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Powerful rep group in NZ seeking to make change

​We caught up with the women behind a new venture - the WiRA/Women in Rugby Aotearoa, which was established recently by a group of current and former players, administrators, managers, coaches, directors and volunteers involved in rugby to support the progression of the women's game in New Zealand. 

Pictured from left, Kate Rawnsley, Alice Soper, Honey Hireme-Smiler, Sharleen Nathan and Traci Houpapa. 

Founded by Kate Rawnsley - the General Manager of Commercial at the Chiefs who was instrumental in making the first women's Super Rugby game happen recently and Jennifer Kerr, a current NZ Rugby Board member, WiRA is also backed and supported by an influential group of women.

These include women's rugby advocate Alice Soper, former Black Ferns Honey Hireme-Smiler and Sharleen Nathan (nee Holden) and Traci Houpapa a chair and director on multiple boards including New Zealand Trade and Enterprise and the Chiefs. 

They tell us more about their current plans and areas of work.

How did Women in Rugby Aotearoa come about?
Like all good things, it started over a coffee. Chiefs Commercial Officer, Kate Rawnsley and newly appointed New Zealand Rugby Board member, Jennifer Kerr, were discussing the lack of opportunity for women in the game to connect. So they organised a meeting at Chiefs HQ for women participating at all levels of the game, to come together. 

Of course, it only took one meeting for the wāhine in the room to determine that this conversation needed to get wider and connect all parts of our game across Aotearoa and so Women in Rugby Aotearoa (WiRA) was born. 

Bi-monthly meetings are held for members over zoom where a lead from each of the Super Rugby regions take turns to host a guest speaker on a range of topics from concussions to volunteer programmes and high performance funds. 

Alongside this, the Strategic Advisory Group was assembled, consisting of co-founder Kate Rawnsley, Honey Hireme-Smiler, Sharleen Nathan, Alice Soper while Traci Houpapa was asked to chair. This group has set the direction, conducted participant surveys, advocated on behalf of WiRA to New Zealand Rugby and most recently written to the chair candidates of the New Zealand Rugby Board to get women’s rugby on the agenda. 

What's the purpose of the group?
We want to work together with existing organisations to improve the experiences for women in rugby in Aotearoa. Equity is our immediate aim, equality being the end goal.

What are you working on at the outset?
Initially it’s about establishing ourselves as the trusted and independent voice for women’s rugby in Aotearoa, New Zealand. So our primary focus is on strengthening the network we have built thus far and converting ourselves to a membership organisation. There is a well of talent in our women’s rugby community, that is so deep, that is yet to be tapped or organised into reaching its true potential. We want to build the infrastructure, to identify, connect, develop and support that talent. 

Tell us more about the open letter you recently sent to the prospective chairs of the NZRU and what you want to achieve?
The change in chair is a significant milestone in New Zealand Rugby so we thought this an opportune time to put the question, in an open and transparent way, to the candidates to get an understanding of their vision for our game. To understand their commitment to diversity and inclusion in our sport and to the obvious business case for women’s rugby. We have had a lot of talk about women’s rugby in this country in recent weeks, we want to be a part of the conversation going forward. 

What are the major challenges facing the women's game in NZ?
They are challenges that are not necessarily unique to our country or our sport and inherently stem from a system that wasn’t designed for our participation. 

So as we laid out in our letter, they are best summarised as:

1) A need to redesign our system
Grassroots to Black Ferns, changing sheds to board rooms, we need to redesign a system that is fit for purpose.

2) Strengthen pathways and address regional variance
One of the key takeaways from the survey we conducted on Farah Palmer Cup players last year was the wide range of experiences, region to region, our women face. We want all our talent to have opportunity. 

3) Support and resource the growth in women in rugby
We want women’s participation in our sport, in any role, to be normalised, recognised and celebrated. 

What about the major opportunities?
We are at a point of inflection in our sports history. We experienced 40% growth in playing numbers between 2016-2018 alone. After record viewership numbers in our Farah Palmer Cup last year, we had our largest audience of 8000 fans turn up to the Super Rugby match in May. Societal views have shifted, so too has the economic outlook for women’s sport. There is an opportunity for us to capitalise on this momentum in a very real sense, to get women’s rugby off the coat tails and establish itself.

What changes do you think are realistic before the next World Cup?
The Super Rugby competition is in negotiation to start in 2022 which is a huge opportunity as players will be paid for their participation. This doubles our contracted players overnight - from 50 currently to at least 100. The terms of these contracts and the environments these players will participate in will require a full and frank conversation about what our true intentions are for the women’s game. 

Is the World Cup a major opportunity to make change?
The boom in our participation numbers following the 2016 Olympics will likely be replicated after hosting a World Cup. We need to be ready to put the legacy programmes in place to capture this interest, whether on the field or off it, to let women know there is a place for them in our sport.

It will also be a true test of our audiences appetites. The trends point to growth but this is the test case.  We will need to pour everything we have into showcasing our wāhine to let New Zealand fall in love with our Black Ferns.