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A Gender Revolution Is Brewing in New Zealand Rugby

WELLINGTON, New Zealand — Les Elder played her first game of rugby when she was 8. The boys’ team in the rural New Zealand town where she lived, Taumarunui, was short a player, and Elder had just come off the netball court. As she played, something clicked. “I just loved the physicality and challenge of the game,” she said.

For years, she stole moments on the field until, at age 14, she decided she would join her school’s team. But the school had never had a girl play. Before games, while her teammates crowded the changing rooms, she got dressed, in hand-me-down gear, behind nearby trees or in her parents’ car. After a few years, her coach pulled her aside to tell her she wouldn’t be invited back for the next season.

The school, she was told, did not know how it would run overnight training camps if Elder was going to be there. Rather than seek a solution, it was easier to leave her out. The disappointment put her off rugby for years.

“The teachers and coaches didn’t know how to handle that because it was new to them,” said Elder, who was drawn back to the sport as an adult and is now the captain of New Zealand’s Black Ferns, the women’s rugby union world champions. “No girl should have to go through that.”

Les Elder quit rugby in her teens because she felt it had no place for her.Credit…Eric Alonso/Getty Images

For decades, rugby has occupied an almost religious position in New Zealand. That is particularly true for men, who are raised to play, watch and obsess over the game. According to Alice Soper, a prominent rugby analyst and player, “rugby holds a core place in male identity in New Zealand.”

But a gender revolution is brewing. For years, the number of New Zealand men playing rugby has been declining, with women fast replacing them. Now, one in five rugby players in the country are women. In 2022, for the first time, there will be a professional domestic tournament for women’s fifteens rugby. In October, the country will host the women’s World Cup.

Yet even as women’s rugby enjoys unprecedented prominence, old rugby stereotypes have proved hard to eliminate. On International Women’s Day, the All Blacks — New Zealand’s famed men’s rugby team — grabbed headlines when they tweeted that they were: “Forever grateful to the women in our lives that allow us to play the game we love. Partners, mothers, daughters, doctors, physios, referees, administrators and fans.” A notable omission: any mention of the defending world champion Black Ferns.

To many, it was a reminder of the persistence of stereotypes and structural challenges that have hampered the women’s game. “It’s not just old-fashioned racism and sexism,” Soper said. “Men have built rugby into their core identity. What does it mean if women are occupying that space?” The team later apologized, but the damage was done.

Barriers to women who want to play rugby start with the basics.

“You’re going to be wearing men’s clothes, because there’s very few providers who actually make female kit,” Soper said. In clubs across the country, she added, “the changing rooms are still full of urinals, the honor boards are still full of blokes’ names.

“All of those say, ‘This is not your space’. Not to mention that some of the guys at the bar are happy to tell you that, too.”

New Zealand Rugby has introduced Aupiki: a professional tournament between four regional teams that has significantly increased the number of women paid to play rugby.Credit…Kerry Marshall/Getty Images

Those challenges persist at the sport’s highest levels. In 2018, Sports New Zealand — the government entity that oversees the country’s sports system — required the governing boards of every representative sports body to be at least 40 percent women. The only major body not to achieve that target is New Zealand Rugby, which has only two women on its nine-member board.

Advocates for equality say this has allowed New Zealand Rugby to take a dismissive attitude toward the women’s game. “Rugby is still run by older white chaps, when this game is played by women, by Maori, by Pasifika,” Soper said. “We’re not represented in the seats of power.” Women, as result, get less investment, fewer resources and far less news media coverage.

Worryingly for a country that takes pride in its reputation as a rugby leader, that neglect has undermined New Zealand’s dominance in international competitions.

For decades, the Black Ferns maintained a winning percentage in international test matches of almost 90 percent. The team has won five of the last six World Cups. But the absence until recently of a high-quality professional women’s league in New Zealand prevented Black Ferns players from training and testing themselves as regularly as their overseas rivals, who are fast emerging as credible challengers.

Aupiki will have only three rounds and a final. The equivalent men’s competition has more than 90 matches.Credit…Michael Bradley/Getty Images

“We saw that last year,” said Farah Palmer, a former Black Ferns captain who now serves as the vice chair of New Zealand Rugby, “with the Black Ferns struggling against Northern Hemisphere teams who have way more opportunities to play their close neighbors.”

Underinvestment has also prompted fears that New Zealand is losing talented players who cannot take significant unpaid leave while trying to break into top-tier competition. “People are generally unpaid until they crack into the Black Ferns,” Soper said. “As an athlete, how do you take that risk, put your life on hold and bet on yourself before your country will back you?”

Things have begun to change. New Zealand Rugby is devoting significantly more money to women’s rugby than it did previously. And this year, it introduced Aupiki: a professional tournament for four regional teams that has significantly increased the number of women paid to play rugby and games they can play.

But because of challenges related to the coronavirus pandemic and a fear that there weren’t enough players of sufficient quality to sustain a full tournament, Aupiki will have only three rounds and a final matching the two best teams. The equivalent men’s competition has more than 90 matches.

And while more women are being paid to play, many of their coaches and support staff are not. “It’s awesome that our top-tier athletes are being paid professionally at the moment,” Elder said, “but unless they have a meaningful structure and people who are resourced to support them, there’s still more work to do.”

FMG Stadium Waikato in Hamilton, New Zealand, has hosted the Aupiki matches.Credit…Michael Bradley/Getty Images

Until issues of pay and opportunity are addressed, however, the burden falls on women to champion the game.

“You talk to most women’s rugby players and they understand that their job is not just to play the game, but to promote the game, coach the game, be a full-time hype person for the game,” Soper said. “It would be really easy if all you had to do was enjoy rugby to play rugby.”

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