Brian Viner: Media silence is deafening as England women contest rugby World Cup final

What chance does women's sport have of registering in our consciousness?
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The Independent Online

Hurrah, England's rugby union team are in the World Cup final. They play the favourites and defending champions, New Zealand, tomorrow at the Commonwealth Stadium in Edmonton, having beaten the host nation Canada 20-14 in Tuesday's semi-final. It's our women, of course, not our chaps, but why should that matter? It's still an achievement of which the nation should be proud. It's a World Cup final, for heaven's sake. And it's tomorrow. Where's the bunting, where are the St George's crosses?

The truth is that you probably weren't even aware that there was a women's rugby World Cup going on. I wasn't, until someone mentioned it in passing the other day. And now that you are aware, do you care? Are you the remotest bit interested in the counter-attacking instincts of Charlotte Barras, the clever Lichfield full-back who scored two tries in the semi, or Kim Shaylor, the nippy Worcester wing who scored the other one?

I confess that I hadn't even heard of them until I read about their exploits on the web, yesterday morning. In a pub quiz I might just have been able to dredge up the name of Jo Yapp, the captain. But Vanessa Huxford, Selena Rudge, Katy Storie, Jennifer Sutton, Jenny Lyne, Shannon Baker, Helen Clayton and Catherine Spencer? For all I knew, that was the committee of the Newton Abbott branch of the Women's Institute. In fact, it is England's mighty pack, the female counterparts of Phil Vickery, Steve Thomson, Trevor Woodman, Martin Johnson, Ben Kay, Richard Hill, Neil Back and Lawrence Dallaglio, who on the eve of the 2003 Rugby Union World Cup final, male version, had become household names. Selena Rudge, as the old joke goes, is barely a household name in her own kitchen. Which is a shame, because it's a great name.

As Independent readers, and therefore intelligent folk with liberal sensibilities, we - you and I - are just the sort of people who should be following the progress of Yapp's team. But if even we, fully paid-up subscribers to the principles of sexual equality, have doubts about the validity of women's rugby as a spectator sport, then what real chance does it have of registering in the collective consciousness?

Apparently, we're missing something good. A male columnist in The South African Star this week wrote of women's rugby: "I was on the point of denouncing it as too dangerous and brutish a pastime for womankind when I chanced to catch the highlights of the Women's World Cup. I have now changed my mind. In the Canada-England battle, I saw as impressive a demonstration of 15, ah, person rugby as there has been all season.

"There was also about the match a structure that sometimes is less than evident in the men's game. Thus, we had forwards battling for possession and backs putting it to work. It was good old-fashioned stuff and there were copybook tries that were drop-dead gorgeous in their execution.

"Some of the tight forwards looked, well, like good old-fashioned tight forwards; you know, the same shape as some of our female politicians. The no-nonsense approach of the players was equally impressive. Some of the exchanges were as tough as you like, but the sole object was always to gain possession of the ball and keep it moving. It was everything I thought it wouldn't be - grace, poise, pace and Canada's full-back showing a dazzling pair of legs."

The Star's man managed to sound more than a little patronising and chauvinistic in his appreciation of 15-woman rugby. But at least he enjoyed it. And those who believe that women's sport is woefully neglected by television at least have a champion in one senior TV executive - a good friend of mine as it happens - who works for a major network and is agitating for more coverage of sports such as netball.

"It's a mass participation sport, and a fantastic sport to watch, yet there is hardly any TV coverage," he said yesterday. "I'm told there wouldn't be much interest. Well, that's a self-fulfilling prophecy. Without the coverage, there are no heroes. Without the heroes, there's no interest. My little boy could probably name 20 male sports stars. My little girl couldn't name a single woman. Think of how many sports channels there are, maybe 15, yet not one really focuses on women's sport. It's the great untapped area for television."

The example of netball is a good one. Last year, the Everton and England footballer Phil Neville told me that his twin sister Tracey, an England netballer, was not only a better athlete than him or their big brother Gary, but also had a much more illustrious record. Yet how many of us would even recognise her, were it not for her resemblance to her famous siblings? In this day and age, it's troubling. Still, it's not too late for us to show some belated support for the cream of England's women rugby players. Sky Sports 3 are covering the final between England and New Zealand live at midnight tomorrow. It's a reprise of the 2002 World Cup final, if you're interested. I'm still not sure whether I am or not.

Who I like this week...

Ashley Cole, who's been the recipient of so much stick that I feel bound to defend him. It was perhaps naïve of him to say in his book that he felt enraged when Arsenal offered him a pitiful £55,000 a week. It might have been sensible of him to reflect that there are plenty of football fans out there who would baulk even at shelling out on his book because it would make a significant hole in their disposable income. And it could also be that he didn't have much to do with writing the book, and hasn't even read it. He is not, after all, known for being the brightest bulb in the chandelier. But if he did write that passage, or dictate it, he was at least being honest. And for that he deserves credit.

And who I don't

The head of sports sponsorship at HSBC, who said "sport has a funny way of writing its own script and thank goodness it has" in the wake of Tiger Woods' emphatic 4&3 defeat by Shaun Micheel in the first round of the HSBC Match Play Championship at Wentworth. It was a decent stab at concealing his disappointment, and it's slightly stretching a point to say that I don't like him, in fact I admire him for wearing such a brave face, but really, who was he trying to kid? He must have wanted to hang, draw and quarter whoever wrote that particular script.

b.viner@independent.co.uk

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