Women’s rugby must become unashamedly ambitious if it’s to flourish, writes Alice Soper, and all wāhine can play a part without having to pull on a jersey.

My rugby career started with my high school sports coordinator putting an announcement in the daily notices.

A long-serving member of the Wellington Pride, Marama Tauroa, wanted to start a girls rugby team at my not overly-sporty college. The day came and I was the only one who turned up. A scrawny little Pākehā, I was not what she’d expected. But I asked her to give me a week and within that time, I’d pulled together the beginnings of a team. So since day one in this sport, I have been recruiting other wāhine to join my cause.

I’ve been fortunate enough to play at both Eden Park and Twickenham, but my best moments in rugby have not been the flashiest. They’ve been those where I’ve been embraced by the environment I’m in, knowing my contribution is valued and it’s towards something larger than myself.

What I’m describing, of course, is a team sport, whereas so many of our current solutions are focused on the individual. Driven by the same trickledown ideologies that have failed our society at large, our solution cannot be the elevation of the current crop of talent without seeding their successors or cultivating their competition.

We must look to our sport’s name for the answer: union.

Women’s rugby, like many women’s sports, has been stuck being cautiously grateful rather than unashamedly ambitious for what is possible. Take the gender off the numbers and anyone can see the business case for investment.

This should come as no surprise; this is a sport that has survived over 100 years, despite multiple campaigns against its participants, structural inequity and a healthy dose of bigotry on top. Our wāhine have always fought their hardest matches off the field.

Author Alice Soper has succeeded in her goal in bringing together a women’s rugby movement. Photo: Liela Hamilton-Dakar

Across the motu, around the world, we have been fighting the same fight with varying degrees of success. Wales and Ireland would look at the current support for our high performance programmes with envy, in the same way that players in North Harbour and Tasman look to the greener pastures of their neighbours in Auckland and Canterbury.

It’s a postcode lottery the world over, where talent is met with varying degrees of opportunity.

What so often gets framed as a conversation about resources, however, is often missing the underlying issue – a lack of respect. A system without respect at its foundation is always going to fall over at the first breath of trouble, which is why any gains made in the women’s space were so quickly undone by this pandemic.

Stronger foundations need to be laid, to establish meaningful change outside the spotlight, commitment beyond the headlines and inclusion in every decision. Nothing about us without us.

A misconception about activism is that you’re building a fire hoping it will catch. When in reality, all an organiser can ever do is fan the flames that are already burning in individuals to set the world alight.

Following the example of our foremothers, we are not waiting for permission and are simply cracking on with the work to be done.

What started over a coffee has grown to a membership of over 500 within just three months. There is a burning passion in this country for different, and Women in Rugby Aotearoa is offering it.

No matter how good you are at this game, you have a finite number of playing years. Our hyper-focus on pathways in has missed the development of pathways out.

Hundreds of years of rugby knowledge is lost when a player steps off the pitch for the last time. Just as a young player should be able to step into our sport and see the way forward to representing our nation, retiring players or those on the sidelines should be able to step off the field and see a way to continue to contribute.

Black Ferns wing Ayesha Leti-I’iga tries to break away from England Red Roses’ tacklers, Abby Dow and Ellie Kildunne in NZ’s 43-23 first test loss in Exeter. Photo: Getty Images.

And there are so many different ways you can that don’t rely on you pulling on a jersey. Photography, coaching, broadcasting, governance, refereeing, cutting up oranges for halftime – all of these roles play a part in the rugby ecosystem. We often claim that ours is a sport of inclusion, where every body type is useful, and the same is true of the skillset required to make it thrive.

Ours is a movement growing from the grassroots up. It has to, this is where the majority of our participants spend the majority of their time. It’s also the area, both men and women will freely lament has been neglected.

But in this vacuum, there is opportunity. Without contracts, without commercial interests, without black jerseys on the line, we are free to define our relationship with the sport on our terms.

It’s here, at our local clubs, at our local schools, where we can effect change as we look the challenges in the eye. The difference this time being that, while we may be the only women’s team, only woman on the committee or only girl at our school wanting to play, we are connected nationally to all the other ‘onlys’.

And through that network, we find our champions, we lift each other up and show each other the way forward. Where there is vision, resource will follow. We might not have all the resources yet but what we do have is the respect of our peers.

And from that foundation, lasting progress will be made.

*Women in Rugby Aotearoa is a collective of current and former players, administrators, managers, coaches, directors and volunteers involved in rugby. WIRA is passionate about growing the game and ensuring all women, young and old, have a positive experience in rugby, both on and off the field, with the purpose to increase this engagement.

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