Wellington rugby player Alice Soper believes plans to postpone the 2021 Women's Rugby World Cup to next year could give rugby officials an opportunity to do things right, but the news comes with concerns about player welfare.
World Rugby today confirmed that they are recommending the postponement of the tournament, which was set to be held in Auckland and Whangārei from 18 September-16 October, to next year due to the Covid-19 pandemic.
The recommendation will be considered by Rugby World Cup officials next week.
"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," World Rugby said in a statement.
"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."
Soper, a strong advocate for women's rugby in New Zealand, told the Herald that World Rugby's decision could add more pressure on players, most of whom aren't paid professionals.
"[It was] looking like there was still going to be three qualifiers that needed to be played, how we were going to fit that into people's annual leave and requirements taking that off, as well as the seven weeks that were going to be needed to taken for this tournament," Soper questioned.
"That was looking like a lot of pressure on a lot of women that are having to make that difficult choice anyway - juggling being professionals, being mothers, being rugby players."
Soper also said the postponement means World Rugby avoid having to make the "political" decision of deciding the remaining three teams to qualify for the tournament. However, she says a lack of certainty around the tournament sparks more concerns around player welfare.
"Just having to keep yourselves [match fit] – you're in and out of lockdown. They've had some long periods where they've had to keep themselves match fit. I had a mate of mine that have cast their own gym out of concrete.
"They're doing everything they can in terms of those resources. But just to keep yourself mentally prepared to be ready to go at a moment's notice, that's really tough. And I think you're extending that out another 12 months.
"It's not just about the financials ... but also the mental welfare. How do you keep yourself up and ready to go? I know I struggled and we were only in lockdown for a month."
Ultimately, Soper believes postponing the World Cup gives rugby officials an opportunity to adequately promote the tournament, something she says wasn't done particularly well thus far.
"Could we maybe promote it? That would be exciting, wouldn't it? How many advertisements have I seen for the Cricket World Cup? I've seen a big promotion asking me to be a part of the thousands of supporters there and I've seen nothing yet really from World Rugby. I was getting antsy on that point.
"This means we have longer to build this audience but let's use it. And in order to build an audience, you've got to build some momentum. To build momentum, you've got to have fixtures. Invest more in the Farah Palmer Cup, we can double the length of that. Five games is not enough to build any type of audience or to build any type of skill set in your players."
Soper also called for more international fixtures for the Black Ferns to be organised so players can prepare for the tournament, beyond games against Australia, including against Pacific Island nations and North America.
"Let's stop looking at just Australia, let's look at our mates [in the Pacific]. Fiji has just qualified for this World Cup – the first time they're going to be playing in the World Cup. Let's get some more of those Oceania fixtures working as well.
"Samoa, they're crying out for it. They're in a tough position they are because we never give them the matches so they can't hold on to the talent and so then that goes around and around again. Yeah there could be some blowouts, but we've never been beaten by Australia either. We keep giving them a go, so let's give Samoa, maybe Tonga, PNG, let's get everybody in there. Let's look at maybe our Oceania neighbours – go closer to home … I think that's a duty that we need to be doing anyway to help develop that talent."
Nine teams were already confirmed to take part in the tournament: New Zealand, Australia, Wales, Canada, USA, England, France, South Africa and Fiji, with the three final places still to be determined by qualifiers.
The 2021 Rugby World Cup will be the second major women's competition scheduled for this year to be postponed.
Late last year, the 2021 women's Cricket World Cup which was also set to be hosted by New Zealand was moved to 2022 due to the pandemic.