With one year to go till the final of the women’s Rugby World Cup in New Zealand, tournament director Michelle Hooper has laid down a challenge for a world record on day one – to create a legacy for women’s sport globally. 

Michelle Hooper doesn’t want to just break the world record for derrières on seats at a women’s rugby game when the Rugby World Cup kicks off at Eden Park next October.

She wants to double it, and then some.

The current world record belongs to the rugby-passionate French – a sell-out crowd of 20,000 who poured into Stade Jean-Bouin in Paris to watch England convincingly beat Canada in the 2014 Rugby World Cup final (the only Cup final, mind you, the Black Ferns haven’t played in).

The 2017 World Cup final between the Ferns and the Red Roses was the next highest crowd puller – 17,155 fans at Kingspan Stadium in Belfast.

Hooper, the tournament director of the one year-delayed Rugby World Cup 2021, wants to see a sell-out for the opening day – a triple-header at Eden Park on October 8.

“Around 45,000 to 48,000 is what we’re aiming to achieve,” Hooper says, at home on Waiheke Island.

But it’s not all about bragging rights over other rugby nations. The intents are far deeper than that.

“Achieving that number is one thing, but it’s actually what it looks like to the world – the sentiment and the emotion behind it,” says Hooper.

“It’s about the legacy that full stadia create for women’s sport that’s beyond a number. These are the very best female rugby players on the world stage playing at Eden Park on day one, and these sports stars represent resilience in every sense of the word. Our actions could create a legacy for women’s sport globally.”

It’s an impressive line-up first-up – South Africa versus France, World Cup debutants Fiji meeting the might of England, followed by reigning champions New Zealand against Australia. It’s highly likely the two finalist – who’ll be back on Eden Park on November 12 – will come from these half-dozen teams. 

(The other six nations in the tournament play the following day at the Northland Events Centre in Whāngarei).

Black Fern Stacey Fluhler kisses ‘Nancy’ – the New Zealanders’ nickname for the Rugby World Cup, after victory in 2017. Photo: Getty Images. 

Hoopers’ Rugby World Cup team have targeted the opening day for a reason.

“The buzz for the 2011 Rugby World Cup here in New Zealand started from day one, and then rolled across the whole tournament,” Hooper says. “We thought ‘What could we do that would fuel that hype?’”

Hooper came on board in January 2020 with an impressive background in global tournament organisation. She’d worked on the America’s Cup, the world triathlon series, a FIFA World Cup and the Winter Olympics.

And she’d helped run three Rugby World Cups in the past – as head of team services at the 2011 tournament in New Zealand, match commissioner at Twickenham in 2015, and then called in to run team services again for the 2019 World Cup in Japan.

Eden Park has been like a second home to her, after delivering home matches on the hallowed ground for Auckland Rugby and the Blues.

“When I first arrived, Waitakere Stadium was booked for the first match of the tournament. They only had Eden Park for the semis and the finals,” Hooper recalls.

“So I said ‘No.1 we have to have the opening day at Eden Park – that’s the ultimate if we’re going to supercharge the women’s game’. It’s arguably the best rugby stadium in the world.”

During New Zealand’s first Covid lockdown in March 2020, Hooper and her team gave World Rugby enough confidence in the numbers they could draw to Eden Park. “But overarching all of this was that New Zealand Rugby had only ever sold tickets to women’s rugby once, and that was a test event in November 2020 at Waitakere Stadium, to test the triple-header format,” Hooper says.

“Now we have the challenge of how do we fill it? Half-full isn’t good enough, because it’s actually about what it means to women’s sport to fill a stadium. That’s why we’ve made it a world record attempt.”

Ticket sales for the opening day started on November 1 – coinciding with the Black Ferns playing their 100th test. With a “compelling price point” – from $5 for kids and $10 for adults – they’ve sold 4000 tickets for day one so far.

But there’s still the not-so-small matter of a global pandemic that could upset their plans. With New Zealand’s borders closed and the future uncertain, Hooper can’t predict how that could affect ticket sales.

“We have to plan for a tournament to be delivered with Covid in the community,” she says. “What we’re seeing globally are full stadiums everywhere, people wanting to watch sport again. They are now where we will be hopefully in October 2022.”

