Rugby in New Zealand: A door to women’s participation
Aotearoa New Zealand is a nation historically dominated by rugby union. The national sport consumes column inches of national newspapers and takes up hours of radio and television time in the small multi-island nation. In New Zealand, and in the greater rugby world, the All Blacks – the name of the men’s international side – are the main attraction. Historically they play swashbuckling rugby and were the first national side to win the Rugby World Cup three times. It is not unfair to say that the country’s mood ebbs and flows with the results of the All Blacks. Aotearoa New Zealand’s two main exports are the Lord of the Rings movie franchise, and its warrior sportsmen donning the famous black jersey with the silver fern crest.
Many sports fans, regardless of their sport of choice, will likely have heard the notion, “The All Blacks are the winningest team in all of team sports.” Unfortunately, it is not accurate. Their winning percentage of nearly 80% over their 112 years in existence is remarkable, and should be lauded, but it isn’t the best. The All Blacks’ sisters, the New Zealand Black Ferns – the women’s national side - are the winningest team in the world, with a win percentage of nearly 90%.
In 2022, after a year of postponement, Aotearoa New Zealand hosted the Women’s Rugby World Cup. The sporting spectacle took place over one month, between 8 October and 12 November, with three venues being used. The World Cup was a great success with over 150,000 fans attending the 26 matches. The tournament also produced one of the greatest test matches in rugby history, with the Black Ferns knocking off the tournament favorites England en route to a historic sixth World Cup title. More importantly, the sporting event captured the attention of the nation as symbolized by the record-setting crowd of 42,579 fans in attendance for the final.
In a sport so dominated by physicality and brawn, it is no surprise that the emphasis has traditionally been placed on men’s participation. But the Women’s Rugby World Cup showed that more is possible. At a time when rugby participation numbers are declining – Statista shows 133,600 players participating in England in 2021 compared to 259,600 in 2016 – there is proof to show that opening the game up to women is the true opportunity to grow the game.
Equal opportunity in rugby has long been an issue. The men’s game professionalized in the 1990s, but it was not until 2018 that some of the Black Ferns received semi-professional contracts. In the run-up to their hosting of the World Cup, the Black Ferns were heavily criticized for poor performances, losing an unprecedented four times in a row, and receiving their heaviest ever losses at the hands of tournament favorites England. Preparation time had been limited and funding paled in comparison to the All Blacks.
The World Cup win, the swashbuckling style of rugby played and the impression players made on young boys and girls has drawn great praise. Crowd favorite, Ruby Tui, became a national hero during the tournament and after lifting the trophy she inspired an a cappella rendition of Tūtira mai ngā iwi, a classic Maori song that New Zealanders learn in primary school. The Black Ferns and the tournament at large surpassed all expectations and show why sports, like rugby should encourage female participation.
By showing what is possible during this tournament a new generation of female players has been inspired to take up the egg-shaped ball. New Zealand Rugby predicts a 40% increase in women’s rugby participation compared to 2022. That means they expect over 35,000 women and girls to play rugby in 2023. With the new female Super Rugby Aupiki competition underway, and funding increasing for women’s rugby, the outlook for female participation in New Zealand looks strong. Let us hope that this momentum can be built upon, and that this finally puts the nail in the coffin of the idea that there is no appetite for female sports.
As female participation in sports grows, so does the sport itself. Rugby is just one example of sports becoming more democratic and inclusive through the success of a major tournament. Let us keep an eye on the horizon as female rugby grows and let us hope that the upcoming FIFA Women’s World Cup can have a similar effect in New Zealand and Australia this summer.
About the author
Vitas Carosella is a young professional with expertise in sports diplomacy and development. He loves football and rugby and works on projects in sports sustainability. You can find him on LinkedIn here.