Sitting on the borders of three well established provinces, Wairarapa is the scrappy little sister of the Hurricanes Region.
Home to one time Wellington club champions, Eketāhuna, Wairarapa also lays claim to Black Fern #121 and former international referee, Rebecca Mahoney, as well as Black Fern #160 and Hurricanes Poua midfielder, Shakira Baker.
The region has had an on-again, off-again relationship with women’s rugby but a new club has emerged, determined this time to make things work.
Wairarapa Wāhine Toa is a women’s-only rugby club playing this season in the Manawatū competition. Having incorporated earlier this month, they have established themselves as the first step for the women of Wairarapa into Heartland rugby.
“People going straight into that rep scene or environment could throw you off,” says Annemieke van Vliet, a local PE teacher, Farah Palmer Cup (FPC) player and foundation member of the new club.
“I know a lot of our girls didn’t want to do Heartland just because they felt it was too serious an environment. So making an accessible club scene which is not affiliated with existing clubs, makes it open and easier for people to approach.”
While opportunities for women to play in the Wairarapa have ebbed and flowed, club loyalty is a family affair.
“For a lot of them it was the old tribalism, you know,” explains Scott Collins, Wairarapa Wāhine Toa head coach. “I can’t play for that club or can’t wear those jerseys. It wasn’t from them. More, you know, from husbands or dads.”
Starting afresh under a new club banner “just removes all the political bullshit” as Collins tells it. Offers were made by existing clubs to affiliate but appeared to be motivated more by opportunities to access funds for facility upgrades than a wish to grow the game.
Instead, this blank slate is providing the women involved a chance to create a history all of their own. In building their new club, they are also building their community.
“At the start, they’re like, ‘We should get this, we should get that’. But I said it’s more of a hand-up situation, not hand out.” reflects van Vliet. “And now they’re more getting their ideas out, ‘Oh, we could do this.’ Because you know, that’s what will attract them. It’s not like we should have this because then they’ll come, it’s the teamwork, you know? Everything that everyone’s doing, that’s getting people together.”
This collaboration has seen a team member’s sister design a logo, which has in turn influenced their jerseys. The culture being built by the team is reflective of its members. A haka and waiata are being introduced and there’s discussion of lavalava being incorporated into after-match attire.
“People are getting pissy because ‘the girls are getting all these opportunities’, and it’s like, well not really,” Wāhine Toa coach Scott Collins.
Collins is the man in the middle and having set these plans in motion, is feeling validated in the way things have “snowballed”.
“Now, I’ve been open with a few of the players that it’s a bit weird being a male in the female space, trying to lead them forward with it,” Collins admits. “We just try to give as much of it back to them to lead.”
This new club is also allowing those connected to women’s rugby history a chance to give back. The team were approached by Carrie McKenzie, a former Wellington Pride player, who featured in the curtainraiser match for the first Hurricanes Super Rugby game played in Palmerston North back in 1996.
McKenzie, who played most of her career in hand-me-down kit, was only too happy to sponsor this women’s team. Her role at the local polytechnic provided the perfect opportunity.
“Their campuses for this happened to be in Masterton, Palmy and Whanganui and that’s obviously where our competition is so they thought it’s a no-brainer for them. They knew about a few of our players that are studying at the moment. So that’s how the scholarship part came round,” says Collins.
The ‘knock-on effects’ of their partnerships are not only limited to the team’s balance sheet. Wairarapa Wāhine Toa were offered the chance to base themselves at the historic Solway Showgrounds and as a result, this space has been reclassified as a multi-sport facility. This meant their groundskeeper can now study for his turf management qualifications.
All of this is happening in the wake of World Cup momentum for women and girls in rugby. With interest at an all-time high, Collins notes they are seeing girls outnumber boys in local competitions.
At their last ‘Quick-Rip’ tournament, a non-contact rugby taster, they had 12 girls teams registered and only five boys sides. Attempts by a local club to field an all girl’s side were successful but left the boys a few players short of a team.
It’s not just in the junior grades, the local Gladstone Men’s team have combined with the Wairarapa Wāhine Toa to train on a Monday night.
“Originally, it was like we will share a field and run some scenarios,” says Collins. “But then their numbers started waning and it was like, ‘Can we join your training? And when we do, you tell us what you want us to do.’”
This reorientation of our national game’s participants has left some feeling lost.
“People are getting pissy because ‘the girls are getting all these opportunities’, and it’s like, well not really. They’re just getting the same thing as you, it’s just that this thing is just for them,” explains Collins.
Wairarapa Wāhine Toa are determined to seize this moment and contribute to a wider vision for the game.
“It’s not just about building the game, it’s that here there’s just no infrastructure,” Collins says.
This is the reason Collins put forward van Vliet and other members of the club to attend New Zealand Rugby’s Ako Wāhine leadership programme. Wairarapa Wāhine Toa don’t just want to develop players, they want to develop leaders. These leaders will then step up to get women’s rugby over the advantage line.
“All the teams come together for the same reason, women just want to play rugby without having to drive somewhere else to do it,” says Collins.
That’s the end goal and Wairarapa Wāhine Toa are the starting point.
From here they want to replicate the same path tread by those in Waikato, Counties Manukau, Northland and the Whanganui club scenes. Each area tells the story leaning on their neighbours before they grew enough talent to play in their own backyard.
Once Wairarapa have done the same, the Wāhine Toa will continue their development role, offering an intermediate step for those wanting to pursue higher honours. It’ll be a long journey but the all important first step has now been taken.
“You’ve just got to start it and that will flow once you get it going,” van Vliet smiles.