There’s no question that, until recently, women’s rugby has been well down the pecking order both in New Zealand and on a global level.
The fact that New Zealand’s Women’s Provincial Championship (known as the Farah Palmer Cup since 2016) wasn’t established until 1999 while the men’s equivalent kicked off 20 years earlier gives an indication of just how differently the two sexes have been treated.
Although we’re still a fair way away from equality, there’s been significantly increased investment in the women’s game both from World Rugby and New Zealand Rugby (NZR) over the last decade.
The latest public announcements from NZR, however, understandably upset a few people as Super Rugby and the Mitre 10 Cup’s coronavirus-impacted futures were both touched upon but there was no such info provided on the women’s calendar.
Wellington’s Alice Soper was one of the first to publicly raise the alarm, questioning why NZR appeared to have pushed the Farah Palmer Cup (FPC) and the Black Ferns’ international fixtures onto the backbenches – especially with the World Cup being hosted in New Zealand next year.
— Alice Soper (@alicesoapbox) May 11, 2020
While Soper was entirely right that there was little information available to the public at the time – information which, perhaps, needed to be better relayed to the affected parties – that’s not reflective of the work that NZR are putting in behind the scene to get the women’s game up and running in the near future according to Black Fern Chelsea Alley.
“I’ve been working with the competitions group, with the New Zealand Rugby Players’ Association and stuff and I know it doesn’t seem it, because not much has been shown to the public, but there’s a lot of work going on to make sure we get the Farah Palmer Cup up and running this year – and hopefully, some Black Ferns internationals as well,” Alley told RugbyPass.
“I know the RPA and NZR don’t want to get anyone’s hopes up and want to work out all the nuts and bolts before they kind of give anything to the public.
“I know girls are wondering, and they want to hear stuff but NZR are working their asses off, trying to get all these competitions up and running and sorting out contracts and all of that.”
The Black Ferns were scheduled to play eight matches this year – which may not seem like many to fan who solely follow the men’s game, but it’s the most games that the NZ national side will have played in a non-World Cup calendar year.
That record couldn’t come at a better time, with the World Cup just around the corner and the Black Ferns pumped to defend their title on home soil.
“Up until the last couple of years, it was very very rare we had a home game,” Alley said.
“A lot of the girls that have been on the team for a long time, it took some of them years for their family to ever see them play in black jersey – but there’s nothing like playing at home in front of family and actually giving them the opportunity to see you perform the haka and play. You just can’t beat that.
“New Zealand Rugby’s really given us some awesome opportunities to do that in the last few years and, obviously, with the World Cup next year, we’ll hopefully be getting even more supporters.”
The coronavirus pandemic has thrown a huge spanner in the works for that World Cup. Preparation has obviously been seriously compromised but with the Olympics being pushed out until 2021, it could also make it difficult for players to fully participate in both sevens and XVs – although Alley is hopeful that no one will have to choose between the two.
Ironically, the last World Cup was moved by a year to increase the synergy between the four-yearly showpiece tournament and the Olympics.
It’s a problem that the men’s game simply doesn’t have in New Zealand, with there rarely being any overlap between the national sevens side and the All Blacks.
While it’s impossible to not be aware of the differences in benefits between the men and the women, Alley chooses to focus on how lucky the current crop of female players are compared to their predecessors.
“When I came in, we had it really good compared to some of the girls that have been in there years before me,” Alley said. “I’m really grateful to the players that really did pave the way in the game – they’re the ones that allowed us to be doing what we’re doing now.
“I know there are a lot of comparisons to what happens between us and the men but I always try to think about the comparisons between the older Black Ferns and us now, and what we get compared to them. I just stay grateful and think about what we’ve got, not what we don’t have.”
One of the biggest recent advancements is New Zealand players receiving full-time professional contracts which allow them to focus entirely on the game instead of having to hold down other jobs throughout the year.
“When the first contracts came along, I knew that it was just a huge moment for women’s rugby,” said Alley.
“It made life easier for us, who were already in the team, but it’s also given a career pathway and opportunity for young girls to see that they could actually make a living off rugby, which makes our message to young girls a lot easier.”
The range of facilities and teams on offer has also grown in the last few years, with players no longer having to travel long distances just to play in a provincial representative team. When Alley was younger, she had to drive from Hamilton to Auckland multiple times a week in to represent Auckland as the Waikato side had been placed on ice for six seasons. They were reinstated in 2012 and, with the establishment of a Northland team last year, 13 of the 14 Mitre 10 Cup sides now have corresponding FPC teams (Southland is the lone absence).
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Women are also getting recognised for their exploits more than in the past, with Kendra Cocksedge named the NZ Player of the Year in 2018 and the Black Ferns Sevens crowned the NZ Team of the Year for the last two seasons running.
“There have been so many firsts in the last few years,” Alley said. “The exposure in New Zealand and on the world stage has been huge.
“Obviously, I’m really grateful to New Zealand Rugby for investing a lot more in us and giving us all these opportunities that we’ve had of late. And the same for World Rugby, supporting all these tournaments, making World Cups really meaningful and getting more exposure has been really cool.”
There’s still room to grow, of course, and while external investment will always be necessary to help expand the women’s game, there’s an onus on the players to do their part too.
“We’re not quite where we want to be, but we’re getting there,” said Alley.
“I’ve been around quite a few schools and spoken to a lot of young players. There’s so much talent and there’s so much passion for women’s rugby out there. And they know the names of the big stars and stuff these days – everyone knows who Portia Woodman is.
“When I think about the future and where we’ve come from in the last few years, we’ve come so far. I just hope that we – the players who are the team now – can keep making the Black Ferns name even bigger and help get us more exposure so there are more girls coming into the game and getting to experience everything we’ve experienced.”
The World Cup in New Zealand will be a huge boon for the players the game itself – now we just have to wait and see what NZR can cook up this year to keep the Black Ferns fit and firing for 2021.
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