Premier 15s: New league a real opportunity for women's rugby

The 10 captains pose during the official launch of the Premier 15s at Twickenham earlier this month. Bryn Lennon/Getty Images

Saturday's launch of the Tyrrells Premier 15s will be an exciting occasion for most involved, but for former England captain Sue Day, just seeing the clubs' names reported correctly will represent a significant improvement.

Day, a veteran of England's Women's Rugby World Cup final defeat to New Zealand in 2002, recalls a time when such things could not be taken for granted.

"One broadsheet newspaper, I won't name which, didn't have a report on the match, but they had the score -- it was England vs. New Zealand in the final, they got the score right but they wrote Australia instead of New Zealand," she tells ESPN.

"It just shows how far women's rugby has come when you compare it to the three million people who tuned in to watch this year's World Cup final in the UK and the three million people in France as well as all of the amazing coverage in the media. The transformation is amazing and it's so exciting."

Undoubtedly, the women's game has advanced beyond recognition since then -- viewing figures for this year's World Cup final were an all-time high for the women's game. And though England narrowly missed out on victory against the Black Ferns, a stellar run to the final roused unprecedented interest.

The Rugby Football Union (RFU) is investing £2.4 million in the new league over three years, while crisp manufacturer, Tyrrells, has become its first major sponsor -- it is the biggest financial investment the women's game has ever seen.

However, the sizeable investment by the RFU seems to fall at an odd time, given the recent decision not to renew 15-a-side England women's contracts. Day, though, hopes that the new competition will help build the blocks that can one day support professional women's contracts across the board.

Day said: "The investment this Tyrrells tournament brings enables clubs to be more professional; it allows clubs to employ the infrastructure to support their players to be the best that they can be. Until now, clubs have not been able to afford to do that. I hope they [the RFU] will bring back professional contracts, the players deserve it and the standard deserves it."

And current England captain, Sarah Hunter, agrees. The Loughborough Lightning player told ESPN: "The investment opens the game up to more people and also makes the clubs a more professional environment so that when the time comes they will be ready; all the infrastructure, the strength and conditioning, the coaching, will all be there and it will be sustainable year-on-year."

Under the new competition regulations, each club will be obligated to run an academy system alongside its first XV and so raising the number of players in the elite competition to 600 [60 per team]. Gill Burns, who captained England to the 1994 World Cup and famously had to buy her own playing shirt, hopes that this will increase the standard of the national game.

Burns told ESPN: "Up to this point it's only been the elite international players that have had the professional support that is needed to produce players of the top quality. The new Tyrrells league means that the RFU will be able to put more resources in to support the 10 top teams creating an even bigger pool of elite players. This will surely help the England squads and the league structure will be the envy of our opponents from other nations."

While Nigel Melville, director of professional rugby at the RFU, hopes that the investment will continue to increase media coverage.

Melville said: "We've got Tyrrell's [as a sponsor] so we're hoping to get some more broadcast now, too. There'll be some webcast games and Sky will be able to cover some of our games under our agreement. There's opportunity now. If broadcasters don't want it, then we can make sure people see it by putting packages on our website. We will develop our own content and put it out there."

The RFU released broadcast details for the competition on Friday, with a minimum of five matches being streamed live on the new Premier 15s website. Richmond Ladies' game against Wasps on Dec. 3 is scheduled to be screened live as part of a 'double-header' alongside their male counterparts' Greene King IPA Championship match against London Scottish, but Melville is confident the league is an attractive proposition for TV in its own right.

"These are standalone fixtures," he said. "In some cases where we think there is a media opportunity where we could double header we will schedule around that if we can because it's obviously great exposure."

However, the rigorous selection process for the 10 teams has not been favourable to all. Lichfield -- who have produced dozens of international players over the past 20 years, including current England players Emily Scarratt, Amy Cokayne, Natasha Hunt, Harriet Millar Mills, Justine Lucas and Vicky Fleetwood -- have been controversially excluded from the competition.

The RFU insist that the Midlands-based club did not achieve an adequate number of points to satisfy its selection criteria.

Another sticking point arises over the timing of the new competition; falling just a few weeks after the end of the World Cup does not give the teams much time to prepare. There are fears that we may be in the situation whereby too much is expected of the England players so soon after an exhausting tournament.

However, Sarah Hunter argues that the competition has to run in conjunction with the men's schedule and start off the back of the World Cup, in order to capitalise on increased interest.

She said: "By the time it starts we'll have had five weeks off and for me, I just want to get back into rugby again and be part of this new league. I think it's really important to launch it off the back of the most successful Women's World Cup that we've seen and strike while the iron's hot and keep that momentum going.

"If you were to wait until all of the World Cup players were back then you'd lose some of that momentum."