By James Reid
England fly-half Zoe Harrison can’t quite believe how far the women’s game has come ahead of a potential sell-out at Twickenham stadium in the 2023 TikTok Women’s Six Nations.
Harrison spent much of her youth career playing with boys and wearing kit far too big for her but is now part of the England side that has spearheaded the exponential growth of the sport in recent times.
Last year saw record attendances at the TikTok Women’s Six Nations and Rugby World Cup matches, with England likely to break the world record against France in the final game of this year’s Championship on 29 April.
And Harrison is astounded at the forward steps that have been made that have led to England women playing their first-ever standalone match at the home of English rugby.
“I never would have thought of it,” she admitted. “Girls weren’t even contracted when I was growing up so think that it has gone from that to getting potentially 80,000 people at Twickenham is just unbelievable.
“I am so excited for them that we are able to come to Twickenham and sell that many tickets, hopefully we get to a point where the second tier is filled out.
“In three years’ time, there is a world cup final being held here and that will sell out the stadium. It’s great to see how far we can get three years before that.
“When we go to France, there is always a sell-out, people banging drums – we want it to be like that for us. Having a packed-out stadium is what we love, as a player it really gets you going for a game.”
Harrison was speaking at the announcement of a new collaborative project between the Women’s Sport Trust, O2 and the Rugby Football Union to deliver a long-term study into the visibility of the England women’s rugby team, with the joint ambition to use the data and insights to help close rugby’s gender awareness gap.
It aims to help drive record match attendances for the Red Roses, with a target to fill Twickenham Stadium for the first time for a women’s international with 82,000 fans.
Awareness of the Red Roses grew 14% over the Rugby World Cup last autumn, while 21% of the audience who watched the TikTok Women’s Six Nations were aged 35 and under compared to 9% who watched both the men’s and women’s competitions.
Visibility has also exploded with a new separate playing window for the women’s game, meaning packed-out stadiums are a far cry from where the women’s game was when Harrison was growing up.
“There is so much more to look up to and to dream of, she added. “It gives you more of a push because you know where you want to get to and where you can get to.
“I started with the boys until under 12s and then I moved to the girls. It wasn’t that difficult because I found a club but when it came to games you were driving two hours on a Sunday.
“Now you go out and see how many there are in your area. This never happened when I was younger, and it is great to see there are so many girls who have joined the sport.
“You can see the increase in participation, it’s incredible. The fact that they can play all these games is going to make them better.”
The increased attention on women’s rugby means there will be more eyes than ever as the 2023 Championship gets underway this weekend, with England taking on Scotland at Kingston Park in Newcastle.
And while fans may still be reeling from World Cup final defeat last November, the injured Harrison is backing the Red Roses to rebound in style.
“I am very sure that the girls are going to bounce back really well,” she said.
“We have all put to bed the loss of the World Cup final. We have put it aside and the girls are wanting that Grand Slam.
“We went on a 30-game winning streak, there is something about us. We lost the World Cup final, that was devastating, but we want that winning streak back.”
The Rugby Football Union, O2 and Women’s Sport Trust have announced an innovative collaboration that aims to use data and insight to help close rugby’s gender awareness gap. #WearTheRose