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6 Nations launch shows how far the game has come

…and how far it has still to go.

The Six Nations media launch takes place every January, about 10 days before the tournament kicks off. We’ve been attending for some years now – it’s a chance to meet the captains and coaches, chat about the game (on and off the record) and generally pick up useful background for use in articles over the forthcoming weeks.

But this year we thought we’d focus on the launch itself, as it illustrates so well how appreciation of the women’s game has grown, but how there is still more to do.

The positives are impressive. After the official press conference the captains and coaches circulate around a series of rooms populated by TV, radio, daily newspaper, Sunday newspapers and online writers.

Seven or eight years ago the women's captains and coaches were not involved in this at all – and did not even appear in the main press conference. They did a few photo shoots, and then sat around in the central area outside the rooms on the off-chance that someone might come and talk to them. That someone was mainly us, plus a few enlightened souls from specialist rugby publications. Around them, images and videos showed highlights from the previous year’s men’s tournament, while the free Guinness stand did a roaring trade.

Today the first thing anyone arriving saw was a video showing highlights of last year’s women’s tournament (and a very professional and exciting video it is), the women's captains were fully included in the press conference (though they only got one question each, not two as the men did), and were all included in the interview room circulation. And the Guinness stand was no-where to be seen (replaced by Guinness cakes, which at least one of the captains was caught thoroughly enjoying, and Guinness crisps, which were being treated with much caution). What is more, the online room had at least a dozen or more writers asking questions, not mainly just one, – and intelligent and informed questions as well.

On the other hand there were reports of a near stampede of daily newspaper journalists from their room when the women's players turned up - but if they did their job properly we would not exist, so no surprise there. And the women's tournament remains little more than a footnote in the official magazine (4 pages out of 98) and media guide (8 pages out of 121).

Also at the launch all of the trophies are available for inspection, some adorned with sponsors favours, but some oddly lacking in such decorative additions.

Why so? Well, this was another notable, and curious, thing. The Six Nations is sponsored by NatWest this year (instead of RBS, though RBS is effectively the same thing) – but only for the men’s tournament. The sponsorship does not (and never has) included the women’s (or men’s U20) championships – but never has that been made clearer. Only the men’s trophies had NatWest ribbons, and the women had a separate interview backboard that included no mention of NatWest. Quite a lot of trouble had been gone into to show where the limits of the sponsorship were.

This is very new – last year we have been told winners medals included the men’s sponsor, despite them not contributing to the women’s tournament.

Our suspicions for this initially turned to the new sponsor, but when we tracked them down this seemed to be far from the case. A lot of what they told us was off the record, but overall they made a very forceful point that NatWest have a great record of sponsoring women’s sport, and they see it as a priority, not least because they customer base has more women in it than their competitors. They would have loved to have sponsored the women’s championship as well… but it was not an option available to them.

It reminded us of reports that NBC – who now have the North American rights to the men’s tournament – also wanted to buy the women’s games, but were similarly told that they were not part of the package.

Eyes turn to the Six Nations, from whom we were only able to learn that this was not an error (which, charitably, we guessed it might be - ie. the negotiators in their excitement at landing NatWest had not simply forgotten about the women’s tournament) and that there are 'Plans Afoot'.

It’s all very strange. Sponsors, and, by some reports, broadcasters, wanting to get involved with, and support, the women’s game but being politely told that its not on the table? Perhaps there is a big, blue chip, sponsor for the women’s game in the wings? But even if there was would not having two different sponsors for different Six Nations (men’s and women’s) dilute the impact of each other’s support?

Does it matter? It is perfectly true that the sponsorship money goes to the unions and ultimately benefits the game as a whole, but having a sponsor-free Women’s Six Nations gives the impression that no-one is interested in it – and we know that that is not true.

Overall then the 2018 Six Nations launch had women’s rugby being given more respect and interest than ever before (daily newspaper journalists notwithstanding), but equality (especially in print) still has a way to go and the game finds itself at the centre of a mystery – a sponsorship whodunit - that would surely never be allowed to happen in the men's game.