Women have been an important source of support for rugby in New Zealand since the 1800s. Photo: Getty Images

The outpouring of support from women for the Black Ferns in this Rugby World Cup has been a revelation to many. But, as Jennifer Curtin writes, we should not be surprised.

Apparently, the abbreviation BFF (best friends forever) was popularised in the late 1990s by Phoebe in Friends. But in Aotearoa in 2022 it has come to refer to a collective that are the Black Fern Fans. 

BFFs are not just women and girls, but it is likely we have made up the majority over the past 30 years since the women’s team played in their first Rugby World Cup in 1991. 

We have heard a lot over the past week about how the Black Ferns have inspired us to re-embrace the ‘national’ game – their passion, prowess, and joy, their explicit recognition of the energy they draw from whānau and fans, folded us into their journey towards greatness.

This outpouring of support from women for this historically most masculine of games has been a revelation to many. But we should not be surprised. A closer examination of club histories and newspaper records from the late 1800s onwards shows us that women have always been an important source of support for rugby. 

While not in any way expected to play the game, women were encouraged to participate as spectators. Newspaper reports in the 1880s and 1890s often noted with surprise the proportion of women present: among a crowd of 13,000 at a Dunedin versus Auckland match for example, “The ladies being better represented than on any previous occasion this season”.

In 1888, when the English team toured, their arrival “awoke the town from its sleep” and one hour before the game kicked off, the stand was reported as packed “chiefly by ladies”. Indeed, the Englishmen remarked that they had “never seen so many ladies at a football match before”.

Accepting women as spectators and fans was recognised by rugby officials as vital to growing the game’s reach in these early years. Seating was erected, sometimes tea and cake was provided, and entry was free for women on the assumption that they would be accompanied by their ticket-paying menfolk. The latter expectation proved ill-founded, with large groups of women attending without their menfolk, in both rain and shine. 

Officials also hoped women spectators would have a civilising influence on the behaviour of male fans and the game. The presence of the ‘fairer sex’ was credited with less swearing and smoking among the men, and consideration was given to how the rules could be changed to ensure a cleaner, more appealing spectacle.  

Manliness on the field was expected to include self-discipline and keeping the ‘physicality’ of the game in check to ensure good entertainment. That ‘ladies’ would attend in greater numbers as a result was seen as a very beneficial side effect.

In these early years, rugby was community-focused and local matches were often the highlight of the social calendar; pre-match entertainment, parades, the game itself and post-match dinners were events that included women. Social columns in local newspapers included highlights of what the ‘genteel ladies’ were wearing on the one hand, while also scolding those women who took bets on the outcome of the game, or removed their hats and shouted with joy when their team scored a try.

Alongside this, women supported the game as fundraisers for clubs, and returned soldiers, and as wives and mothers of players; Māori women elders would bless the field before each game and shared land with local clubs to provide a permanent place to train and play.

This support of women as fans of rugby union waned in the post-war period; newspapers and rugby magazines belittle women as knowing little about the game, and later deride the women’s movement for its undermining of the national sport. 

Ironically perhaps, at the same time feminists were calling out the destructive side effects of rugby union, young women, buoyed by a recognition that women had an equal right to play the game, began forming their own teams and competitions. The foundations of the Black Ferns began in earnest in the 1980s. 

Rugby officials and sponsors have sporadically remembered that women fans are important to the game. Air New Zealand sponsorship of the domestic competition included a series of advertisements featuring female aircrew who expressed their support for the game in a range of ways: shouting at the referee with gusto from the sideline, gazing at high-profile players, calling the game from the couch, and poring over rugby results in the newspaper. 

But if history can tell us anything, it’s that the rugby bureaucracy would do well to reflect on what makes rugby events enjoyable for women and whānau, as well as for men. Rugby’s appeal once lay in its connections with communities, in thinking about its fanbase broadly to secure the game’s popularity and financial wellbeing. 

The Black Ferns, their BFFs and the women behind the organisation of Rugby World Cup 2021 have reminded us how this appeal can be achieved again.    

Some of the material in this paper, and citations for the historical quotes can be found in my open access journal More than Male-Gazing: Reflections on Female Fans of Rugby Union in New Zealand, 1870–1920

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