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Williams praises benefits of integration

By Ali Donnelly

Years of plotting and planning will come to a head for the RFUW next Friday when the first ball is kicked at the Women's Rugby World Cup.

When the IRB awarded England the host status two years ago, the RFUW, working closely with the RFU, had beat of rival bids from South Africa, Germany and Kazakhstan and the decision was something of a relief to England who had bid for the 2006 event but lost out to Canada.

Heading up the bid and firmly at the helm of the organising for the upcoming competition is Rosie Williams (pictured), the managing director of the RFUW and she says losing the 2006 bid was a blessing in disguise.

"Organising this event, has been a great challenge but I am glad we are doing it now and not four years ago because the RFUW and the RFU are working so well together right now that it's made everything work a lot more seamlessly than it would have back then."

The RFUW has been running the women's game in England since the early 90's but full integration with the RFU has been gathering pace in recent years and the World Cup has no doubt fast-tracked relations between the two who work closely together to advance the women's game.

Williams points to a number of examples from planning the World Cup where the two worked together, which have been invaluable in order to get the best tournament possible off the ground

"There are now people working across both the women's and men's game but over the course of planning for the World Cup we have been able to tap into the widespread expertise at the RFU and when you look around the people who have helped put this event together it is right across the spectrum with help across everything from ticket sales to security.

"The TV deal we have got with Sky is a perfect example of this where the team at the RFU who negotiate TV deals made absolutely sure that the Women's World Cup was guaranteed a really great broadcast deal. We have some amazing people at the RFUW and some great volunteers but the experience of those guys in that area we just couldn't have done without."

Integration between men's and women's unions has been happening frequently across the world in recent years, with the need for access to greater funding and resources essentially outweighing separation. Ireland are through their integration process after a number of years of hard work while Scotland also came together with the SRU last year. Williams agrees that the process is tough but is sure England are closer to their number one goal of one seamless working body.

"Since I joined in 2002 things have moved on immensely but it is a slow process because you have got make sure you're doing the right things. Where we are now is that the women's game is now very much part of the overall discussions as part of the business of the game of English rugby and that is a super place to be. The time it has taken has never been from a lack of will, there has always been the willingness on both sides but these things are never as simple as they appear and I am happy that we have taken our time to make everything right."

"The aim is to have one rugby body running the game and we are getting to that point definitely, we have certainly moved past the hardest part of the process."

Williams points to the RFUW moving offices to be based at Twickenham and the England women changing their shirts to match what the men wear as key milestones in the development of the integration process, with the women's team able to attract more visibility and exposure through various sponsorship deals with the likes of O2 and Nike.

To the World Cup next week and she explains some of the behind the scenes work.

"Logistically there has been a lot to oversee and last week we've had various tents, fences and security going up around the ground while Sky have been setting up for their coverage as well. I am confident that people will find the grounds to be magnificent and I would challenge anyone to find pitches in better condition anywhere. It's been tough to keep grounds in good conditions this summer without rain but the grounds people there have done a fantastic job."

Awkward kick off times and pool days means that Williams accepts that there may be a lag in crowds for some games, but England's favourable kick off times means she is confident that the 2,500 capacity venue will be buzzing for some of the bigger games.

"The limit of 2,500 people for the pool stages is really due to the limitations there are at the grounds. Our aim is to get people very close to the game itself so the crowds will be on top of the pitch and the players will experience a great atmosphere and if the grounds are full we'll also look at ensuring there are big screens so everyone gets to see every game."

After the pool stages at the brand new Surrey SportsPark finish, the semis and final move to The Stoop at Twickenham. The decision to host the game at the home of Harlequins instead of at Twickenham itself was purely based on the honest assessment that thewomen's game would never fill the bigger stadium but the 14,000 capacity Stoop might just be filled. Williams accepts that there is pressure to sell tickets.

"Yes there is absolutely pressure. We were criticised when we decided to have the final the Stoop and not at Twickenham but we really wanted to make sure the final had a great atmosphere and was at a ground which was full - if we can sell out the Stoop for that game it would be really fantastic."

Williams still carries a strong Australian accent and she is well positioned to compare the profile of women's sport here versus down under and the battle to attract media interest in the World Cup.

"When it comes to profile and coverage of women's sports here, from an Australian point of view it seems to me to be more of a battle between football and the rest of sport whereas in other countries it is generally a men's versus women's coverage thing. It is tough to get that coverage but we've been working very hard on it. We don't have a big PR budget but we've worked with the RFU and others to make the best of it."

Strategies like ensuring that fans who buy tickets for the Women's World Cup are automatically put on a priority ticketing information list for the 2015 Rugby World Cup in England has helped, as has the assistance from the RFU ticket team who sell thousands of seats every year.

Away from the pressure of ticket selling there is also general pressure on the IRB and the RFUW to a lesser extent to make this World Cup a great showcase of the women's game at 15 aside level with 7s growing in popularity as a national sport around the world. Williams agrees.

"Yes it is a crucial World Cup. For me 15s is the ultimate game but 7s is here to stay and we must look towards a position of getting a programme in place so that a GB team will progress to the Olympics but for me personally the 15s game is key. There is a great danger that a country could use the onset of 7s as an excuse not to invest in their 15s women's programmes. It needs to be managed and it is something the IRB must take forward."

If England lift the World Cup on September 5 it will certainly have done its bit for helping to secure the future of the 15s game here - Williams will be cheering them on all the way.