliant reception the players are receiving all over the country on their champions tour, certainly are enough to suggest that it will be difficult for New Zealand Rugby to do anything but continue to support their fantastic team.
And with the All Blacks off their best form, the potential of the Black Ferns arguably is an opportunity New Zealand Rugby cannot afford to mess up.
It is hard to get away from the fact that it took a player speaking out about mistreatment for things to change for the better in New Zealand, but that change, the World Cup win and the ongoing investment in the wider game there, surely has cemented a rosy and sustainable future.
The key now is that the right head coach is recruited to replace Wayne Smith, as New Zealand looks to build as professional players to 2025.
Outside of one country, though, it is perhaps England and decisions taken by the RFU that have ignited the most change in the game this year.
It is hard to believe England's regular thrashing of the countries around it, as true this year as ever, did not have an impact on decisions by those unions to start to invest properly in their top women's players.
Ireland probably has been the best beneficiaries, with its union saying just a year ago that contracts were not yet a priority, only for that decision to be reversed in the wake of a humbling 69-0 defeat in Leicester.
Record crowds also have helped generate momentum in the game in the UK, with signs that the England versus France game in Twickenham next April will break the record set recently at Eden Park for the largest number of fans watching a women's test match live.
The RFU's stated aims to professionalize the Allianz Premier 15s league also have accelerated discussions in the Celtic Nations for a new cross-border club competition, an effort perhaps at eventually stopping the best players from Ireland, Scotland and Wales from choosing to play their club rugby on English shores in the Premier 15s.
It remains remarkable to me that not a single player on the Welsh World Cup squad plays their club rugby in Wales, and that surely cannot be sustainable forever.
In the next Six Nations, for the first time, all of the teams involved will include contracted players - most of them full-time - remarkable progress given that it is just under four years since England first took the plunge.
Away from XVs, Australia enjoyed another stunning year in the sevens game- ending it as World Series, World Cup and Commonwealth Games Champions.
Since crashing out at the Olympics last year, Australia hardly has put a foot wrong in 2022, with a trio of titles coming within a few months.
Spearheaded by the vastly experienced Sharni Williams and Charlotte Caslick, players like Maddison Levi and Faith Nathan were outstanding in their various charge for gold.
Elsewhere, Poland's European Sevens Championship win is well worth mentioning, as Poland became just the sixth nation to win that title since it was launched in 2003.
A new era awaits the women's game in 2023, with a new global XV competition, more professional teams than ever before and a revamped sevens game.
There are challenges ahead, but the game's trajectory is on the up.
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