Allow our women to shine

New Zealand journalist and content creator, brings us her first column, reflecting on a decade of progress but on a world where so much more can be done to help the women's game in New Zealand to shine and stand out on its own merits.

Published by Alice Soper , March 26, 2024

7 minute read

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Allow our women to shine

It was ten years ago when I first reached out to Scrumqueens, to try to help them provide coverage of the then National Provincial Championship here in Aotearoa, New Zealand.

I had recently been selected for the first time for the Wellington Pride, the first and only existing step at the time between club rugby and the Black Ferns. I had scoured the internet, in search of a draw of the competition I would be playing in, sending it to the only place I knew at the time that cared about the women’s game as much as I did.

The draw wasn’t on the New Zealand Rugby website or even buried on the men’s provincial site.

No, in 2014, you would find the full draw, two weeks out from the competition kick off, uploaded almost by accident on a smaller provincial union website.

Two years later, the competition was rebranded the Farah Palmer Cup or FPC for short.

The format was brought into alignment with the men’s competition with a Premiership and Championship division. We have managed to grow this version of the competition to 13 Provincial Unions, still five teams short of the year 2000 high of 18.

We would hungrily eye the draw each season, looking for the tell tale asterisk.

This asterisk indicated the one match you would get televised that year. No thought was given to which would be the most compelling to viewers to grow the game, instead it was simply a choice made by an alignment with men’s broadcast schedules. It was this reason too that had my team and our opposition travelled to Napier for the only Premiership final I was lucky enough to start in.

The top domestic game was a curtain raiser for a second division men’s semi final.

The more things change, the more things stay the same. World Cup sellouts haven’t saved the women’s game from its administrators selling it short.

The Eden Park final, felt at the time like a revelation. Validation as much as a celebration of all the sacrifice the women’s game had made to meet that moment. This memory now is tarnished by inaction.

The failure to make use of that momentum to carry us into a new era of New Zealand women’s rugby.

The launch of the Black Ferns test schedule this year was a graphic full of TBCs. We had the announcement of the British & Irish Lions Tour in 2027 before our home tests were confirmed for May.

The Super Rugby Aupiki launch just as stark. Devoid of any of the personality offered by the PWR kick off with the media advisory sent less than 24 hours before the event. No wonder then that it didn’t receive much coverage.

Some would point to the advent of Super Rugby Aupiki as a sign of progress.

The seven week semi professional competition, adding another rung to the truncated high performance ladder. I won’t lie and say I don’t enjoy watching the additional handful of matches but it’s another case of aligning with the men to our detriment.

We are positioned as a subset, a smaller piece of the men’s puzzle. This move is puzzling too, given New Zealand Rugby’s own review outlined how unsustainable having both a provincial and Super competition is in the men’s game.

This season, I have a record three home games I can attend for my local team.

Two out of the three are double headers. Meaning tickets purchased headline the men’s match and promotions do the same. These double headers lay plain the double standard in approach to the fan bases. The watered down offering to women’s fans is leading to watered down results.

It’s hardly any easier as someone who is trying to cover the competition.

Men’s Super Rugby team lists are universally published on Wednesday. Meanwhile Aupiki reporters have to wait until 2pm on Friday to receive and frantically write up a preview. Next week, I won’t have this chance as I will need to be in the car to drive the hour and half to the 4.30pm weekday kick off. I hope that others join me but understand if their boss won’t allow them to leave early.

The underlying reality to all of this is that rugby in New Zealand doesn’t yet know who their women’s fans are.

Not surprising considering that many of them only just met at the World Cup final, where 70% of fans  were attending their first rugby match. This statistic highlights that we are not a smaller piece of the men’s game but in fact a whole other pie ready to be served.

So it doesn’t have to be like this.

But in order for it not to be, we need to step out of the men’s shadow and allow our women to shine.

First, Super Rugby Aupiki needs to be rescheduled. Forget this March madness, it should always have bookended the Farah Palmer Cup. The FPC shifted when we hosted the World Cup and there’s nothing to prevent this from being a permanent move.

So let club rugby run March through May. June to mid August can host the FPC and then Aupiki becomes the icing on top being played September into October.

Such a pathway is easier for the fans and the players themselves to follow. Holding the hand of new fans to walk them directly to their next local fixture. Saving valuable resources too as the FPC becomes the best possible preseason for Aupiki.

Schedules, communications and promotion. The core task of sports administrators and still the most amateur part of our game.

In 10 years time, I hope I’m not writing any more emails. But if I am, at least now I know there are even more people ready to receive them.