FEATURE: What New Zealand women's rugby deserves

By Jessica Tyson

It’s no secret that women's rugby in New Zealand is building up at a faster rate than men's rugby - but the pay disparity continues between genders.

Despite a cash injection from the government and a change of heart from  New Zealand Rugby, there are few women who can claim the sport as their main career.

Te Ao Moana reporter Jess Tyson spoke with players, past and present, about challenges they face and what changes they want to see made.

Alice Soper has played in Wellington women’s teams since she was 13 and is a staunch advocate for getting women’s rugby over the advantage line.

“That mental toughness that gives you that you can take those knocks and get back up - but the stuff off the field. I couldn't tell you who I would be if I hadn't played this game.”

But she says some people don’t think women should be playing the sport.  

“In a word, I think it's sexism. There's a whole heap of people who still think we shouldn't be there and that this is a game for men,  so why are women trying to do it.”

Alice Soper during haka. Photographer: Hayden Grifiths. Source: Instagram

Better opportunities 

Soper is not afraid to raise her voice and often calls out New Zealand Rugby if she thinks it's not making the best decision for female players.

“It’s bigger decisions and the way that we structure our competitions and the fact that we're seemingly fine with having only five games or something a year for our Farrah Palmer players. And that's the only stepping stone between clubs in New Zealand. How is that going to really develop the depth of talent?” she says.

“And if you're looking at the business case for rugby right now, women are the only part of the game that is growing. We had a 40 percent increase between 2016 and 2018 in players.”

Pay disparities

For reasons such as crowd numbers, television viewers and sponsorship deals, women's sport can often be the weakest link when it comes to company revenue.

It’s been reported that higher-profile All Blacks can earn as much as a million dollars a season. However, according to Rugby New Zealand, Black Ferns Sevens players earn a base salary of between $45,000 to $90,000 and Black Ferns get a base of only $20,000 to $55,000 per year.

Black Ferns captain Les Elder says only a handful of her teammates can focus solely on rugby “but for the majority of our girls, it's not at that stage yet.”

“Looking at the stage of our game, the men's game went professional around the 1970s, 1980s, where the woman's fifteens game is going through that semi-professional stage at the moment," she says. "Our women's seven players went through there a number of years ago. They are in a position where they can live a sustainable life.

“For the 15s girls I would say a handful of us that could probably focus solely on rugby but, for the majority of our girls, it's not at that stage yet. I think we're getting well supported. I definitely believe there is still room to grow.”

Black Ferns. Source: NZ Rugby, Getty Images

High-performance sport and starting a family

As professional female players are starting to get more exposure, other challenges they face are coming to light, like taking time out of the sport to start a family.

Elder had her first child in May last year. She had a caesarean section birth and returned to play in the Farrah Palmer Cup just three months later.

“That presented physical issues that I had to go through. Before having my girl and returning to rugby, I'd say a sevens camp and Fiji was the hardest thing I've ever done but having my daughter and then returning to top-level rugby is hands down the toughest thing I've ever done.”

Les Elder believes all women playing high-performance sports can start a family and still play sport. Source: File

She says playing high-performance rugby with a young baby presents different challenges from those a man would face.

“I was operating on four hours sleep a night, having to get up in the morning and go to training, training twice a day. It just never stopped.”

But Elder hopes sharing her experience will help other high-performance sports players who believe they can start a family and still play sport.

“It makes me wonder how many of our past female rugby players have had to stop because they started having a family. I don't think we should have to do that. We see mums achieve massive things. Look at Dame Val (Adams), she's just got a bronze medal at her fourth Olympics after having two kids. So if you can see it, you can believe it.”

Les Edler and her baby daughter. Source: File

'People don't want to watch' wrong

Taylah Johnson has seen women’s rugby through a unique lens as a Sky Sport presenter, commentator and former player. She’s vocal with her views about equality in the sport and wants more investment to go into the women’s game.

“We've gone leaps and bounds currently with televising all the games, having professional contracts for the Black Ferns in the past few years, but there's still so much more that needs to be done," she says.

“There are provincial unions where the girls can't use the men's gym and things like that. There needs to be a collaborative, attitude towards men's and women's rugby.”

Taylah Johnson has seen women’s rugby through a unique lens as a Sky Sport presenter, commentator. Source: Instagram

Johnson says the reason sponsors and investors are less interested in the women’s game is because of a preconceived notion that people don't want to watch women's rugby.

“But if you look at the crowds on a Farrah Palmer Cup game, or even just club rugby, there are so many people out there supporting. These women have wider connections in the community because their mothers, their sisters, their colleagues come to watch them play.”

Johnson says if sponsors actually sat down and spoke to the women or gave them a platform, they’d be really amazed.

“Les Elder has gone through so much adversity but people don't really know her story because she doesn't really get given the same amount of coverage as say, someone in the men's team.”

Louisa Wall was part of the first  Black Ferns side to win the Women’s World Cup in 1998. Source: File

More women needed in higher positions

Former Black Fern and current Labour list MP Louisa Wall is another world champion and was part of the first  Black Ferns side to win the Women’s World Cup in 1998. 

She says she started playing at the age of five but back then women were prohibited from playing.

“Then as I progressed, through the ranks so to speak, it became a lot more acceptable.”

When she played for the Black Ferns most of the players were also working, were mothers or studying.

“So for us to go through the process of being selected while living an ordinary life, that ordinary life was how we survived because we didn't get any money for preparing to play or representing our country.”

Louisa Wall helped achieve marriage equality in Aotearoa in 2013. Source: File

One of the proudest moments in her political career was helping achieve marriage equality in Aotearoa in 2013.  She’s recently worked with New Zealand Rugby on sexism, racism and homophobia, and campaigned for women to be represented on its board.  So far there are two; Jennifer Kerr and Dr Farah Palmer alongside six men.

Wall says having Palmer on the board is something to be proud of "because she is a Māori woman obviously, who captained our Black Ferns for so many years.”

However, since Palmer is also on the Māori Rugby Board, she’s not there exclusively for women, Wall says.

“She's there as the Māori representative, who happens to be a woman. The government has set not an aspiration but a requirement of 40 percent of our national sporting organisations, having women on their boards. And I think that's becoming less and less palpable for the rugby union not to have more women on the board given the quality of women governors we have in our country," Wall says.

"You can't say that women are not educated and understand rugby. That won't wash anymore."

Les Elder captained the Chiefs side in the first women’s match between Super rugby clubs last year. Source: NZ Rugby, Getty Images

A better future

In 2020 women’s rugby did reach a milestone with the first women’s match between Super rugby Clubs, the Blues and the Chiefs.

Another breakthrough will be next year when New Zealand hosts the Women’s Rugby World Cup. Elder has been chosen to captain the Black Ferns.

“We're really excited to be able to play a world cup on our home soil," she says. "It's a special moment, a rare occasion, and it's the first of its kind. So the first time we've had a world women's world cup here, we're really excited."

But she won’t give up the fight.

“We're not standing here saying 'Why do they get this when we don't get that?' It's more of 'Take a punt, back us, give us a go, take a few risks. I'm sure you won't regret it. This in a world where being the first to make the move and being innovative and in these new spaces is really credited. That would be a message I'd send out to people who are sitting on the fence of whether they want to back women's sports.”