Former Black Ferns captain Victoria Grant is determined to give back to the game, and become a role model for future women rugby coaches in the process, writes Taylah Hodson-Tomokino.

The Black Ferns have not seen a female coach since Vicky Dombroski in the early 1990s. But with former players like Victoria Grant entering the fold, it’s only a matter of time before we see more women fulfil top coaching positions in rugby.

It shouldn’t be a rarity seeing a female coach at the helm of a national side. The outdated idea that women don’t know the ins and outs of rugby is farcical given the Black Ferns have won more Rugby World Cups than their male counterparts.

In continuing with their efforts to grow the women’s game, New Zealand Rugby are sending a women’s under-18 sevens team to the Youth Olympic Games, coached by Grant, a former Black Ferns captain.

The announcement comes off the back of several female-driven initiatives, like capping all 161 women who have represented New Zealand in a sanctioned test match, creating professional contracts for the Black Ferns, and the inclusion of female referees in the national high performance squad.

Grant, an accomplished player in her own right, is a strong advocate for women’s rugby. In the Waikato, she dabbled in a player-coach role but, after selling her physiotherapist practices and shifting to the Bay of Plenty, it was time to hang up the boots and focus solely on coaching.

“I missed the whole team aspect of the game to be fair when I finished playing. I felt like I still had a bit more to give to the game and to give back to the girls, so I just started coaching club rugby in my community,” she says.

Grant took the Bay of Plenty women’s sevens team to a plate final victory at the national sevens tournament earlier this year, and has continued to coach at the grassroots level with her Rotoiti women’s premier side.

“My core reason for coaching is to give back to the game, and my reward is seeing other girls grow and get as much out of rugby as I did and still do.”

With coaching credentials and qualifications to equal those of her male counterparts, when it comes to coaching women’s rugby, Grant offers more than just her tactical knowledge.

“It’s an advantage off the field to have a female coach just because you understand where they come from. Everyone’s experience is different and everyone’s lens is different. But there is definitely a female lens, you just understand I guess more where they’re coming from,” she says.

Despite the growth of women’s rugby around the world, there are no female head coaches on the Women’s World Rugby Sevens Series circuit. In an effort to help Victoria Grant develop as a coach, New Zealand Rugby endorsed the 35-year-old for a Commonwealth Games Federation scholarship, where she was immersed in the Commonwealth Games gold medal-winning campaign of the Black Ferns sevens, learning from head coach, Allan Bunting.

“It was amazing being part of that group and part of that whole experience. Being able to see that in person, in front of it and living it, was huge” says Grant.

“It was really empowering and cool to be around other females [in the programme] that were kind of in a similar situation as me, because most sports are male dominated, especially in the coaching ranks. So to share our experiences and empower each other was really inspiring.”

If anything, Grant’s appointment begs the question: Why are there not more female rugby coaches? New Zealand Rugby have shown they are willing to pour in the resources to develop female coaches through their commitment to Grant, so why hasn’t there been the same kind of surge in coaching as there has been with player numbers?

“Sometimes it is hard to earn the respect of males in the industry who have been in there for a long time. If I can change attitudes by doing just what I do, and doing what I do well, then that’s cool,” says Grant.

The Farah Palmer Cup, the women’s rugby national provincial championship, had 10 teams last year, but only one female head coach – Davida White, of Counties Manukau. White led her team to the final, where they were defeated by a valiant Canterbury side.

White, who is behind the resurgence of women’s rugby in Counties Manukau, has become a well-respected coach on the rugby scene because of her perseverance and ability to transform her team, irrespective of her gender.

Grant hopes that she and White are seen as role models by other women hanging up their boots.

“My friends who are nearing the end of their careers see coaching as an option because they see that I’m doing it. So it’s important to have those role models and have those pathways evident, and New Zealand Rugby are really working hard on that,” she says.

Being a former player and winner of the 2010 Women’s Ruby World Cup, Grant understands what’s needed from a successful coach.

“Seeing it from the other side as a player, I focused on what I wanted from my coach as a player. That came down to values. Being honest and upfront with me as a player was really important as well as being genuine and reliable and always there for them, not only as a coach, but as a person,” she says.

Grant is excited about her opportunity with the under-18 national side, who travel to Buenos Aires in October, and is eager to continue developing as a representative coach.

“It’s really cool for me to head a campaign personally” says Grant. “It’s a massive step up and the thing I love about coaching is there is so much to learn. Everyday you’re learning – and learning off all the girls. It doesn’t matter if they’re school level or not. You are building relationships with the girls and understanding their motivation behind playing, so it’s awesome.”

Grant has an Oceania championship under her belt at the helm of her national under 18 side, and an impressive season with her Bay of Plenty womens’ sevens team. Asked about her future coaching aspirations, her humility is ever-present.

“It’s about growing my skillset in coaching and around the art of coaching. That’s not always technical and tactical, more around the art and the craft of it,” she says.

“I’m more around the processes; becoming a better coach in terms of values and living by those values rather than outcomes. Wherever I go with coaching is where I go, but as long as I can keep staunch in my values and my core beliefs.”

Grant has cut her teeth on international rugby and has coaching certificates to further endorse her credibility. It’s important for players, aspiring coaches and the community to observe her in her role of coaching an international side in order for perceptions to change.

Grant and White have proven that female coaches can achieve optimal results. It’s only a matter of time until we start to witness more female coaches at a grassroots and national level, as a flow-on effect from the pathway Grant has created with the unwavering support from the Bay of Plenty Rugby Union and New Zealand Rugby.

Taylah Hodson-Tomokino is a former national BMX champion and Samoa Sevens rugby player, sports commentator and LockerRoom columnist.

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