Remedy for Black Ferns culture lies with whakaaro Māori - NZ Māori Board

By James Perry

The damming review of the Black Ferns culture and environment has been welcomed by NZ Māori Rugby board member Cushla Tangaere-Manuel.

Tangaere-Manuel, who until recently held the role of chief executive of Ngāti Porou East Coast Rugby says it’s positive that Tikanga Māori was acknowledged that enhance the environment within the environment, but believes the solution lies in recognising the multi-cultural makeup of the national game.

“While we [Māori] are 50% of the Black Ferns, we've got our Pacific relations and our tauiwi as well.”

The review was triggered by hooker Te Kura Ngata-Aerengamate posting to social media in 2021, exposing the mental and spiritual toll she had suffered on tour. She tabled allegations of inappropriate comments and language by coach Glenn Moore.

The review, carried out by Phillipa Muir, Tammi Wilson Uluinayau, Eleanor Butterworth, Luke Crawford, Saveatama Eroni Clarke and Gilbert Enoka, interviewed more than 50 players, management and other people involved recently with the team.

The report identified major shortcomings within the Black Ferns environment, including a lack of consistent high-performance “vision, practices or mindest” and said a long-term, sustainable, high performance and inclusive culture was required across players and management.

New Zealand Rugby chief executive Mark Robinson has acknowledged the body needs to do better, and admits NZR got a lot wrong when fast-tracking the professional era of women's rugby.

“We acknowledge we’ve done some very good things over many years. However, there is no doubt as we move into professionalism, the pace of change and wanting to grow into a more fulltime environment, there have been things we haven’t done as well as we could have. We have got to do better,” he said.

A similar review into respect and responsibility led to enormous changes across the men’s game in 2017. Tangaere-Manuel is hopeful this report will also lead to changes that better reflect New Zealand Rugby's identity. Something the Māori Board began at the end of 2021 with the development of its strategy for Māori rugby.

In her role as the chief executive of NPEC, Tangaere-Manuel participated in many advisory panels across the game, including the development of the women's Super Rugby Aupiki competition. She says there was plenty of feedback about the high-performance environment and how that needs to be enhanced for Māori and Pasifika especially.

Tikanga Māori good for NZR

“A lot of our pou are about how that can enhance environments. Hauoratanga was one of our strategic areas.

“I’m a believer that tikanga Māori and our pou in the Māori strategy are not only great for Māori but they’re good for NZR as a whole."

She says the immediate positive for the players and management of the Black Ferns, only a matter of months out from hosting the Rugby World Cup, is the ability to raise concerns safely and confidently.

“If they genuinely feel hurt, they can now work on the healing, they can start looking forward and just reevaluate as whānau kōtahi. It was heartening to hear that is what they wanted.

“They’re world-class performers but that’s simply not their focus. Whānautanga, that union as a whole team is important to them. And I really do think Luke Crawford will add value.”

Crawford is NZR’s Māori cultural advisor, a role that includes creating Māori cultural competency across the organisation.

Tangaere-Manuel acknowledged those people coming forward to bring the issues to light, as well as NZR committing to more reviews.

“Now that they’ve committed to a women's pathway review, I think a lot of people are going to keep an eye across it and contribute to that review.

 “We as the NZ Māori Rugby board certainly do.”