Nancy Gillen

The news that World Rugby will introduce "gender neutral" names for all of their flagship tournaments reminded me of a story about traffic lights in Melbourne from 2017.

The Australian city saw a number of their traffic light symbols, traditionally featuring a male figure, replaced with the outline of a woman instead.

Reactions contrasted significantly. Some argued that it would remove unconscious bias and include women in a place where they had previously been excluded, while others saw it as tokenistic and evoking no real change. Could the money used to change traffic lights have been put into something that would fundamentally change women’s lives instead?

Despite the seemingly random comparison, I imagine the renaming of World Rugby's tournaments will cause a similar divide.

The governing body hope the move will see men's and women's events have an equal billing, with any bias towards men's tournaments eliminated. It will come into action for the Rugby World Cup 2021 in New Zealand and be used in both the 15s and sevens format.

"This announcement demonstrates our ongoing and unwavering commitment to advancing women in rugby, both on and off the field, in line with our ambitious strategic plan," said Sir Bill Beaumont, World Rugby chairman.

"Unintentional gender bias in sport is an ongoing issue.

"As a global sporting federation we need to be leading from the front on the issue of equality.

"By adopting gender balance in the naming of men's and women's Rugby World Cup competitions, we are setting new standards in equality in rugby."

Gender neutral names will come into action for the Rugby World Cup 2021 in New Zealand ©Getty Images
Gender neutral names will come into action for the Rugby World Cup 2021 in New Zealand ©Getty Images

Beaumont's statement demonstrates that there is good intent behind the renaming, but as was the case with the traffic lights, is it actually going to have a positive impact on gender equality in rugby?

Furthermore, World Rugby's assertion that the decision is the "ultimate statement in equality” seems sensationalist at best, and ignorant at worst.

I am sure that most female rugby players would prefer improved pay, facilities, media coverage and funding. This would make a fundamental difference to the lives of women in rugby, while, if truth be told, the renaming of tournaments will not.

Such a move just seems rather tokenistic and does not really show an "ongoing and unwavering commitment to advancing women in rugby". Instead, tangible action needs to be demonstrated.

World Rugby's saving grace is that they have taken such action recently. Their plan, "Accelerating the Global Development of Women in Rugby 2017-2025", has been ongoing for nearly two years and has been extremely effective.

World Rugby's Council boasted a grand total of zero female members just over a year ago, but 17 women have now since been appointed.

Significantly, World Rugby has not just focused on a top-down approach either. Potential future World Rugby Council members have been identified through global leadership development scholarships and leadership forums were held in Botswana, Madrid and Bangkok last year.

A 10 per cent growth of female players in member unions across the world was reported in 2018, while opportunities for female coaches at a high-performance level also increased.

Then, in May, came the new "Women in Rugby" brand identity and landmark global campaign, "Try and Stop Us", aimed at driving increased participation and engagement among fans, audiences, players and investors in the women's game.

The campaign featured the inspiring stories of 15 women and girls, who overcame significant obstacles to participate in the sport. They told stories of how rugby had empowered them, both on and off the pitch.

It is contradictory, then, that after this campaign celebrating women in rugby, World Rugby would suddenly remove the word "women" from the title of their tournaments. It seems that the governing body has lost an opportunity to continue building an exciting and dynamic brand for women’s rugby.

World Rugby launched the
World Rugby launched the "Women in Rugby" brand identity and campaign "Try and Stop Us" in May ©World Rugby

Would it not be better, perhaps, to name their tournaments the Men's Rugby World Cup and Women's Rugby World Cup instead? This would allow women's rugby to continue building its identity. 

Former England captain Catherine Spencer has also spoken out, suggesting that she feels the identity of women's rugby is being erased.  

"We have been fighting for years to promote women's rugby and to tell the world it is OK to be a woman and play rugby," she said, as reported by the Daily Telegraph.

"By renaming the Women's World Cup, I think we have lost that identity of celebrating women's rugby.

"I find it difficult as someone who has been involved in women's rugby for over 30 years to see our identity just taken away.

"I think by taking that word away makes things more challenging."

Just like the traffic light story, the decision to introduce gender neutral names for World Rugby's flagship tournaments has caused debate. 

It is clear that the governing body is working hard to bring about gender equality, but the renaming could almost be a step backwards for women in rugby. 

A solid foundation has been built for women's rugby to develop, with an empowering marketing campaign already created. That campaign now seems less effective following the removal of "women" from tournament titles.

World Rugby is the first governing body to do such a thing, so it will be interesting to see whether others follow suit. It will also be intriguing to see whether "gender neutral" names have a positive or negative impact on women's sport as a whole.