Usually playing two internationals in two rival codes in the same city on the same day would spell disaster for one – if not both – teams.
Especially when both the Black Ferns and the Silver Ferns, the most dominant female sports teams in the country, are competing for fan love and new players.
Especially when one team are on a meteoric rise after a World Cup victory that set a nation alight, while the other are struggling to get back on their feet after the worst World Cup finish in their long and rich history.
Yet on a stormy spring Saturday in Kirikiriroa, Hamilton, the Blacks Ferns and the Silver Ferns proved they can exist symbiotically, both pulling in crowds and taking home the silverware.
And LockerRoom set out to prove you can be fans at two tests on either side of the Waikato River – even when there’s only half an hour between the final hooter at one match, and the first centre pass at the other.
During the week, the Silver Ferns and the Black Ferns sat down and had dinner together. It was a rare interaction between the two teams – it’s not often they’re in camp at the same time in the same city.
But it was a beneficial encounter. Silver Ferns captain Ameliaranne Ekenasio says her team were privileged to be able to pick the Black Ferns’ brains.
“Having dinner with them was so special because it’s just an ability to connect, to ask questions, what do they do, how do they operate,” she says.
Ekenasio believes supporting one team doesn’t take away from the other, and there’s room for Kiwi fans to back multiple women’s sports teams.
“The growth in the women’s games across multiple sports is massive,” she says. “We love supporting them as well, we love the support that we get from them.
“We’re loving the amount of growth that’s happening in women’s sport across New Zealand…we just want to push it even more.”
Unfortunately, there wasn’t enough time between the two matches on Saturday for the teams to support each other from the sidelines. But the Black Ferns, who played first, watched the Silver Ferns on screens in their changing room beneath the FMG Stadium Waikato.
Netball are keenly aware they’re under unprecedented pressure to appeal to young women and girls – both as spectators and as players. For the past century, netball has been the No.1 sport in the country for females – no other code has come close, until the last two years.
The three recent World Cups played in Aotearoa – cricket, rugby and football – achieved what they intended: to boost the profile of their sports, particularly with young women. Both cricket and rugby have reported impressive growth in their female player numbers, and with the massive interest in the FIFA World Cup, football can expect a groundswell too.
While it must impact the number of new netball registrations, there were girls in the O’Reilly Cup crowd who played both rugby and netball. And probably other sports too.
Charmaine Smith kisses daughter Amīria after her long-awaited return to international rugby on Saturday.
Often the standard for girls to look up to, simply from their presence in the media and accessibility, the Silver Ferns have built 96,000 followers on Instagram and 159,000 Facebook fans.
The Black Ferns have really stepped up their social media presence in the past year, and now have 180,000 on Instagram and 215,000 on Facebook, with individual players also showing their reach (Ruby Tui, who didn’t play on Saturday but was still a fan favourite at the ground, has 133,000 Instagram followers).
They also have an increased presence in mainstream media now, and had more press attend the Black Ferns match than were at the Silver Ferns’.
Both games drew impressive crowds, especially when the weather was decidedly unpredictable – 10,7000 turned up for the rugby (the biggest home crowd for a Black Ferns game outside the world record World Cup numbers), and it was a sell-out of the Globox Arena – around 4000 – for the netball, even though the Ferns were up against an England side devoid of their World Cup stars.
Ticket prices for the two events weren’t too steep – kids from $5 and adults from $15 at the rugby; kids from $15 and adults from $30 at the netball, who also had a $72 family pass. The Silver Ferns, of course, are a more established brand – it’s not that long ago it was free to watch a women’s rugby international in New Zealand.
It wasn’t a simple task for fans to zip from one game to the other on Saturday. With the help of one son and one mum, we managed to leave the rugby right on the final siren – just as Black Ferns debutant Martha Mataele dived in for her first international try – and arrive at the netball just in time to hear the national anthems sung.
It wasn’t quite The Italian Job’s epic car chase through the streets of Turin, but there was vehicle swapping, dodging road closures and thumping hearts.
It was worth the stress, to witness the Black Ferns play at home again and win their 16th test match on the trot, and the new-look Silver Ferns finally finding their connections on court to block out their first-test loss and get their hands back on the Taini Jamison Trophy.
Black Ferns beat the Wallaroos, 43-3
If you’d left the O’Reilly Cup test at halftime, you would still have been treated to a feast of Black Ferns scoring (and most of the crowd stuck around long after the trophy was presented).
In the team’s first home match since last year’s World Cup victory, they scored almost like clockwork every 10 minutes – the first by crowd favourite prop Krystal Murray and two tries by Katelyn Vahaakolo (who played mostly netball in her teens, then became a Kiwi Fern and is quickly becoming a force of nature on the left wing for the Black Ferns).
By halftime, New Zealand were virtually untouchable, up 31-0; World Cup veterans Kennedy Simon, Liana Mikaele Tu’u, Sylvia Brunt and Amy du Plessis creating a ton of play. Fullback Patricia Maliepo made a strong comeback, too, in her first game since 2021.
The second half was comparatively ho-hum. A hardened Australian defence and Black Ferns’ handling errors meant the home team didn’t score again until the final five minutes – after Wallaroos prop Bridie O’Gorman was sent off for head-on-head contact with returning Ferns’ lock Charmaine Smith.
Rookies Lucy Jenkins and Mataele both crossed the line to make the score better reflect the Black Ferns’ perpetual dominance over Australia – who’ve never held the O’Reilly Trophy in 14 contests.
The victory capped off an emotional week for the Black Ferns, who’d received their playing jerseys from 23 former internationals (among the 75 who attended the first Black Ferns reunion on Friday night).
To feel the love of thousands of girls and boys in the crowd – twirling poi, holding up signs like Up the Wāhine, and sprinting onto the field afterwards to grab autographs and selfies – made Black Ferns co-captain Ruahei Demant proud.
“The squad are not just role models for little girls, but young boys, and you saw that,” Demant said. “Regardless of who wears this jersey, there’s a really strong connection back to our roots and the community.
“It’s so rewarding that a lot of sacrifices past players have made, the fruits of those are starting to be seen.”
They get three more chances this season to win more Kiwi hearts, with the inaugural WXV1 played here against France in Wellington, Wales in Dunedin and England in Auckland over the next month.
Silver Ferns beat England Roses, 59-52
The Silver Ferns had a lot on the line in their final match of the three-test Taini Jamison series. Not only did they need to save face, after a string of losses to end up fourth at the World Cup, but it was also the first series held since the passing of Jamison, a former Silver Ferns coach.
In front of a vocal Hamilton crowd, it was a see-saw battle, with the Ferns up by just two goals with one quarter left.
But a surge in the final quarter (18-6) saw the Ferns win the game and the series; MVP Amelia Walmsley shooting 40 from 44 in just her second test in the black dress.
“For lots of reasons, it was a really important one for us,” captain Ekenasio said. “Not just for the way that we want to represent ourselves – for the dress. We knew it was a really big one for Taini as well. That was really front of mind for us as well, to make sure that we honour her and her memory.”
Coach Dame Noeline Taurua once again made no changes to her starting seven, all players on court for the full 60 minutes for two games in a row.
Connections were flowing – feeders confident to throw the ball in, defenders quick to loose ball, and midcourters more available and providing options.
It was a good sign for the Silver Ferns, who now have less than two weeks until they face a tougher opponent – the Australian Diamonds as part of the four-test Constellation Cup.
Their first two games against the world champions will be played across the ditch, with the final two at home. Taurua and the team are hoping injured shooter Grace Nweke will be fit and return for at least the games on home soil. But with Walmsley standing up at goal shoot, the Ferns may be spoilt for choice.