When the women of the Blues and Chiefs run out onto Eden Park in Saturday’s landmark Super Rugby clash, they will be indebted to the women who ran out before them, like All Black mum Sandra Ioane.
Thirty years ago, on Eden Park’s number two field, Ponsonby women’s rugby team, the Fillies, were playing in an Auckland club final against Marist.
There were pockets of loyal supporters in the crowd. But not many, reckons one of the original New Zealand women’s representatives in the side, Sandra Ioane.
“Put it this way: when we were playing, the bloody seagulls were watching us. And then you had to freakin’ pay for the boyfriends or the family to come along,” says Ioane (nee Wihongi), who made the Black Ferns team in 1989.
“And to be fair, I don’t think much has changed. The seagulls are still watching.”
It’s a far cry from when she’s in the stands at Eden Park watching her two sons, Akira and Rieko, play for the All Blacks or in the Super Rugby competition.
But the first Super Rugby women’s match between the Blues and the Chiefs this weekend, on Eden Park number one, could be the turning point for women’s rugby in New Zealand.
“I take my hat off to them, a big congratulations. Because I never would’ve thought we’d have a Super game,” Ioane says.
So has much changed? Although the crowds may seem similar to the late 80s, the significant moves being made locally and internationally are strong signs that there will be bigger shifts to come in the game. Hopefully, shifts the next generation can visibly see within the next 30 years.
Two Kiwi women leading from the top are Kate Sadleir, general manager of the women’s game at World Rugby, and Cate Sexton, New Zealand Rugby’s head of the women’s portfolio.
Both shared their enthusiasm for the historic Super franchise match with Rikki Swannell on Sky Sport’s The Conversation, and for the global competitions World Rugby announced recently – the World XV and a regional tournament for New Zealand, United States, Australia and Canada.
“It’s fantastic,” says Sadleir of the Super match. “I mean, New Zealand has clearly had a special place over the Covid pandemic because they have been able to keep playing. I had the opportunity over the weekend to meet up with some of the key women around the country and everyone is very excited about the new event starting.”
Sexton touched on plans for the Super matches to expand and what the future may hold in New Zealand for women’s rugby.
“Absolutely working towards another domestic competition which would be in a semi-professional space,” says Sexton. “With the new global calendar, we’re looking for another playing opportunity for the players to put their hands up to be selected for the national team.”
The current provincial competition, the Farah Palmer Cup, is the only level between club rugby and the national side.
There is so much to take in when reflecting on where the game was when Ioane played to where it is now.
With a full club day at Ponsonby Rugby on Saturday, Ioane will most likely be watching the Super game while she’s working – she’s still with the club as the administrator. She’s been in the role for just over five years but originally started helping out the junior club.
The Blues captain on Saturday, Eloise Blackwell, is also a proud Ponsonby member. Last year, Blackwell – a PE teacher at Epsom Girls – was part of the Fillies team who won their first championship title since Ioane’s team. Back then, Ponsonby dominated the Auckland club scene for nearly 10 years, winning the championship title from 1986 to 1993.
Ioane came to Ponsonby from the Far North. She moved from Kaikohe with her family of 10 when she was 12. “We came from the bush to Ponsonby, and we lived in Ponsonby until I was in my 30s,” she says.
It was athletics and any other sport she could get her hands when they were up north. But the move to the big smoke introduced the lock/loose forward to rugby.
Friends who lived across the road from Ioane would walk past her parent’s fruit shop on Ponsonby Road and ask her to come and play rugby. She was already playing touch with them, and netball and basketball on the side.
“That’s how I started,” says Ioane, who became friends with players like Auckland stalwart Paddy Pao. “It was more of a socialising thing for us. It was no biggie, just a group of girls meeting up and having fun. And well, I haven’t left.” She married former Ponsonby rugby and Manu Samoa player Eddie Ioane.
Before she started playing for Ponsonby in the late 80s, Ioane had in her mind that rugby was a boy’s game. “But I went to a couple of training sessions and I loved it. Well it was lots of running and so I could run until my heart was content. And then when I got to the physical stuff, well, I was in my element. Getting rid of all my frustration and anger issues,” she laughs.
Ponsonby records say Ioane was “considered something out of the ordinary by people who saw her play. Agile for a lock and blessed with rare skills, she had all the attributes one would look for in a modern tight forward.”
Ioane played for New Zealand in the 1990 RugbyFest tournament in Christchurch, but was unable to make the 1991 World Cup in Wales. A number of Fillies players were chosen for the 1991 tour, including Christine Papali’i (Silver Fern Phoenix Karaka’s mother) and Nina Sio.
But Ioane was a single mum then, and although she kept training with the team, she couldn’t afford to go (she now has a Masters degree in sport marketing).
“Because a lot of us girls lived together, I personally think that’s why we were so good,” Sandra Ioane.
She continued to play rugby for Ponsonby, Auckland, and New Zealand until she hung up the boots in 1993. She went to join Eddie, who was playing rugby in Japan (she didn’t know when she left she was pregnant with their oldest son, Akira). The family stayed overseas for nearly eight years.
Nowadays, you can find the Ioane family back at Ponsonby Rugby (Eddie is also the club president). Asked why she stays involved in the sport, Ioane says she and Eddie had to be volunteers if the boys were to play rugby. Daughter, Ruffie, also played rugby for the club.
Even when the boys started secondary school and were playing First XV for Auckland Grammar on Saturday mornings, they would be down at the club with their parents cooking the BBQ for the president grade on Friday nights, running water or doing what was needed. “We’ve been highly involved for forever and a day,” says Ioane. She was honoured with life membership in 2018 alongside Eddie for their services to the club.
For Ioane, the best part about playing was the socialising aspect. “The camaraderie. Because a lot of us girls lived together, I personally think that’s why we were so good,” she says. “Everyone was just really tight. And I think it just paid off on the field. That was my best part of playing.”
One of the standout moments for Ioane came at Eden Park, playing for New Zealand. “Most of the Fillies girls came. That was a highlight for us because it was just awesome to see we had so much support,” remembers Ioane. “And of course they weren’t the quietest bunch around at the best of times, so that was a buzz for me.”
Come Saturday, Blackwell and her Blues team, alongside the Chiefs players, will be hoping they, too, have support in the stands for this historical match. The seagulls are welcome too.
* The Blues v Chiefs match at Eden Park will screen live on Sky Sport 1 from 4.15pm. Kick-off is 4.35pm.