While she’s grateful for much in rugby, LockerRoom columnist Alice Soper says it’s time for a new attitude within the women’s game in New Zealand. 

Women’s rugby has a gratitude problem. It’s applied, firmly as a handbrake, to any notion of progress.

Whenever there’s a new development or a milestone reached, discussion of its impact is quickly curbed by the reminder to be “thankful”. Our achievements, our autonomy, our ambition, all held hostage by this indebtedness. Our position, seemingly still so precarious, that we have to use ‘thank you’ as punctuation on any public statement.

And that’s not to say I’m ungrateful. I am grateful, but not to administrator’s lumbering movements towards equity. I am grateful to the women who came before me, carving the path to get us this far. I am grateful to the volunteers, who still largely hold together everything outside of the black jersey. I am grateful to my teammates and our opposition, for continuing to love a game that doesn’t always love them back.

This incessant search for a silver lining in every press release leads to a toxic positivity. It’s a good start, I’ve been told for the last 20 years. But now we have come face-to-face with the ill-effects of our gratitude. 

Te Kura Ngata-Aerengamate waving the red flag after the Northern tour; losses were to be expected but the margins were huge and spoke to problems in the camp.

A review into culture and environment underway, as rugby reckons with issues not dissimilar to those already being tackled in football, hockey and cycling.

Without fear nor favour, we need to be taken seriously.

Research undertaken by Dr Adele Pavlidis at Griffith University in 2020 told us that “gratitude can lead to experiences of exploitation”. How else can you describe the realities of being a woman in rugby?

How thankful we must be, to uproot our lives to play a four-week Super Rugby Aupiki competition or a six-week Farah Palmer Cup. How lucky we are, to have endured a 30-year internship before being offered a handful of liveable wages. How fortunate we are, to be the understudies of male head coaches with little to no prior experience of women’s rugby.

And aren’t we grateful that ours is the only major sporting code not to meet the Sport New Zealand requirements of diversity in our boardrooms.

I’m not Eeyore, I’m not going to say “Thank you for noticing me”. Instead, I say “You are welcome”. That I – and many, many others – are still here, still doing the extras, still dreaming of what could be.

The year 2022 puts our wāhine in the spotlight – but that light needs to shine just as brightly on the strategy employed by rugby at this pivotal moment. Our community is tired of the problem definition and ready to move on to the practical solutions.

Having largely been shut out of opportunities to give back to our game, we have gone into the world and developed skills across a wide range of disciplines. As a result, we have the ideas and capability to lead these hard conversations on gender, race and the economic realities facing rugby.

And rugby has some growing up to do. We are not girls anymore and we never were ladies; we can handle ourselves. We are ready for headlines to go beyond firsts and deserve more than cyclical coverage tethered to World Cups. We crave in-depth scrutiny of our players, coaches, their selections and our competitions. Without fear nor favour, we need to be taken seriously.

We are ready to claim our place in our sport’s ecosystem. That place being vital to rugby’s survival.

To those in our women’s rugby community, I beg you, no more thank yous. Not to the hand, that’s been twisted, to feed you. Our critics are cheerleaders of meritocracies and you, my sisters, have earned everything you’ve got.

So step forward in that confidence, knowing that you stand on the shoulders of giants. That yours is a story of resilience, creativity and grit.

Mate, I’m so grateful you’re here.

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