Stop treating the Black Ferns like the support act

Advertising a double header rugby event means you have to treat all four teams equally, which Rugby Australia failed to do, says Madeleine Chapman.

On Saturday afternoon, before playing an international test match at Sydney’s ANZ Stadium, the World Champion Black Ferns warmed up on a small patch of astroturf by the road. Warming up on that same turf, close enough for a stray line-out throw to hit them, were their opponents the Wallaroos. Separating the two teams was a line of small cones.

The test would be the Wallaroos’ first home test in ten years, a ridiculous fun fact, and the first match in a much-anticipated trans-Tasman double header alongside the All Blacks and Wallabies. But it’s hard to call it a real double header when two of the teams are allowed to warm up on the field as expected, and the other two are required to warm up out by the parking lot.

Ross Karl from Newshub was there and watched both teams warm up, confused. “I was a bit surprised by it,” he said. “A general rule is all rugby teams warm up on the field they’re going to play on.”

The unequal treatment of the supposedly equal teams playing that day is disappointing but not surprising. Because while the double-header format has been applauded for its inclusivity, it hasn’t been universally welcomed.

One of the many battles female athletes must engage in, both with their teammates and alone, is debating whether or not they need the help of men. There’s no right answer. It took until this decade for women to be paid any sort of decent salary to play sport. Yes, Serena Williams has been rich for a long time but there’s only one Serena Williams. So while women weren’t being paid to play sport, there was plenty of time to discuss how to go about changing that. The easy and immediate answer was, and still is, men.

People watch men play. Not as many people watch women play. But what about both? Even just a few years ago the thought of the Black Ferns and All Blacks playing in a joint event would’ve sounded farfetched. Playing as a curtain raiser would’ve been more realistic. But now that the Black Ferns have shown over and over again how impressive and dominant they are, curtain raiser status would be insulting. Which brings us back to the downside of double headers: if they’re not conducted properly, they go from being two equal matches to being a curtain raiser and a main event. And by being relegated to the turf outside the stadium to warm up, Rugby Australia all but confirmed that the first international test of the night was a curtain raiser.

It was a poor effort from Rugby Australia, who still insist the double header was nothing short of a huge success. The reason for not allowing the women to warm up on the field? When put to them, a spokesperson for Rugby Australia said it was out of their hands. “It’s ANZ Stadium policy that if there’s two matches on game day, the first match doesn’t have warm up on-field. That’s the same for NRL, AFL, and cricket,” he said.

That didn’t sound right. I have never seen a professional sporting event where teams were required to complete their full warm up outside the stadium. ANZ Stadium were unable to be reached for comment but I spoke to someone at the Manly Sea Eagles, who’d played in the first match of an NRL double header there in March. They confirmed that the Sea Eagles warmed up on the field before their match.

However, in looking for other double headers held at ANZ Stadium, I noticed a strange omission. The Black Ferns v Wallaroos fixture wasn’t listed. The schedule for August 18 had one match: All Blacks v Wallabies. Almost as if the women’s game was merely a curtain raiser.

Rugby Australia’s spokesperson disputed such a suggestion, drawing upon the crowd numbers to show the success of a night he described as “an awesome event for the fans who got there significantly earlier to watch the two matches.” Significantly earlier. There it is again. Fans going out to see a match might show up significantly early to see the curtain raiser. Fans going to a double header would show up on time to see both matches. But this event was only a double header in that it sounded good for Rugby Australia to be hosting one. Nothing they did suggested it was anything but a single Bledisloe Cup match between the All Blacks and the Wallabies.

Where the Black Ferns played (the big white thing) and where they warmed up (the little green thing)

Even the gates were apparently not opened until minutes before the women’s game kicked off. Again, Rugby Australia’s spokesperson disputed this claim. “Well I would severely doubt that because gates opened half an hour before kick off.” Standard practice for NRL games at ANZ Stadium is for gates to open at least 90 minutes before kick off.

Playing alongside the men only works if the women are offered the same treatment in all areas. Otherwise they’d be better off hosting their own games where they’re rightfully the main act. The Black Ferns are far too impressive to be anyone’s supporting act, even the All Blacks.

If these sound like small things to be complaining about, it’s because they are. These are courtesies. Little things that shouldn’t even be thought about, just done. And yet, time and time again, international female athletes are forced to think about them because sporting bodies don’t show women the courtesy they’ve shown men for decades.

This Saturday, New Zealand Rugby and Eden Park will host the Black Ferns, Wallaroos, All Blacks, and Wallabies in a sold out double header. Here’s hoping it’s a proper one this time.


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