Women’s rugby continued to grow at all levels in 2023 as a record number of people pulled on their boots or took to the stands to watch a sport supercharged by events on the pitch.
Building on the success of Women’s Rugby World Cup 2021, the game has once again expanded over the past 12 months with record attendances across the globe and WXV providing more teams with more meaningful matches.
According to official World Rugby statistics, this feel-good factor has filtered down to the grassroots level as the global female playing population has grown by seven per cent, to almost two million.
The number of active registered female players, meanwhile, has increased by 33.9 per cent to 319,966 and there has been a 53.2 per cent jump in the number of female participants.
A ‘participant’ is categorised as someone who has tried rugby as part of a mass-participation or engagement programme, such as in primary schools or an informal opportunity within a club. According to the figures, more than 1.3 million young women and girls came into contact with the game in this way in 2023.
World Rugby continue to support more girls to play rugby through the launch of new programmes and rugby products including T1 Rugby, Get into Rugby and other girls-specific programmes.
For example, more than 1,000 girls in South Africa were introduced to T1 Rugby through the WXV 2 legacy programme, with 160 of those participants invited to HSBC SVNS Cape Town in December as part of a broader engagement initiative.
Meanwhile, a world-record crowd of 58,498 fans flocked to Twickenham in April to watch England beat France in the TikTok Women’s Six Nations 2023 decider. National attendance records were set across the Championship as well as in Australia, Canada and Madagascar, demonstrating the breadth of growth across a range of markets around the world.
Certainly, thanks in no small part to the advent of WXV – World Rugby’s new annual global women’s 15s competition – women’s test rugby was more visible than it has ever been in a non-Rugby World Cup year. The launch of the reimagined HSBC SVNS in December, meanwhile, has piqued interest in women’s sevens on the road to the Olympic Games Paris 2024.
Close to 100 women’s test matches were played in 2023 as teams took advantage of increased regional competition and the race to qualify for one of the three WXV tournaments.
Ultimately, it was England, Scotland and Ireland who celebrated becoming the inaugural champions of WXV 1, WXV 2 and WXV 3 respectively. But the impact of the competition has been felt beyond the 27 intense matches played across New Zealand, South Africa and the United Arab Emirates.
As participation numbers have soared, so too have the number of teams competing in women’s tests and three teams entered the arena this year.
Latvia, Bulgaria and Croatia each made their test debuts in 2023 and there were other notable landmarks as Portugal embarked on an historic tour of Brazil and 15s participation was expanded in the Caribbean.
“It is important to know that in small unions we are more flexible in looking for opportunities,” Bulgaria assistant coach, Maya Ilieva, whose side lost 37-5 to Croatia at the beginning of December, said.
“For several years we have transformed players with only rugby sevens experience in training camps, encouraged women's clubs to progress through rugby 10s and step up to rugby 15s from cross-club teams.
“The launch of women's rugby 15s – international games, through cross-border activities, proved to be a successful solution.”
Croatia head coach Petra Druskovic added: “The formation of national and regional teams and the increased level of cross-border competitions mark a dynamic and lively evolution within the rugby community.
“This progress not only demonstrates the resilience and commitment of the players, coaches and supporters of women's rugby 15s, but also contributes to the wider story of inclusivity and empowerment in women's sport.
“Let this upward trajectory continue, bringing more opportunities and achievements for women in rugby throughout Croatia and the region.”
With both Paris 2024 and the much-anticipated second season of WXV on the horizon, and the countdown to the expanded Women’s RWC 2025 well underway, the pace of growth is unlikely to slow any time soon.