Ahead of this weekend’s Coleman Shield final between the Ponsonby Fillies and the College Rifle T-Birds, Alice Soper talks to the women’s rugby superfan whose name is on the trophy.
This story was first published on Alice Soper’s Substack newsletter, Alice’s Soapbox.
There is a research paper that could be written on the way local pubs poured resources into the early development of women’s club rugby here in Aotearoa. The irony is that most women’s club rugby used to be played on a Sunday, when pubs could only serve folks who were dining. Erin Rush, Black Fern #113 and the woman whose name is on our Best and Fairest award in Wellington, will tell you that club rooms being open to serve a pint was a sure-fire way to draw a crowd back in the 1990s.
It was publicans though, who saw the merits of the women’s game – in most cases earlier than the provincial unions. That’s why the trophy in Wellington was called the Victoria Tavern before it was renamed the Tia Paasi Memorial Cup. The story I was told was that a number of local players worked at the Petone pub so they sponsored the trophy for the competition.
This story of the Auckland trophy too is the story of a publican who loved the women’s game long before it was cool. It’s the story of Chris Coleman, who gave the competition its trophy and whose pub sponsored multiple clubs across the Auckland club scene in the 1990s.
Who is CJ Coleman?
Chris Coleman is your typical Kiwi bloke. He loves his footy and a fair go so it was only a matter of time before he would get involved with women’s rugby. Coleman ran a pub in downtown Auckland in the early 1990s that operated gaming machines. The profits from which allowed them to establish a charitable trust with the aim of supporting local sport. Through this fund they were already sponsoring the College Rifles and Marist clubs when he got knock on the door from a couple of men involved in the women’s game.
Darryl Suasua, who would go on to coach the Black Ferns to World Cup victory in 1998 and 2002, was coaching the Marist women at the time and approached Coleman for support. Simultaneously, Blair Stephens, coach of the women’s College Rifles team, also reached out.
“They both approached me wanting money for their women’s teams. At that time I was a massive rugby head, never missed an All Blacks test my entire life, but I’d never heard of women’s rugby,” recalls Coleman.
“So I went and watched a game. I was immediately converted. They way they played, their skill level was astonishing.”
Coleman was now all-in on women’s rugby. Having issued grants for Marist and the Rifles, he faced questions about why his group was pitching in for the women’s teams when they were already funding their clubs. But Coleman was resolute in his decision.
“It’s something we did on the spur of the moment, because we felt they deserved to have our support.”
From there, word spread quickly that Coleman could be counted on to support the women’s game. “After that we got approached by virtually every club in Auckland that had a women’s team and we have funds for them all.”
Now entrenched in the women’s rugby community, Coleman started to observe other ways he could support the game to grow. He recalls watching the club final one year and being dismayed at the lack of ceremony to mark the occasion.
“In ’96 or ’97 I was watching the finals and it was a great game, but when the final whistle blew they all shook hands and went home and that was it. I said to someone ‘Where’s the trophy?’. There wasn’t one. I thought it was a travesty.”
This time, it was personal for Coleman. Rather than go through the trust, he and his family opted to personally donate the Coleman Shield to give Auckland women’s rugby the silverware it deserved. The sponsor and fan didn’t stop there. Now “bursting with enthusiasm for women’s rugby”, Coleman set his sights on a new goal: an Auckland women’s match at Eden Park.
“Not long after that final I was invited to a private box at Eden Park to watch an NPC game,” Coleman remembers. “And I said to all the old boys in there ‘Within two years I’ll have women playing at Eden Park on the number one.’ You could hear a pin drop, it was just dead silence. Then I heard someone, who I shall not name, say ‘Over my dead body!’”
The detractors were no match for Coleman’s determination. After “a whole lot of pushing”, Coleman and his fellow supporters succeeded, staging a curtain raiser to an NPC game. The Auckland Storm played Waikato in front of a healthy crowd, keen to see a number of their ‘98 Rugby World Cup-winning Black Ferns in action. Coleman’s “crowning glory” came shortly after, this time as the opener to an All Blacks test.
