By John Birch
The worldwide spread of womens rugby is impressive perhaps more so than is often realised. Twenty-four nations have played 59 test matches within the past 12 months alone, including two, Barbados and St Vincent, who took to the field for the first time. It has been one of the busiest years ever for womens international rugby.
But test match rugby has a rival. Over the same period 82 nations, including 21 of those who also played tests, have played another form of the game 7s its popularity due to it requiring less money, time, and obviously fewer players than the traditional game important considerations for a game that struggles for funds across most of the world.
However, most 7s nations and players still harbour ambitions to play 15s and proper test matches. The 15s game has all the glamour and glory it is the real game with a World Cup that goes back nearly 20 years - a long time in a sport with an international history of less than 30 years.
But that may be about to change. There is a risk in that this balance between 7s and 15s is about to be upset - and upset, ironically, by a development that may bring hundreds, maybe thousands, of new players into the game.
Because Olympic rugby will be 7s rugby.
Across most of the world, womens rugby is a poorly funded sport. Many nations even major nations play little or no international rugby simply because of the cost. Being part of the Olympics will increase funding and increase international play but that funding will be tied to and dependent on Olympic success which means that a lot of international activity will also be 7s.
This will put a pressure even on existing funding in nations that currently play 15s. Take Uganda, who were at the Rugby World Cup (RWC) Sevens earlier this year and might reasonably hope to make the Olympics as an example. If they want to maintain that position how much time and money can they risk on spending on 15s rugby - especially when the highest level they can currently play at 15s is only the Elgon Cup against Kenya?
Or take countries where the Olympics have a political importance, like China. The inclusion of rugby in the Olympics will probably result in a massive boost to the game in that country, including its appearance on school curricula, but this will be tied to tightly to the 7s game.
The problem is that the balance provided by 15s being higher profile and the proper game risks being lost. Why should a Spanish player, for example, train and compete for a place in the 15s team (when the best they can hope for is a FIRA tournament in front of a few hundred people), when instead they could play Olympic 7s for Spain in front of crowds of thousands or millions worldwide?
The real possibility is that, outside of biggest six or seven rugby nations, 15s the traditional game - could all but disappear.
In fact it is already happening. Following the success of their 7s team, the chairman of the Brasilian RFU was recently quoted as saying that, for women, the 15s has already been abandoned.
It doesn't have to happen but it will require an effort from bodies like the IRB to promote and support the 15s game and provide a balance to the glamour, glitz and glory that will now be tied to 7s. Players of 15s rugby need to have a hope of glory of their own and raising the profile and accessibility of the Womens Rugby World Cup will be a major part of that.
Mens 15s rugby is unlikely to suffer in the same way because their Rugby World Cup is a truly global, high profile, event that every rugby nation large and small takes part in. It gives every player from Australia to Finland a chance to dream and a hope of glory. But at present the same does not apply to the Womens World Cup. Players from only 22 nations even had their chance to dream of playing in London next year because three-quarters of the rugby world were unable to even compete in qualifying tournaments. That has to change.
The good news is that there are signs that the IRB are taking action. The host for the 2014 World Cup will be announced early next year, allowing more than four years to prepare for the tournament long enough to, potentially, allow every nation to take part.
That may not be enough. Regional tournaments also need to be encouraged and supported, and success in these events celebrated. News that USA, Canada and some Caribbean nations are looking at a North American Six Nations is a great step in the right direction but what about Africa? What about Australasia? Why has there never been a second Pacific Islands tournament? Why have South African never played any other African nation? How does the closed shop of the 6 Nations help develop European rugby, especially when they are clearly not all the best six nations on the continent?
The Olympics will be a huge boost for rugby worldwide and womens rugby in particular but the risk is that Olympic rugby that will become the worldwide game. And that means 7s.