With 11 months till the Rugby World Cup on Black Ferns’ home soil, New Zealand Rugby should take a leaf out of the thriving Red Roses’ playbook, writes Alice Soper.
The last two Monday mornings, I have woken up in the wee hours to watch a triumphant moment in women’s rugby history. Never again can the value of investment be questioned.
Stadiums crowded with enthusiastic fans. National broadcasters pulling in 700,000 viewers from men’s sport in the same time slot. Dominant displays of talent across the park, against the reigning world champions.
The heartbreak for Black Fern fans is that this was the story of the English Red Roses and two emphatic wins, four years in the making.
We have failed to heed the warning signs. Our shock elimination from the 2014 Rugby World Cup was written off as inexperience and poor tactics. Personnel were replaced but the pathways that led to the defeat weren’t.
Five to seven matches of provincial rugby per year and a test if you’re lucky, we were sure was the way to grow champions. And we got away with it for a while, as the world was distracted by sevens and investing into the first Olympic campaign.
But then came 2019. I was in the stands at Grenoble alongside 18,000 French fans as they claimed their first win against a Black Ferns side not properly conditioned for the contest. If the last two weeks were a shock, you simply haven’t been paying attention.
Gone are the days, where we can turn up and take wins with talent alone. Our players are just as good as they ever were, except now our opposition is backed to be better. Since the 2017 Rugby World Cup, the two finalists – New Zealand and England – undertook their reviews and then embarked on two very different strategies.
In New Zealand, we capitalised on the wave of players signing up to our sport by offering the same truncated provincial competition. New provinces joined but the format meant no increase in the number of games played.
I do not doubt for one second that we have the best athletes in New Zealand, but the equation is off and does not equal the effort being put in.
Don’t get me wrong, the premiership and championship structure is the best option to support developing regions, but why end a competition just as it’s heating up?
What talent can break through in limited game time? What fanbase can you build on two to three home games a year? What sponsors can you attract for that limited airtime?
In 2018, we introduced contracts. Not liveable contracts, mind you. So despite the headlines, 15s players picked up more responsibilities than wages and no one was able to make rugby their full-time job.
High performance units in provincial unions were provided with funds and a long list of KPIs to support the development of New Zealand’s best. At best, this was met with the creation of a dedicated resource and bespoke plans for the athletes involved.
However, a survey Women in Rugby Aotearoa conducted with Farah Palmer Cup players in 2020 found that while 95 percent of respondents had access to a strength and conditioning trainer, 44 percent didn’t receive programmes tailored to themselves or their positions. Rugby is a sport for all bodies and, for this reason, our training cannot be ‘one size fits all’. And yet for a consequential number of players, this is what they are provided.
Now the introduction of Super Rugby Aupiki is heralded as the future of our game. And it could be, were our Union brave enough to bet big like they did in 1996 and create a meaningful contest.
Instead, we have recruited more part-time players expected to deliver full-time results and make a case for future investment. We have locked ourselves into a format with no opportunity to capture the interest of next year’s home Rugby World Cup, with four matches being the complete schedule for both the 2022 and 2023 seasons.
A crop of male coaches are being invested in with no wāhine deemed worthy of a top job, widening the gap further for capable women coaches to Aupiki.
All the while, England has taken a different tack. Paying heed to player feedback and investing in competition first, creating a more professional environment to develop the game in the form of the Premier 15s.
Ten teams across the country playing two rounds, providing 1600 minutes of top tier game time. It hasn’t been perfect – this format has brought with it some of the men’s baggage, with talent quickly bleeding toward the richer clubs and much being asked of the still largely amateur athletes involved.
But at the centre of this strategy was an understanding of what it is rugby players want – to play rugby. Better yet, a full season of fixtures against the best in their nation to test what they are truly capable of.
They focused on building the women’s rugby audience. Giving up on curtain-raisers in 2018, they left Twickenham and took the game to regional stadiums and put them on at family-friendly times, with family-friendly prices. They promoted the matches, marketed their heroes.
And what do you know, they sold those grounds out.
But they didn’t stop there, they hit the airwaves too. First reliably streaming all of their Premiership 15s matches and then most recently signing a free-to-air deal with the BBC, giving easy access to an emerging fanbase.
Then with the audience and talent more developed, they paid their team. No hybrid model here – full-time professional contracts for the top 28 players of an average of NZ$45,000, double the base on offer for New Zealand players.
For the first time, a front rower can quit their day job and go all-in on their rugby. And with visibility growing, sponsorship revenue is also more easily found, for the teams, for the competitions and for the players themselves.
This is not to say the last four years have been a painless process. The Premier 15s were described earlier this year as the “Wild West” for players involved. Murky amateur arrangements have led to a range of unsavoury outcomes, such as Go Fund Me campaigns for injured non-UK nationals.
But there is a clear end-goal in sight, one administrators, players, commercial partners and fans alike, are united on: to be the best women’s rugby nation in the world and the results of the last two weeks prove they are on the right track.
Anyone who has played a top-level sport knows the best athletes are never the most innately talented. They are the hardest workers, putting the effort in day after day, year after year, for that one crucial performance.
To achieve any big goal, you break it into a series of smaller goals, to achieve results that are equal to the sum of its parts. I do not doubt for one second that we have the best athletes in New Zealand, but the equation is off and does not equal the effort being put in.
The good news? We have 11 months before the World Cup to check our working. Now is not the time to hold back.
* The Black Ferns play France on Sunday morning; coverage live on Sky Sport 2 from 2.50am.