WHAT SHE SAID
8000 people were through the gates at Eden Park on Saturday, making it the largest audience on record in Aotearoa for a women’s rugby game, and countless more tuned in via Sky Sport and around the globe to witness the Super Rugby Exhibition match between the Blues and the Chiefs; but it’s what happened after the match finished that is much more impressive than any of these figures. This weekend might yet end up being the historic breakthrough moment for Women’s rugby, just not for any of the reasons people anticipated.
After the bright lights had faded, the camera crew had packed up and the players were on the bus home, the cold reality of this moment hit. It was a significant example of what can be done, and yet the uncertainty of the season ahead still looms large in the consciousness of both players and fans alike. These uncertainties had been largely blamed on COVID, though as more and more countries roll out vaccination programs and return to rugby play, the pandemic starts to become less relevant as a catch-all scapegoat. Uncertainty for female players in reality is nothing new.
We have always been promised that our moment of recognition is just around the corner, when the sponsor comes on board, when the men's ticket sales are up, when the other team gets themselves in order. It will be our time, soon. This started for me as soon as I started in the sport. At 13, I represented my hometown in the Hurricane Secondary Schools tournament. At the end of the tournament, they were to pick a tournament team who would then go on to play the other Super Rugby regions. And what a team that would be, with the likes of Selica Winiata and Kendra Cocksedge playing in my region! We worked hard, we waited, but sorry girls! Not this year, but next we will play the Blues. Did we say next year? We met the following, we haven’t quite figured out the logistics just yet. A paper team? No, we intend to play some serious matches, so long as budget permits. And so the conversation would loop until I aged out of that disappointment.
So it’s no wonder our players are struggling. Many of them have been stuck in this same pathway of promise and patchy delivery, if the delivery comes at all. And we’ve held up our end of the bargain, well and truly. We train harder now than ever before, sacrifice more to chase the end goal, to play to our potential. We do meal prep, early morning gym sessions, team training, extras for positional demands, full time work and the full time emotional labour of children and or running a household. We do media interviews, we read the scripts prepared for us, we do all we can to grow the game.
And we have been successful. The women's game is the only part of our sport that is growing. Little girls can now name their heroes, but not know their struggle, their sacrifice. We do not wish to have to share that part with them we want to shield those coming through. We continue with the hope that by the time they get there, these wounds are old scars from matches long ago. But it is not enough to simply hope for more, we have to be prepared to fight for it, to ask and keep asking, until those coming behind us no longer have to. And to do so we must find and raise our voice. It can be coded, like Les Elder’s “It just shows what we could create if we were resourced” or Poppy Cleall’s “...same opportunities to be the best they can.” or more direct like Chelsea Alley’s viral Instagram post and Poppy’s clarification on the same platform. It can be a collective call, like that we’ve seen from the Canadian 7s players, highlighting the toxic environment at their central programme. Each action causes a reaction and I am most interested in what that will be from our women’s rugby community. They’ve made the call, now is time for the response.
We’ve seen sparks of it already, first with #IAmEnough and then with #ICare, where people took to social media to voice their support of the women’s game, but the exciting part will be when these online campaigns transform into offline movements. Into collective action where we organize, plan and execute for change. Where we build a meaningful and independent infrastructure to advocate for us. None of this is new thinking, it is the path well tread by all those who have had to reclaim power from systems not set up to serve them. The answer we need is in the name of this sport, union. And to quote the old ballard, “Yes, it is bread we fight for but we fight for roses, too.”
Our sport must have the dignity of a liveable paycheque, but just as important is the respect. Rugby needs to love us back.
See more from Alice on Twitter @alicesoapbox