Six Nations organisers have confirmed this year’s women’s championship will be postponed until "later this spring or early summer” with a start date for the tournament set to be finalised by the end of this month.
The men’s under-20 tournament will also be pushed back to a similar window, with coronavirus lockdowns across European countries having complicated planning for organisers. The men’s championship is due to begin as scheduled on February 6.
England, who secured back-to-back Grand Slams last November, are the only professional team in the tournament and the high proportion of amateur players has created difficulties around testing and biosecure bubbles.
Speaking about the women’s postponement, Ben Morel, the chief executive officer for the Six Nations, said: “We are fiercely committed to the promotion and development of rugby at all levels, particularly the women’s game where we see such exciting opportunity for growth.
"This is not a decision that we rushed into and we are confident that in looking at a new, later window, we will be in a far stronger position to deliver two fantastic tournaments, delivering exciting rugby for fans, and ensuring the safest possible environment in which to stage them for our players.”
News that the women’s championship has been postponed will provide some relief for many female players, the majority of whom juggle full-time jobs away from rugby and will now be in a position to arrange their work commitments for the coming months.
It is the first time in several seasons that the women’s tournament will not run concurrently with the men’s, although a standalone slot could provide a significant window of opportunity for the female game, such as increased exposure.
Last year, Morel hinted that tournament organisers were considering moving the women’s championship away from the men’s traditional February-March slot after this year’s World Cup.
“It’s definitely possible to change the window – that’s something we are looking into – so we are thinking it through and that would probably be post the Women’s World Cup in 2021 and looking at 2022,” Morel said at last year’s Six Nations launch.
This year’s women’s championship is seen as key preparation for teams ahead of the women’s World Cup, which is due to begin on September 18 in New Zealand, with Covid-19 pandemic having cut short match action for international teams.
In 2020, three Women’s Six Nations fixtures were cancelled because of coronavirus and England were the only home nation to play all five of their 2020 fixtures, with Scotland playing three and Wales and Ireland playing four. Reigning world champions New Zealand did not even play a single fixture in 2020.
Ireland, Scotland and Italy are still set to qualify for women’s rugby’s showpiece event and there is a strong possibility that Six Nations fixtures will double up as World Cup qualifiers.