A crooked line of girls and boys waits on the sideline of the Waiheke Island Rugby Club at Ōmiha, holding their boots or their drink bottles in their hands. At the end of the line, next to a silver cup in a protective case, is a young woman armed with a permanent marker.

“It’s Patricia,” a boy whispers.

Most of the kids had seen Black Fern Patricia Maliepo the day before, when she visited their schools with ‘Nancy’, the Rugby World Cup trophy.

Now they pay her the same kudos they would an All Black who’d come to the island to watch them play; queueing for her autograph or a photo with her and the silverware.

Maliepo, 19 and a three-test Black Fern playmaker, is on a break from the game, recovering from concussion. But she’s happy to have a run around with the Waiheke U13 girls’ rippa rugby team on this once-a-year Club Day; the first-five dodging, weaving and laughing.

“It’s really lovely to be out here, seeing little girls picking up the rugby ball, playing the game and proudly wearing the jersey for their club. Community rugby is what backs you up; it brings everyone together,” Maliepo says.

“Yesterday some of the girls at school didn’t even know that there’s a national women’s rugby team like the All Blacks. So it’s real cool for them to discover that.”

Black Fern Patricia Maliepo signs the boots of young Waiheke rippa rugby players next to the Rugby World Cup. Photo: Suzanne McFadden.

For Michelle Hooper, whose three kids play for the Waiheke club and who’s also tournament director of this year’s Rugby World Cup in New Zealand, this moment is huge.

“These girls don’t realise what the opening of the Rugby World Cup is going to be like – the bright lights, the full stadium at Eden Park. Yet here they are, playing with a potential star of the Black Ferns,” she says.

“And they’ll go to that game on October 8 and see her out there on that field, and say ‘Oh my god, Patricia spent the day playing with us’. It will be their light bulb moment – making that connection between what they do every week at the Waiheke Island Rugby Club and the best rugby players in the world.”

Maliepo’s already influenced the girls of Waiheke rugby.

“She’s really cool,” says Harper Wood, a star of the U13 girls. “She taught us how to draw the player then pass; she’s really good at sidestepping and she’s really fast. It’s my goal to become a Black Fern like her one day.”

The heart of women’s rugby

There’s a joke at the Rugby World Cup 21 headquarters in Auckland that Waiheke Island has become the nerve centre of the global event.

It certainly was during Covid lockdowns – home to the tournament director Hooper, the team services manager Delyth Morgan-Coghlan, and the commercial operations manager for World Rugby, Kenzo Pannell.

And, of course, it’s also where Sir Graham Henry lives – he’s stepped out of retirement to take on a new coaching support role for the Black Ferns leading into this tournament.

As Hooper points out, the small but tight-knit rugby community on the island represents the growth in the female game.

“Here in Waiheke we have a very strong women’s game. It represents what all clubs should be like in terms of their attitude towards women and girls rugby,” she says.

RWC21 tournament director Michelle Hooper and daughter Mia at the Waiheke Club Day. Photo: Suzanne McFadden. 

Hooper’s daughter, Mia, meets me off the ferry at Waiheke, and tells me proudly how she’s scored a brace of tries and a couple of rips in her game of rippa rugby earlier that morning for the mixed under-sixes team.

There’s a powerful female presence throughout the local club. Vanessa McTavish is chairwoman of the club, and in recent years, they’ve fielded a women’s premier team, Wāhine Toa o Waiheke, in the Auckland club competition, but not a men’s premier team.

Sixty of the club’s 170 registered players are female.

McTavish was responsible for drawing more girls to play a few years ago. “My daughter wanted to play under-sixes. A couple of the girls were quite shy about playing with the boys,” she says. “So I decided to coach a girls team and play in the boys’ grade.

“We lost every game, but the girls didn’t care. They had the best time out there. The next year all these girls turned up wanting to play with a female coach.

“Now we have five girls’ teams on the island. There’s a real momentum here, especially when girls find out they can play with their girl buddies.”

Girls are being gradually introduced to the technical skills of rugby, now that U11 rippa in Auckland includes scrums, lineouts and kicking.

“If they want to carry on into rugby, they just need to do a tackle clinic. Then it’s not so scary,” McTavish says.

There are a couple of girls playing alongside boys in the Waiheke U13 restricted tackle team on Club Day – one of them makes the best tackles in the side.

