Sports

NZ Rugby needs to put its money where its mouth is on women’s rugby

Following a stellar campaign, the Black Ferns play England in the Rugby World Cup final tomorrow. Former Black Fern Melodie Robinson urges the New Zealand Rugby Union to properly back the only major growth area in the sport in NZ.

The future of the Black Ferns will be determined following Sunday morning’s Rugby World Cup Final, regardless of the result.

Looking at how the RFU and England have led the way when it comes to the XVs game investment, the Black Ferns, despite the form, will go into Sunday’s final as underdogs, considering the resources that have backed the Red Roses since they won the last World Cup.

There’s a real risk that XVs could be put on the backburner again, as New Zealand Rugby Union leaders meet to discuss, among other issues, how they commercialise the women’s game.

The players probably don’t think on it too deeply at this stage of their lives, but on the line in this final is whether or not the XV-a-side team will get more funding from the New Zealand Rugby Union or whether they believe sevens rugby is the future for women.

Aldora Itunu in action during the Black Ferns’ semi-final victory over USA. (Photo by David Rogers/Getty Images)

It may be that sevens is an easier sell because of the perceived aesthetics of those athletes. I’ve often heard male administrators and fans comment on the bigger girls playing XVs while at the same time ignoring the size of men in New Zealand rugby. And the number of times I get asked how many of the players are lesbians is ridiculous. No one of my generation or younger worries about people’s sexual orientation any more guys.

It’s always been somewhat of a charity act that the Black Ferns get funding from the New Zealand Rugby Union seeing as the women’s team doesn’t bring in any money aside from its share of AIG’s sponsorship. That money plus the rest put in from the NZRU goes towards training camps, domestic test series, player allowances and the like. It also pays the salaries of women’s rugby development officers, although various provinces like the Bay of Plenty and Canterbury hire their own full time women’s development officers. Some would argue that’s plenty for a team that only gets media attention around World Cups.

The sevens team on the other hand gets Sport New Zealand money because sevens is an Olympic sport. This gives them the luxury of full time staff at New Zealand Rugby administering the game’s development, a near centralised programme, and of course full time salaries for the players equal to the men’s. This is absolutely fantastic and I’d guess that the Black Ferns sevens team are earning enough money to actually live on, unlike their “full time” counterparts around the world.

Selica Winiata about to smoke someone (PAUL FAITH/AFP/Getty Images)

All this being said, I’m a passionate supporter of the Black Ferns and believe women playing XVs should get more financial backing for a number of key reasons.

Women now make up 15% of rugby players in the country. They are a major stakeholder and the only area of significant growth in our country. Their competitions need to be bolstered from schoolgirls up to international. If the New Zealand Rugby board is truly committed to “respect” for women, the best place to start is with their own players who are as dedicated to rugby as they are.

A good number of girls who play, particularly in the wider Auckland area, don’t come from privileged backgrounds, and rugby can be the spark that changes their lives. The lessons you learn from rugby are brilliant and transferable to future careers. Rugby holds the power for social change. It certainly changed my life.

XVs is the perfect training ground for athletes who come from other sports. There are only a set number of full time sevens contracts so there needs to be robust competition for the women to continue to learn about the game. I’ve seen players come into sevens who still don’t have the length in pass, or instincts at the breakdown, because they just haven’t played enough rugby.

Finally, XVs is where all sizes and shapes can play. What’s the point of only having sevens as an option when you are cutting out a large group of the population who just don’t have the body shape to play the shorter version of the game.

There are so many options around how you can improve and grow women’s rugby with better competitions. Why not host a women’s and social tournament around the New Zealand leg of the sevens series? Hamilton’s Waikato Stadium has an extra field right next to it, logistically they could host a women’s tournament. But the New Zealand Rugby Union haven’t shown any interest in hosting a women’s leg despite having the world number one sevens team.

Why not model the AFL women’s footy league or the women’s super-bash cricket with a Super Rugby version? The Aussie Rules comp averaged over 6000 spectators a game over a two-month competition and women’s cricket is going off too. That kind of short-season competitions is feasible if Sanzar support it and at least two Australian teams are put in. The ARU recently had Buildcorp withdraw their sponsorship because they didn’t set up a women’s national provincial championship. Ask Buildcorp if they’ll pay for the Aussie teams.

Bring Touch New Zealand under the NZRU banner so younger athletes can learn the skills of rugby while not being intimidated by the contact aspect. At some point they may convert into full-contact players.

Why not host a Women’s Rugby World Cup? And why not play more tests as double headers with the All Blacks? The Black Ferns play an average of just 10 tests between World Cups, which shows an absolute disregard for a team that have won more World Cups than the All Blacks.

Portia Woodman has been the star of this World Cup with 13 tries in 4 games (Photo by Charles McQuillan – World Rugby/World Rugby via Getty Images)

The main reason given for none of the above being done is costs. And considering the Black Ferns budget is less than the Under 20s men’s team, there’s clearly been little appetite to put real money into the women’s game.

The truth is, if New Zealand Rugby had a commercial operator who was specifically dedicated to selling these new proposed competitions, they could raise revenue. There’s a real appetite among corporates to back ventures that support women. It’s a good look.

They have a number of people who champion the women’s game at New Zealand Rugby, like Hannah Porter and Cate Sexton, but neither is the boss. The first step is to get more women on the board. Have women represented in the room where the important decisions are made.

Besides, it works both ways. Invest in the rugby girls in both forms of the game and you’ll get more female administrators, coaches and board members throughout. You’ll get diversity and more inclusive decisions in the game. And as women are the ones who make the spending decisions at home, why wouldn’t you invest in the women who are already in your game?

I believe it’s time for New Zealand Rugby to look at where the only significant growth in rugby is coming from – women – and look to grow both the XVs and 7s, instead of sacrificing one for the other. Surely their commitment to being a company signed up to Champions for Change promoting diversity means that women’s rugby players should be given more options and opportunities.

And it would be really nice if, just once, the New Zealand Rugby Union actually acknowledged in an official function the incredible contribution that every one of the World Cup-winning Black Ferns have made to our game by bringing home the Cup not once, twice, three times, but four times since 1998. Apparently it’s in the pipeline … but we’ll have to wait and see.


The Black Ferns will play England in the Rugby World Cup final this Sunday, 6.25am (NZ time) on Sky Sport 2.

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