Leading rugby writer and broadcaster Jim Kayes says NZ Rugby cannot ignore the vitality and commercial appeal of the Black Ferns any longer – and things must change
Sarah Hirini has a blunt message for those who run rugby in New Zealand.
Back us, the champion Black Fern says. There are no more excuses.
“I want someone to stand up and say they are going to back us, they are going to support us and they want to put big money into it. That’s the way that it goes.
“We’ve shown that we are a showcase, that we are exciting to watch, we just need more test matches here in Aotearoa for people to get behind us.
“You can see in the crowd it’s not just one demographic, you’ve got whole families, mums, dads, kids, grandparents all here watching.
“The amount of people who have come to our hotel just because they have loved watching us play is absolutely incredible.
“The moment needs to carry on now, that’s just the start. It’s what we have been wanting for a very long time and it has finally happened.
“If that doesn’t show what investment can do, then I don’t know what will.”
Hirini’s call to arms was matched by 42,579 who packed Eden Park for one of the best World Cup finals ever played (men or women) and record TV audiences.
There is now no debate, no contesting the fact the Black Ferns are a drawcard, that they play a style of rugby people want to watch and have a team the public adores.
There are so many examples of this but watching Ruby Tui lead the crowd in song as she was being interviewed after the match was simply stunning.
There is no other player with her charisma.
It seems wrong to compare the Black Ferns with the All Blacks when they deserve to bask alone in the spotlight, but a comparison has to be made.
At a time when rugby needs a refresh, the Black Ferns are a marketing team’s dream.
No All Black would have done what Tui did. No All Blacks test has the friendly, festive family atmosphere that the Black Ferns attract.
No All Black speaks to the public via the media like the Black Ferns do with raw emotion, humility, passion, joy, honesty and a sheer love for the game.
If you want to create new fans, bring back old ones and boost the game then the Black Ferns are your vehicle.
New Zealand Rugby cannot afford to let this opportunity slip.
“I’m just so proud that we have changed women’s rugby in New Zealand forever now,” Hirini said. “There’s going to be change, it’s going to be different.
“I know people turn up because it’s exciting and I’m so grateful we get to keep the World Cup here in Aotearoa.”
Kendra Cocksedge, who retires as the most capped Black Fern, struggled to find the words to describe her final game in black. But she knows they have left a legacy NZR can build on.
“We are so stoked that everyone has fallen in love with the Black Ferns. I’ve been around a long time and I never really dreamed this but to play at home in front of a crowd like this and to win it is just … there’s actually no words.
“Every young girl is going to want to play the game after this Rugby World Cup and I’m excited to be a part of that.”
Wayne Smith, the storied former All Blacks coach who came out of retirement to first help Glenn Moore when he was head coach, and then replaced him after Moore was forced to resign, backed the call for greater investment in women’s rugby.
“I think we’ve got the best athletes in the world for the game – what worries me is if we don’t surge ahead now, you’ve got highly professionalised French and English teams, you’ve got some other northern hemisphere teams are going to follow suit – there’ll be Olympic funding coming for Canada and USA.
“We’ve got to stay up with the pack and keep these wonderful athletes providing what they’re providing now on the field.”
There are 66 women on full time contracts with New Zealand Rugby – 41 Black Ferns and 25 Black Ferns Sevens players. The Black Ferns also get $2000 a week when they are in camp. And there are 112 Aupiki players (28 x 4 squads) contracted across the five-week competition in 2023. Those players receive a retainer payment of $8750 (gross) for the full five weeks.
But with the top tier players on $70,000 (the eight tiers go down to $35,000) even the best paid woman would struggle to get $100,000 a year from NZR.
That’s still good money when compared with New Zealand’s average wage of $56,160, but it’s not in the same suburb as an All Black’s salary.
Some will chunter into their beer that women’s rugby doesn’t support itself financially. Surely that argument was made redundant at Eden Park on Saturday.
The fans are there, NZ Rugby just needs to shift its myopic focus from the All Blacks.
Smith, who has coached at the elite level for almost 30 years, was in awe of what he saw at Eden Park.
“Something’s ignited this country around women’s rugby and we’ve got to make it count. We’ve got to make it count with seven-year-olds, eight-year-olds, nine-year-olds, 10-year-olds who all play Ripper – but when they go to high school, there’s no team or no coach – and they’ll go and play other sports. They may come back into it, but many won’t. That’s what we’ve got to get right.
“That was the most phenomenal rugby moment of my life, standing out there and hearing that crowd chanting those girls’ names.”
Black Ferns captain Ruahei Demant said the biggest change has to be more matches.
“For most of us, the next competition is Super Rugby Aupiki. It would be great to see that expand from what it was this year. Maybe playing against some of the Australian teams and the Pacific teams trying to bridge the game between the Farah Palmer cup and Black Ferns. It would be awesome to get more fixtures against northern hemisphere teams – as we’ve seen the style of game they play is very different to ours.
“More resources, thrown into women’s rugby, so that we can be taken a bit more seriously and put more time and effort into our footy.”
There is now, surely, no reason for NZ rugby not to. There are no more excuses.