England – the favourites for the upcoming World Cup in New Zealand due to their overall quality and record 25-match unbeaten streak – are flying economy class on their long journey Downunder.
The world’s No.1 side are due to arrive in Auckland from their 30-hour trip about lunchtime on Sunday ahead of the global showpiece of the women’s game which starts the following Saturday at Eden Park.
It’s a gruelling travel arrangement that won’t necessarily surprise anyone closely involved with women’s rugby, but it once again highlights the prevalent attitudes within it – including those within World Rugby – and, well, the RFU say the quiet bit out loud in defending something they would never subject their men to.
In response to questions from the media, including the BBC, the RFU said because the women's side is loss-making, “we have to make challenging decisions around what we can invest in”.
It should be pointed out that the RFU’s reported revenue last year was the equivalent of $374 million (down significantly due to Covid), and that they made a profit of almost $40m. They have significant reserves and are easily the wealthiest union in the game.
In a report by the BBC, the RFU said it was "proud of the progress we've made", adding that team management decided to invest in "additional physios, performance coaches, a nutritionist and a full-time psychologist... rather than flying in business".
All of those resources are, of course, non-negotiable requirements for men’s teams, especially England's who generally travel with a huge management team.
A complicating factor as far as the travel is concerned is that the RFU's British Airways sponsor doesn’t fly direct to New Zealand (and the tournament does not appear to have an airline sponsor), but the truth of it is that the RFU are willing to compromise their World Cup campaign because they don’t think their women's side is as important as their men’s.
It’s an odd attitude considering the team’s success, favouritism in New Zealand, the crowds they attract at home, and the fact that in 2019 they were the first women's XVs team to be offered full-time contracts.
In their final Test against Wales in which they became the first international team to win 25 games in a row, they had a crowd of more than 15,000.
A home international can fill a Premiership stadium and up to half of the men’s Premiership grounds may now be too small for England women’s Tests.
Moreover, the many RFU and World Rugby executives travelling to New Zealand from the Northern Hemisphere won’t be flying economy class and they won’t be staying in anything less than five-star hotels. The obvious double standards are unavoidable.
Incidentally, the Black Ferns generally fly business class on long-haul flights, or, at the very least, premium economy. The All Blacks and men’s Super Rugby teams would never travel long haul in anything less than business and occasionally have to travel on separate flights to accommodate this.
And, as the tournament kicks off at Eden Park, it should be remembered that World Rugby and New Zealand Rugby are complicit in creating what is a second-tier tournament compared with the treatment received by the men.
There are no matches outside Auckland and Whangarei (the three stadiums are Eden Park, Waitakere Stadium and Northland Events Centre) because of cost-saving measures.
It’s what helped New Zealand Rugby win the bid (pre-Covid) over competing nations such as Australia, who, incidentally, campaigned on an equality ticket which would have seen the women treated the same as the men (Australia will host the men’s tournament in 2027).
“Undoubtedly, there's a missed opportunity,” Black Ferns coach Wayne Smith said this week regarding the lack of games in lower North Island and South Island. Not surprisingly, he can't say much more but his disappointment is clear.
New Zealand Rugby boss Mark Robinson told Stuff: “We were confident we could promote the sport effectively but also have a cost model and a tournament budget that was also a key consideration.”
Pressed on the venue issue, he said: “Look, it's a fair observation to say it would have been fantastic to play games at more centres.”
The 2021 Rugby World Cup (played in 2022) is the budget World Cup.
As the NZR and World Rugby anxiously wait for how many are prepared to pay to attend, they may be hoping the mainly Kiwi public don’t feel short-changed by their decisions.