While there is much hand-wringing over who might succeed Steve Hansen in the hot seat 12 months from now, or whether inked up World Cuppers will need to cover up, women’s rugby should be front and centre of mind at New Zealand Rugby HQ.
The women’s game is, generally, on the up in New Zealand. Playing numbers certainly are heading in the right direction. The major concern is the dropoff in the crucial boys’ school leavers bracket.
Last Thursday night saw history made. Kendra Cocksedge was adjudged the winner of the Kelvin R Tremain Memorial Trophy as the best player, male or female, in the New Zealand game. It was met with widespread, if not universal, approval among rugby people.
Cocksedge is a heady, skilled, resourceful halfback with a wealth of experience. She kicks goals too, though she is not long off the tee. Her 2018 play for the Black Ferns was of her usual high standard, though she was unable to prevent France from outgunning the team in Grenoble. Where her quality really stood out was in the Farah Palmer Cup. Her four tries against Auckland was a virtuoso display. She slotted her goals. She appeared to be thinking several plays ahead of her opponents and teammates.
But in the FPC, vital tournament that it is, there is a large gap between the very good players and the newbies, the rookies. We saw more televised games in 2018, but there were a worrying number of blowouts, especially in the crossover fixtures. Twelve of the 14 top provinces fielded sides. The aim is to have all 14 involved. We will need patience, but the speed at which the women’s sevens landscape is travelling means the 15s programme needs some swift TLC. Less than 12 months ago the first contracting model was announced for the Black Ferns.
That was right, proper and long overdue.
But what we need in 2019 is to get the Black Ferns – the 2010 and 2017 NZ Rugby team of the year, no less – in front of their home people.
We need to give them more test matches. At this stage, just one home international – an August doubleheader with the All Blacks – is pencilled in. They will also play the Wallaroos in Perth. But would it not enliven the Black Ferns programme to have France and England out for a home series in July?
There are commercial imperatives at play, but the Black Ferns need to be suiting up for at least 7-8 tests a year. The top European nations rack up 10-12 a year, including their Six Nations.
The shop window is all important in promoting the game. Young girls love seeing their heroes in action, both in 15s and sevens. But it is sevens which captures more of the imagination, with the Olympic Games a powerful carrot.
The Black Ferns Sevens won their first NZ Rugby team of the year gong last Thursday, and richly deserved it was too. They are technically adept and athletically as good as many male rugby players. And they are carving up, on the World Series, at the RWC Sevens and Commonwealth Games. In the last two tournaments, without the incomparable Portia Woodman, they have not missed a beat. Sarah Goss, Niall Williams, Tyla Nathan-Wong, Kelly Brazier, Michaela Blyde… they are all fulltime athletes and tremendous to watch. Pity we rarely see them live at home in official tournaments.
Events such as the Red Bull Ignite Sevens and the Condor Sevens help develop and expose the younger talent. The likes of Isla Norman-Bell, Mererangi Paul, Lauren Balsillie, Kalyn Takitimu-Cook, Jazmin Hotham are the next generation of Black Ferns Sevens stars. But we cannot be sure who the next great Black Ferns stars will be. Who will succeed the brilliant Kendra Cocksedge? Who will make the No 2 jersey, hogged by the tough as teak Fiao’o Faamausili, their own? The FPC needs more consistent quality across the board and the Black Ferns need more exposure. Only then can New Zealanders can start thinking about a sixth and seventh RWC title in short order.
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