“I was very proud because the goal post covers had my business on it,” Coleman remembers fondly.
Coleman may now have retired from the business world but he has not retired his love of the women’s game. You will still find him on the sideline, cheering them on.
“I will definitely be there this Saturday and I hope to be able to present the shield.”
So if you see Coleman down the grounds, be sure to say hello and to thank him for loving the game long before it loved our wāhine back.
“In the 30-odd years that I’ve been involved, I’ve seen the change. Back then it was looked down upon, people spoke about it in a derogatory way. I’m very proud of the women and what they’ve achieved and in the small part that I played.”
Preview: College Rifle T-Birds v Ponsonby Fillies
It’s a battle of the bridesmaids with the T-Birds up against Fillies in this year’s Auckland club final. The past two seasons have seen the T-Birds fall short of a finals spot, losing their last two semis by less than three points. Meanwhile the Fillies have been unable to finish the job, finding themselves painfully close runners up in both the 2021 and 2022 seasons.
Both teams are stacked with players recognisable to women’s rugby fans around the country. The T-Birds have Black Ferns Ruahei Demant, Liana Mikaele Tu’u, Maiakawanakaulani Roos and Chelsea Bremner along with Aupiki players such as Cilia-Maria Po’e-Tofaeono, Mel Puckett, Saphire Abraham and Maama Vaipulu.
The Fillies boast plenty of their own international star power with Black Ferns such as Charmaine McMenamin, Eloise Blackwell, Sylvia Brunt and Aldora Itunu alongside Manu Sina reps Mollie Tagaloa, Alanis Toia-Tigafua and Ireland’s Ciara O’Connor. Aupiki players Sophie Fisher and Letele Lavea round out their squad.
It is true that with the Black Ferns’ Brisbane test fast approaching, those named in the Pacific Four Squad will be out of action. However this was also the case last week and both sides progressed through the playoffs regardless.
The T-Birds appear to be returning to their old form which has seen them lift the Coleman Shield seven times. They have gone unbeaten through this season, getting up over the Fillies by 15 points when these two teams last met. Halfback Mel Puckett credits this form to the depth of talent at their club.
“They (the Black Ferns players) definitely lift the training intensity but it’s been epic to see our club girls step up when they are away,” says Puckett.
The College Rifles are one of the few clubs in the game able to field both a 15s and 10s side. With over 40 wāhine registered, they are able to regularly run 15 on 15 at trainings. In the past six weeks, they have widened their training opposition to include contact sessions against their men’s premier and under 21 sides.
That support extends beyond trainings with life members and other notable club characters regular fixtures on the sidelines of their matches. This is a club that appears to truly live by the #oneclub motto.
Meanwhile, the Fillies have had a season that would test anyone’s resilience. Their club rooms and home field were badly damaged in the January Auckland floods. This has left them without a home base this season and to add insult to injury, all their equipment was left unusable too.
It has been well established in women’s sport that such situations are often crisis-tunities. Their experience this season will be fertile ground for research into what exactly makes a club, a club. Perhaps it may even provide inspiration for the reset required in many of these old-boy spaces. Without a physical home, a greater emphasis has been placed on forming relationships to carry the team through the season. It’s paid off: they have only dropped one game so far.
The Fillies last won the Coleman Shield in 2020, after 27 long years between drinks. The 2020 final was a famous one, stretching for 92 minutes before the Fillies finally emerged victorious. Let’s not forget, this season was played against the backdrop of Covid. With Auckland in and out of lockdowns and sport disrupted, the Fillies managed to battle through. Chaos it seems, suits them.
“We’ve been faced with a lot of challenges yet the girls have still fronted up every week,” Blackwell reflected in the lead up to last week’s semi final. “It’s been hard, it’s been a struggle but at the same time we’ve also learnt a lot and grown a lot together as a team.”
The final this Saturday will be played at College Rifles Park, kicking off at 2.45pm. I can predict nothing but a bloody good game of footy.