What will 2017 be remembered for by rugby fans? There’s a couple of strong narratives, neither of which involve the usual All Black or Super Rugby news – and thankfully, unlike the scandal-filled year that preceded this one, they’re both pretty positive.
One is the ongoing discussion about Pacific Island eligibility rules, which won’t be resolved any time soon. But at least the growing voices from the likes of Charles Piutau and other former All Blacks, plus the defection of Jason Taumalolo from NZ to the hugely successful Tongan rugby league side finally feels like the start of something.
However, the other storyline has definitely cleared the first chapter phase – in fact you could say it’s moved through a massive plot point. Women’s rugby has seen an unprecedented boost over the past season, and it’s in no small part to the role that other football codes have played as well. While it might not seem like it right now, 2017 may well end up being the watershed moment for the women’s game here.
But first, credit where credit is due: the World Cup final in July between the Black Ferns and England will probably go down as the most important women’s fixture in the history of the game to date. Played at Ravenhill in Belfast in front of a sold out crowd of 18,000, the teams put on a sensational display of rugby that ended in a 41-32 win to the New Zealanders.
No massive surprise in the result, even though the English had comfortably won the previous test between the two sides in Rotorua. But for the casual observer, the display of both sides in the final was breathtaking, and capped off a memorable tournament for the Black Ferns. Over the previous three weeks Portia Woodman sprinted, stepped and flat out smashed her way to a number of World Cup try-scoring records – including a stunning eight in one game.
It kicked the issue of parity between the men’s and women’s games back into the spotlight. Much like the Pacific Island wage disparity in the recent test between England and Manu Samoa, it even had a cause célèbre – that the English women’s side that went down in the decider were going to have their full time contracts end at the completion of the season.
In New Zealand, the pressure was put on NZ Rugby to at least increase the match payments that the women were getting after it became common knowledge just how much sacrifice was put in. It was a good discussion, but really, the actual serious signs that action needs to be taken in investing in the women’s game bookended the Rugby World Cup, through the the success of a couple of rival codes in Australia.
Earlier in the year the inaugural AFL Women’s competition took place before big crowds, proving that a female team sport competition could draw interest. That clearly raised the eyebrows of the NRL, who have announced plans for a women’s competition starting next year. This decision came hard on the heels of a successful Women’s Rugby League World Cup of their own – which again featured a highly entertaining final, this time between Australia and New Zealand.
Here’s why rugby needs to act, and act fast. While it is financially the most dominant code in New Zealand, it could lose the attention of potential athletes fast if they can see that there’s money to be made elsewhere. Sound familiar? It’s because that’s what rugby league used to do back when men’s rugby was amateur.
After Woodman, the next highest profile player in either code in NZ would have to be veteran winger Honey Hireme – often referred to by the undeniably catchy nickname ‘Honey Bill Williams’. She’s spent her entire career switching between league and union, representing both the Black Ferns and Kiwi Ferns. Her prodigious talent has helped both win World Cups, but like anyone in her position, the choice of a paid contract in one or the other would be a no-brainer.
Already this year we’ve seen the effects not getting a decent remuneration can have on woman athletes from yet another code: Football Ferns skipper Abby Erceg was forced to retire from the national team, despite being regarded as one of the best players in the world. She cited financial pressure as the reason, with the time freed up by not being involved in international football now spent playing for her professional team in the US.
However, the positive signs after the World Cup have kept coming. The Black Ferns recently received the unprecedented honour of World Rugby’s Team of the Year – the first time the award has gone to a women’s side. Former Bulldogs CEO Raelene Castle has been announced as the head of Rugby Australia, which makes her the first female in charge of a test rugby union in history.
But, admittedly, there is a long way to go. There has been no firm commitment by NZ Rugby to fully contract the Black Ferns, with the presumed reasoning being that there simply isn’t enough international women’s fixtures to make it viable. But, this year more than ever is a sign that things are changing – with the national union joining World Rugby in acknowledging the Black Ferns as team of the year as well.
For now though, it seems like any female footballer who wants to make some money will head across the ditch. Given rugby league’s highly flexible eligibility laws, for some of our best women players it might be a one way trip.
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