The Women's Rugby World Cup has been postponed a year.
The event was due to take place this September in New Zealand but a decision has been taken now, with uncertainty mounting about a huge number of vital issues including travel restrictions, preparation and qualifiers.
A World Rugby Statement said:
"While appreciating the recommendation is extremely disappointing for teams and fans, it has their interests at heart, and gives the tournament the best opportunity to be all it can be for them, all New Zealanders and the global rugby family.
The recommendation is based on the evolution of the uncertain and challenging global COVID-19 landscape. It has become clear in recent discussions with key partners including New Zealand Rugby, the New Zealand Government and participating unions, that, given the scale of the event and the COVID-19-related uncertainties, it is just not possible to deliver the environment for all teams to be the best that they can be on the sport’s greatest stage.
The challenges include uncertainty and the ability for teams to prepare adequately for a Rugby World Cup tournament both before and on arrival in New Zealand, and challenging global travel restrictions."
With the postponement of key qualification tournaments in Asia and Europe, the calendar was getting ever tighter.
Moreover, regardless of how COVID-19 secure the tournament might be, the huge disruption at last weekend's Madrid 7s showed the short-term chaos that can be caused by even a few positive tests, even those which proved false, in any event with a tight timetable.
It also seemed ever more likely that many teams would arrive in New Zealand with little or no international (or even domestic) rugby for the better part of two years, significantly affecting the quality of rugby on offer while fans faced significant if not impossible travel restrictions.
The inroduction of recent ‘flash’ lockdowns in the Auckland area, in recent days after just a single positive case, also highlighted that the New Zealand government were highly unlikely to be ready to commit to the risk of introducing hundreds of players and staff in a few months time.
The decision will be ratified next week and throws up several immediate upshots.
One relates to World Rugby's plans to launch its long-awaited women's global calendar, with the world's to teams playing in set windows over the course of the year. That could well be now put on hold for a year, setting the development of the women's game back again.
The second is that with the World Cup postponed, there is no longer a clash with the Olympics with a number of players surely exploring switching back to 7s now for the remainder of the year. Though many of New Zealand's best 7s players were planning on playing at both tournaments, several players in other leading test nations had prioritised the World Cup.
Ireland's Director of Women's Rugby Anthony Eddy: "The Rugby World Cup deserves every opportunity to showcase the best that our sport has to offer and that’s not possible in the Covid 19 environment."
England's Head of Women's Performance Nicky Ponsford: "We are naturally disappointed but understanding of the decision. Player welfare has to be prioritised and ensuring teams both qualify on the pitch and can perform to their best at the tournament is also vitally important for the game. We would like to thank the Allianz Premier clubs, players and England staff who have got us to the position that we have been able to play and train throughout the season to be as prepared as possible, that work will be invaluable going forward. As with every challenge over the last 12 months, we will look to take the positives and put a comprehensive plan in place that will put us in the best position to compete at the World Cup should the postponement recommendation be ratified.”
USA Rugby’s Director of Women’s High Performance Emilie Bydwell: “It’s been a whirlwind year and I know this is difficult news for our players and staff who have continued to sacrifice to put themselves in a position to perform. We understand the position of World Rugby and tournament organisers and it is our job now to do the next right thing. We must support our players and revise our plans to make sure that we are in an even better position to make Rugby World Cup in 2022 a global spectacle for rugby, as well as an amazing tribute to the power of women’s sport.”