The Black Ferns in April 2022. (Photo by Hannah Peters/Getty Images)
The Black Ferns in April 2022. (Photo by Hannah Peters/Getty Images)

OPINIONSportsApril 13, 2022

What the Black Ferns fallout really revealed

The Black Ferns in April 2022. (Photo by Hannah Peters/Getty Images)
The Black Ferns in April 2022. (Photo by Hannah Peters/Getty Images)

The problem isn’t just the management, it’s the whole system.

This story first appeared on The Bounce, a Substack newsletter by Dylan Cleaver.

“Imagine if New Zealand Rugby management was held to the same standard as the players,” came a message from a friend in the wake of the most recent link in an endless chain of sports reviews – this time into the Black Ferns culture.

As popular a viewpoint as it might be among some of the commentariat, the problem with the Black Ferns – and by extension women’s rugby, and by further extension women’s sport – is not the coaching of a middle-aged white man with a narrow world view, but this:

  • The Black Ferns/women’s rugby/women’s sport is still seen by too many administrators as a cost centre;
  • Because of that, they are never appropriately resourced;
  • Because of that, players and management often become dysfunctional, disillusioned and sometimes embittered;
  • Because of that, the players are too often viewed as weak, ungrateful and unsuited to elite sport.

Meaningful change will not occur until big national sporting organisations like New Zealand Rugby and New Zealand Cricket treat the women’s game not as a low-rating, revenue-sucking drain on resources, but as a critical part of their future portfolio.

They need to resource women’s sport not for where it sits now, but for where they want to get it to. (The Australian women’s cricket team provides the perfect example of this.)

To bring it back to the Black Ferns and the review, let’s first go back in time to when Piri Weepu was roaming the fields for the Hurricanes and All Blacks. Weepu was notorious for coming back from his summer break in less than ideal physical shape. The size of his glutes were a hot topic on talkback radio.

The clever halfback didn’t have to worry about it too much. Because he was a contracted All Black, he had multiple strength and conditioning coaches he could turn to, nutritionists, physiotherapists and even masseuses to ease out the kinks. If he did feel pressure, or undervalued or belittled, then there was mental skills coach Gilbert Enoka (who was on this Black Ferns culture review panel), or someone of his ilk to lean on.

Yes, there needs to be a high degree of resilience in elite sport, but as they work their way up the levels, All Blacks are literally taught how to be resilient both physically and mentally.

So the next time you hear someone spout off that female athletes can’t hack it because they’re not as mentally tough as men, ask yourself if this is actually true, or have men just had a hell of a lot more help?

To help you with that answer, this is what one of the Black Ferns review recommendations stated (the emphasis is mine).

“Continue to develop and implement science led, Hauora-centred approaches and resources by appropriately qualified people to discuss nutrition, body composition (as opposed to just weight/skinfold measurements) and menstruation in ways that are performance based and mana enhancing.”

If you measure success by world championships, the Black Ferns are an incredible side, having won five of the eight tournaments. The All Blacks have won three out of nine, the Under-20s six out of 12. Yet New Zealand Rugby needs a review to tell them to resource the team with “appropriately qualified people” in such critical areas as health and nutrition?

This lack of appropriate resourcing was further highlighted in the weeds of the review, some of which are reproduced here (again, the emphasis is mine).

  • Poor recruitment processes by NZR have meant that many of the coaches and management were appointed without a fair or contestable process (often being “shoulder tapped”) [leading] to questions about “how they got the job”.
  •  A number of actual or potential conflicts of interest exist between NZR management working in the women’s game, raising perceptions of bias… and many members of management have been appointed into the Black Ferns environment on part-time arrangements, without proper inductions or introductions to the players (leaving players unsure of their roles, availability and responsibilities).
  • Other concerns with management structures include: lack of clarity around the roles and hours of availability of team management until recently… [and] a lack of clarity of reporting lines for team management – internally and externally.

If an All Black is ever struggling in any area of his life that could affect his form, there’s well-oiled machinery operating in the background to get him back to an optimum space.

When the Black Ferns had their entire 2020 season cancelled (while NZR frantically moved heaven and earth to provide men’s content for their broadcast partners), the players did not know where to turn for high-performance guidance. They had to figure it out for themselves.

That is not to shuffle the blame from players who went on last year’s northern tour unfit and out of condition, but you can see how it could happen in that environment as opposed to a men’s one because there are 1st XV school programmes resourced more coherently than the Black Ferns.

To avoid a repeat of this shambles, there needs to be an adult conversation about what women’s elite sport in New Zealand looks like in what you’d traditionally call male-dominated sports. It needs to go way beyond glib catchphrases like “you have to see it to be it” and when it goes wrong we can’t get bogged down in the blame-the-coach game.

I have no idea if Glenn Moore is good, bad or indifferent at his job, although being a World Cup-winning coach was enough to get Graham Henry, another man not noted for the depth of his emotional reservoir, knighted.

What I do know is that his name is now forever associated with terms like “body shaming”, “culturally insensitive” and “ghosting”.

Even if he doesn’t fit your picture of what a modern coach should look and sound like, we should all be uncomfortable with such deflection from the central issue.

The women’s game has been treated as an inconvenient afterthought and this is what happens when you do that.

Keep going!