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Why it's better for the game if the Black Ferns don't win the World Cup

By Ali Donnelly
New Zealand perform the Haka ahead of the Pool A Rugby World Cup 2021 match between Wales and New Zealand at Waitakere Stadium on October 16, 2022, in Auckland, New Zealand.

To love women’s rugby is to love the Black Ferns.

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Their style, their flair and their big personalities are all hallmarks of the outstanding brand of winning rugby they’ve brought to the game since their debut in 1990.

But they’ve also brought something else – success without support.

Surely no other team has dominated a sport quite like the Black Ferns have for so long, with such poor backing from those who run the game in their own country – a team so good, they achieve despite not because of the help they receive.

It’s true that since their disastrous European tour last year things have improved significantly.

With the prospect of embarrassment and an early exit at a home World Cup on the cards, New Zealand Rugby (NZR) acted swiftly.

In came fulltime payment for players, a proper test match programme leading up to the World Cup and a procession of world-class coaches.

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Despite looking clueless at times against England and France last year the Black Ferns are now real contenders to win this World Cup.

Their success would surely be a fairy-tale story– zero to hero within a year?

But while there is no taking away from the incredible talent of the players who’ve worn the Black Ferns shirt over the last thirty years, their win would send a terrible signal to unions around the world, many of whom are already having to be convinced that investment in women’s rugby is worth their time.

For a Black Ferns win says you don’t need to invest or support in your women’s team, your players or your programme until you absolutely have to, and even then, if the players are naturally talented enough, you might just get by on doing it all at the last minute.

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So while I love the Black Ferns and everything they stand for – I hope they don’t win this World Cup.

It may sound churlish to hold past sins against New Zealand Rugby now that things are changing, but the men in blazers running the game– and they are, of course, mostly men – deserve little else.

For, from the inception of the Black Ferns, originally called the Gal Blacks, support from New Zealand Rugby has been lacking.

If that was understandable given the era in which the team emerged when hardly any women’s teams garnered support from official governing bodies, disinterest prevailed right until recent years as women’s rugby accelerated elsewhere.

Having paid for themselves to compete at the 1991 World Cup, New Zealand Rugby refused to let the team take part in 1994.

When the Black Ferns remerged at the 1998 World Cup, after playing just eight matches in seven years, they reminded everyone what they had been missing with superb performances to lift the trophy.

That was an incredible team which featured standout talent like Vanessa Cootes, Farah Palmer, Louisa Wall and Anna Richards, but despite returning home champions, they would be given little support in the years ahead with scant opportunities to play for their country and little to no structures in place to capitalise on their success.

Averaging just two games a year in that era, it’s remarkable that the Black Ferns went on to win the next three World Cups.

The fact that the great Anna Richards ended a career that saw her play in five World Cups, with just 49 caps, is a reminder of just how little support went into giving the team any sort of meaningful test programme.

And for decades there was little pressure for anything to change – with the team seemingly able to win at will, and with investment in women’s rugby being seen as a drain on financial resources rather than something that might offer a return in the long run or indeed the right thing to do for a national governing body, whose duties are to grow their sport for everyone, no matter their gender.

There are a litany of other examples of how at times it has seemed like New Zealand Rugby was actually actively acting against its women’s players.

When the women’s sevens game emerged in the 1990s no support was forthcoming.

Instead, the country’s top players organised themselves and secured private funding, competing as the ‘Wild Ducks’ initially and later as the ‘New Zealand Aotearoa Maori’. They won an array of titles around the world.

While an official New Zealand women’s sevens team was established in 2000, support for the team was totally inconsistent. The national women’s sevens championships was removed from the domestic calendar for several years from 2003 with no structure in place to support the game.

It took the arrival of the World Cup Sevens for women in 2009 and a strong directive from the IRB for things to change, and though the Black Ferns Sevens team is now hugely successful, the bulk of its money comes from High Performance Sport New Zealand and not from its governing body.

In 2010, just months before a World Cup in London, the union axed the women’s National Provincial Championships, something the then Black Ferns captain Melissa Ruscoe called ‘a kick in the guts’.

They won the World Cup anyway.

The Black Ferns did get support in the lead up to that World Cup, but it didn’t come from their own governing body – it came instead from the RFU, who paid for the players to come and play England in 2009 and travelled to New Zealand themselves in 2011.

As one former Black Fern told me in my book, Scrum Queens – the story of women’s rugby:

“England kept New Zealand women’s rugby afloat in that era. We have a lot to thank the RFU for, when our own union refused to put their hands in their pocket, able to get away without too much backlash despite, or maybe even because of, our success.”

That lack of investment eventually caught up with the Black Ferns in 2014, when they were knocked out of the World Cup by Ireland, but lessons failed to be learned and New Zealand’s dire performances last year here in Europe suggested history was about to repeat itself.

The end of that tour resulted in a nasty public fallout, with leading player Te Kura Ngata-Aerengamate painting a picture of a corrosive environment where she experienced culturally insensitive comments, favouritism and ghosting.

The review which followed reached damning conclusions about New Zealand Rugby’s support for the women’s game and the team management around the Black Ferns.

Remarkably the union initially continued to stand by Glenn Moore – the coach at the centre of the accusations – and refused to say if they’d apologised to Ngata-Aerengamate.

“When we weigh up the feedback from the cultural environment review and the campaign review, we remain of the view that [Black Ferns coach Glenn Moore] is best placed to continue to lead the programme through until the Rugby World Cup,” said NZR chief executive Mark Robinson at the time, whose painful interview with Lisa Owen is worth a listen if you want to hear what squirming sounds like live on air.

This position of course couldn’t and didn’t hold and when Moore departed, a public apology followed as did emergency support into the team to try and turn things around in a matter of months before the World Cup.

Upheaval is often the catalyst for positive change, and it is unlikely New Zealand Rugby can now row back from the commitments and resources they have belatedly given their fine women’s team.

But the idea of Robinson and his team basking in the reflected glory of players who have for so long given so much with so little in return, is too galling to contemplate.

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