Vania Wolfgramm has always been at the forefront of women’s rugby in New Zealand. A long-term servant as a player, administrator and commentator, she’s had a front row seat to the changes playing out in our national game.
As a mother of three, she’s also helping to make those changes.
“Our oldest boy is six and our youngest boy is nine months and in that timespace I’ve seen the difference,” the former Black Fern says. “When we had our first baby, I was conscious that I didn’t want that to be the barrier or stop me from progressing or doing whatever. So we just made it work.”
Wolfgramm’s confidence in integrating her caregiving responsibilities into rugby grew alongside her children. This shift in her mindset was reflected in the spaces she worked. “I’d get comments from our matua like: ‘This is great. Continue to bring bubba to work if this is what’s going to work for you’,” she says.
So when the request came through this year for Wolfgramm to commentate on the Farah Palmer Cup for Sky Sport, she flagged that it wouldn’t just be her in the commentary box. Baby Seth, just four months old at the beginning of the season, brought a whole new set of logistics to the game day schedule.
It was a case of trial and error as they broke new ground together. Producers checked in for feedback sessions, to understand what improvements could be made for the next match.
“I don’t know if I’m the first, but I definitely won’t be the last, and now we can say we’ve done it before, we’ve tested it out. My poor son, the little guinea pig,” Wolfgramm laughs.
Some venues were better equipped than others to welcome mums, with space to accommodate the whole family there in support of the commentator. Little things like running water and pram access needed to be negotiated to make the day run smoothly.
Unsurprisingly though, it was people, not facilities, that made all the difference. People like Willie Los’e, a long-term champion of women in rugby, who passed away suddenly before the end of the season. Wolfgramm speaks fondly of the difference he made to her experience.
“My concern was who I work with, how they feel about me popping in and out and putting that pressure on them. But man, Willie Los’e was a champ,” she says.
“He welcomed baby and my husband every time. He encouraged me to go and check on baby when we were off-air for breaks. Willie provided me support, advice and demanded me to be better every time we worked together on the mics. At the same time, he held space to allow me to be a mum.”
Los’e was one of the more high-profile supporters, but there are also men behind the scenes at Sky Sport making the difference to the work environment.
“Blair Dainty has been the best.” Wolfgramm recalls. “When I first started, he was directing for the first time. So now I’ve journeyed with him for a few years and he said to me, ‘Look, I don’t want to put any more pressure on you. I know what it’s like for mums. I’ve got two kids and saw my wife go back to work. I totally understand.’”
“There’s definitely more awareness I feel this time around for me, for mums in workplaces. There’s a real effort and consideration to want to provide and support.”
Wolfgramm hopes rugby’s increased visibility from the Black Ferns’ World Cup success last month will encourage more women with children to get involved in the game somehow.
“It’s no so long ago [Black Fern] Renee Wickliffe spoke about how sad she was she couldn’t take her baby on tour with her, because she didn’t think she could and no one had asked her,” Wolfgramm says. “But it’s a massive part of the game that we need to embrace, and it’s so good to see women being encouraged to bring their babies with them. And male players who are fathers need to have that option too.”
A new understanding has been reached on the pitch, with Charmaine Smith of the Northland Kauri helping to institute “the new normal” for mums in rugby.
Smith remembers looking at the playing schedule before this season started and feeling overwhelmed.
“I was working and every night during the week we had training straight after work,” Smith, a 27-test Black Fern lock and Whangārei frontline police officer says. “And with away games, we leave on a Friday morning, and we get back on Sunday. And I was like I’m literally not going to see my baby.”
Smith had her first child, daughter Amīria, in October last year, after she had retired from the game in pain, with a bulging disc pressing on her spinal cord. But a scan days after the birth showed the bulge had shrunk and she was cleared to play again.
She considered only making herself available for home games as she struggled with her new reality. “It’s the only time where I’ve felt like I was torn between motherhood and rugby,” she says.
This wasn’t Smith’s first experience playing as a mum, though. Amīria joined her earlier in the year as part of the Blues squad during Super Rugby Aupiki. She knew what accommodations could be made and understood the potential for change her profile in the game could bring.
“I thought about young mums coming through and those where it’s their first time making a rep team,” says Smith “I just thought they probably wouldn’t ask. Whereas I obviously feel like I’m in a privileged position to be able to ask, so I’ll just do it.”
Smith approached the Northland union about making allowances for babies to travel with the team along with a support person to assist in their care. “Talking to Northland CEO, Cameron Bell, he said: ‘I know it’s unconscious bias. But it’s not something we’ve ever had to deal with, with men. But now that you’ve asked, it’s a quick, easy fix for us’.’”
Budget was found and the three mums in the team – were then able to bring their babies on tour. And Smith took this opportunity to spread the word, in post-match speeches acknowledging the support of her union and laying down the wero (challenge) to their hosts to step up.
And they were listening. “Cam Bell and our manager have honestly had like five rugby unions call them to say, ‘Hey, what’s your policy? What are you guys doing with your mums?’” Smith says.
Rugby knows it needs to do something different but is seeking guidance on the way forward. Smith would like to see the process from this year written up into policy to ensure its longevity in her union and across the provincial scene. While things have improved on bringing children into the space, Smith believes more work needs to be done on bringing mums back safely after childbirth.
“Every single new mum in rugby I’ve spoken to has had a different return to play,” says Smith. “When me and Aros [Aupiki team-mate Aroha Savage] went back to playing, her twins were a few months older than Amīria, but she was put straight back into full contact without any build-up. Whereas I got a totally different treatment even though we were in the same team,” Smith recalls.
This variability wasn’t just in the contact and loading they experienced at training but also the clearance required to return to play. Smith, as part of her personal postpartum recovery plan, had gone to see a pelvic floor specialist.
Her team then required a letter of support from this specialist to clear her participation in Aupiki. As a police officer, she had good medical insurance that helped finance these appointments, but she doesn’t know if anyone else has been required to supply this documentation.
Smith worries about such expensive endorsements being another barrier to mothers returning to rugby.
Wolfgramm and Smith acknowledge how far their chosen sport has come and how much of this progress was as a result of the sacrifice of those who came before them. They see their experiences as mums in rugby as a continuation of that legacy, to leave the jersey better than they found it.
“Looking at this big mountain, you’re like, ‘okay, where do we start?’ And sometimes it’s just with little things,” say Smith, “Amīria doesn’t know now but I hope she can look back and be like wow, as a part of something that’s so special.”
Wolfgramm’s advice to those in the game wanting to make a difference for our rugby mums is simple: “Prompting that firs conversation really helps. You give them the choice first, then it’s up to them. But how cool was it that they asked?”
* Women’s rugby should feature prominently in tonight’s annual ASB Rugby Awards, broadcast live on Sky Sport and Prime TV at 8.30pm.