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Black Ferns: It's the system, not the players who are broken

By Stella Mills
Te Kuru Ngata-Aerengamate of New Zealand leads the Haka ahead of the Women's Rugby World Cup 2017 Final between England and New Zealand on August 26, 2017 in Belfast, United Kingdom. (Photo by David Rogers/Getty Images)

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Just days ago, Black Fern’s player Te Kura Ngata-Aerengamte was brave enough to share her story on social media, explaining she experienced a mental breakdown during the Autumn Internationals.

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Specifically, Te explained how over the years comments from head coaches had worn her down:

 “My confidence and self-esteem was so low that it made me play like I was walking on egg shells”

For anyone, elite level player or not, to come out and publicly admit these things is incredibly brave, so let’s first start by acknowledging that. Next, we must ask what led to this, and why a player was neglected to such a level that she felt ashamed to even speak out in the first place.

New Zealand Rugby as an organisation is constantly held in high regard for its focus on holistic player welfare. The Black Ferns even had a dedicated mental skills coach on tour with them, which clearly wasn’t enough.

Let me be clear here with my intentions from the off, this should not fall on the players shoulders. We should not allow the organisation to brand this as a personal issue, it is a systematic issue which needs to be addressed on a collective level.

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The system we have in place to support elite athletes’ mental wellbeing clearly isn’t strong enough, in fact I would argue it’s currently non-existent, at all levels of the game not just at the top. We must work as a rugby community to ensure that we are building a sustainable pathway for these women to deal with everything that comes alongside being a high-profile elite level athlete.

The Black Ferns website describes Te as an “established and important member of the Black Ferns”, yet the organisation’s response to her bravery couldn’t have been further from this.

The fact that NZRU came out to question her motivations for turning to social media speaks volumes about their current priorities in the game. As rugby website ScrumQueens so rightly pointed out below, players only do this when they have no other choice or avenue. This isn’t something that is done flippantly, or for attention as some have claimed, this is a serious statement from a player, which couldn’t have been easy to write. People only speak out when they have exhausted all other avenues.

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The post doesn’t make it specifically clear if the comments can be attributed directly to current Black Ferns head coach Glen Moore, but that’s the assumption considering he has been in the role for six years.

I can only hope that a fair investigation is launched into this, and that male privilege isn’t given priority and those at fault are ultimately held accountable for this.

Disappointingly, this behaviour isn’t specific to elite level rugby. I have had countless conversations with multiple different women involved in the grassroots game who have experienced exactly the same thing.

Rugby as a sport is unforgiving, brutal and tough, but that doesn’t mean the coaching has to be. We aren’t asking to be treated like princesses, we can take our fair share of criticism, but what we do deserve, however, is to be treated with a basic amount of respect for what we do.

If coaches have access to full, unaccountable control over a team, there will be severe consequences. We also cannot forget that this game is still largely an old boy’s sport, and with that comes the privilege of protection, especially in grassroots clubs which are often governed by male orientated committees.

That being said, we must also be careful not to tar all male coaches with the same brush. You only need to look over to Simon Middleton as a shining beacon of success. Middleton has led the Red Roses to 18 consecutive wins and has just been appointed World Rugby Coach of the Year, also being the first coach of a women’s team to do so.

Going back to the response to Te’s post, something about the corporate reply didn’t sit right with me. It was almost as if the NZRU were attempting to back pedal by suggesting there was a “lot of support available”, which is a classic PR move, to put the onus back on the victim, rather than the wider organisation.

We have seen it before, and will no doubt see it again. When an organisation is called out in public, the first reaction is protection of reputation, and I can say that with confidence from experience working in the PR industry. When in reality, what they should be doing is unashamedly accepting fault, and looking forward to how they can work with her, and others, to ensure this doesn’t happen again.

If you have a player of her status speaking out and saying those things on social media something is seriously flawed underneath it. We must understand how a player got to that point where the support system failed, and where improvements can be made as highlighted in former England player Rachael Burford’s recent column. The mental health culture around the women’s game didn’t break on its own and we need a system that looks after these players long after they finish those 80 minutes on the pitch.

You cannot fix a broken system by putting individual blame on the player, you must instead look to the wider system and ask the difficult questions. It’s not on the players, it’s on the system and the system is broken.

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