As five-time world champions (from six tournaments), you’d expect the Black Ferns to be hot favourites on home soil for the first time, which has to increase their competitive advantage.

But they’ve failed to set the rugby world on fire during their challenging Northern Tour – losing heavily to England by record differences (31 and 41 points respectively), then going down to France by 25 last weekend. The final test against the French is at Castres on Sunday morning (NZ time).

Yet the games have attracted eyeballs. Around 12,000 came through the turnstiles at Pau to watch New Zealand v France – prompting rugby commentator Nick Heath to tweet: “French crowds at women’s games are a known thing. But it’s not a duty-bound sisterhood that is turning up to watch. It’s lads, old boys, work groups, families… They come because, ‘C’est rugby!’”

As England notched up their 17th test win on the trot against Canada last weekend, one million people tuned in to watch on BBC’s live free-to-air coverage.

Rugby World Cup 2021 tournament director Michelle Hooper. Photo: supplied. 

Hooper doesn’t think the Black Ferns’ run of losses will deter crowds next year.

“Yes, the tour didn’t get off to the start New Zealanders would have hoped for. But we’re in a pandemic,” she says. “New Zealand Rugby had every intention of preparing them as best as they could, but they had seven home tests and one away test in the build-up that couldn’t happen because of Covid.

“They will have every resource they need between now and the tournament; the commitment is there from NZ Rugby. And let’s hope we see the phoenix rise from the ashes.

“But they need New Zealanders to back them. For years, through all kinds of adversity, they’ve proudly represented us offshore. Now we’ve got 11 months to get in behind them.”

What has come out of this tour is the growing strength of rugby worldwide, Hooper says. “England look incredible, so disciplined. This has just piqued the interest in how other nations will perform,” she says.

The RWC organisers have wisely turned to other sports for guidance in these unprecedented times.

They’ve tapped into the knowledge of the New Zealand Olympic Committee, how they successfully led a team into – and out of – Japan; the protocols they followed, the bubbles within bubbles they stuck to. “We’ll overlay that with all our planning for the tournament,” Hooper says.

Vaccine passports are likely to be required to enter the three World Cup stadiums being used in the tournament, and a health and safety manager will join the organising team next year.

Leaders of the ‘Big Four’: (back row, left) IWG conference’s Rachel Froggatt and Cricket World Cup 22’s Andrea Nelson; (front, left) Rugby World Cup 2021’s Michelle Hooper and FIFA World Cup 2023’s Jane Patterson . Photo: Suzanne McFadden

Hooper is also using her position in the ‘Big Four’ collaboration to see how others are preparing in Covid times. The leaders of the four global women’s sporting events coming to New Zealand in the next two years – the World Cups in cricket, rugby, football and the IWG Women and Sport conference – meet regularly to share their knowledge and experiences with each other.

While it happened by chance – and Covid postponements for cricket and rugby – Hooper believes the alignment of the four events “turned out to be our destiny.”

“The measure of success for the country hosting a World Cup is normally about the registered player base for the sport. But what if through sport as a platform we can change the landscape for women globally?” she says.  “I think that’s the bigger question now at play.

“The empowerment of women and girls directly increases the economic growth of countries, and sport plays a role in empowering women and girls in communities. It lifts them up, makes them feel they can go on and do other things. The global pandemic has a dire effect on squeezing women out of the workforce, which is shocking.

“Right now, women and girls need hope and these World Cups we’re about to deliver need to reach them.”

The Rugby World Cup has found “a really high interest” from corporate sponsors: “We’ve sold seven of the eight spots available,” Hooper says. “The demand is there from sponsors, they just have to now work out how best to activate it.

“I think we’ll see a turning point in commercial interest in women’s sport based on all these tournaments taking place here in Aotearoa.”

* The Black Ferns finish their Northern Tour against France on Sunday morning, with a 2.50am kick-off live on Sky Sport 1. 

Suzanne McFadden, the 2021 Voyager Media Awards Sports Journalist of the Year, founded LockerRoom, dedicated to women's sport.

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