Harper Wood on the run for the Waiheke U13 girls rippa team against Waitakere. Photo: Peter Rees Photography.

Wāhine Toa O Waiheke women couldn’t field a side this season – only nine women signed up. A lot of the past players work in hospitality on the island, and since Covid restrictions eased, the weekends have become their busiest time.

“I hope we have a women’s team again soon. It’s just such a shame,” says junior club president and referee, Jimbo Bailey. “The women and girls’ game is growing so fast on the island.”

The trick, he says, is to get girls interested young. “We go to schools and kindies encouraging them to play,” he says.

They also changed the day the island’s netballers played – moving from playing in Howick on Saturdays to joining in the North Harbour competition mid-week – making a big difference to girls’ rugby numbers.

It works both ways, though. “Now we have some of our rugby boys playing netball too,” Bailey says.

It’s a different pathway than Maliepo followed not that long ago.

She started playing tackle at age nine, the only girl in an U12 boys’ team, but had to stop at intermediate age “because girls weren’t allowed to play,” she says.  “I was like ‘wow, just wow’. So I played other sports at school.”

When Maliepo started at Edgewater College, in east Auckland, she was “pumped” to discover they had a girls rugby team – and that there was a national women’s team.  

“All I saw were the All Blacks and that’s what I wanted to be, an All Black. Then in my early college years I found out there was a team called the Black Ferns,” she says.

Waiheke’s Sapphire Singh tries to evade the clutches of her Waitakere opponents. Photo: Peter Rees Photography. 

She joined the Marist rugby club at 16 – the same year she made the Auckland Storm women, playing in the Farah Palmer Cup at first-five (she scored 78 points in that debut season). In 2020, she scored the first ever try in women’s Super Rugby, for the Blues against the Chiefs.

Maliepo made her Black Ferns debut in England last year, but missed this month’s Pacific Four Series, coming back from her head knock in club rugby. She’s quietly determined to make the World Cup team, very likely to play in next week’s Black Ferns trial in Pukekohe. 

“It will be my first World Cup to have a crack at and I’m so excited,” she says. “I’m prepping myself every day, trying to be the best in my position, so come Rugby World Cup I’m in that team and I’m representing New Zealand doing what I love.”

101 Days to Go

There are now 101 days until the World Cup kicks off at Eden Park (albeit a year later than planned), opening with a triple-header that includes the Black Ferns against the Wallaroos.

The last release of tickets go on sale on Thursday, “the last piece of the ticketing jigsaw”, Hooper says.

So far, they’ve sold 10 percent of what they expect to eventually sell during the tournament, but Hooper knows the bulk of tickets will be snapped up between September and October.

There’s a concerted effort to convince fans to buy tickets now, rather than waiting for the tournament to start.

“The challenge is converting people’s interest in the tournament to tickets for the opening match day, so they’ll go to the World Cup more than once because they loved the experience,” Hooper says.

She still wants to set a world record for a crowd at a women’s rugby international – aiming for day one of the tournament. The existing record is just over 20,000 – set at the Stade Jean-Bouin in Paris, when England convincingly beat Canada in the 2014 Rugby World Cup final. The goal is for 45-48,000 to pack into Eden Park.

Black Ferns v Wallaroos in the pouring rain in Tauranga for the Pacific Series earlier this month. Photo: Getty Images. 

The Pacific Four series earlier this month, featuring the Black Ferns, Canada, Australia and the United States, gave Hooper plenty of encouragement.

“I’m encouraged that all the rain for the year fell out of the skies during that three-week period,” she laughs, after inclement weather struck the tournament.

“But I was also encouraged by the number of people who turned out in their gumboots, raincoats and umbrellas in monsoon conditions in Tauranga – where in places the crowd was five-deep – to watch these girls play.” They sold 2500 walk-up tickets on that gloomy day. 

It was only the second time tickets had been sold to stand-alone Black Ferns games (the first was in 2020).

The performance of the new-look Black Ferns side, who won every game in the series, also gave Hooper faith in the side defending their 2017 World Cup title.

“Sure they made a few mistakes, but they made lots of moments of gold,” she says. “There were so many signs of hope.”

Nothing would make Hooper happier than a successful world rugby tournament, with world record crowds, and a winning Black Ferns team. 

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

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