Women’s rugby in New Zealand has never been in better health. The 15s senior team are reigning Women’s Rugby World Cup champions while the sevens have won the first two stages of the 2018-19 World Rugby Women’s Sevens Series and are also current World Cup champions.
By John Portch
The sport has long been popular across the nation but in recent years New Zealand Rugby [NZR] have been taking steps to ensure greater ease of access for girls, some of whom will ultimately grow up to wear the much cherished Black Ferns jersey.
Leading the charge on that front is Cate Sexton, Head of Women’s Rugby Development at the NZR. “Our new strategy was implemented in 2015 and we have certainly accelerated opportunities for girls and women to play,” she tells the Leaders Performance Institute. “In my role I oversee the development from the top to the bottom of the game and we benefit from having people placed around the country, working with the provincial unions, and waking up every day thinking about how we create opportunities for women to get involved in rugby.” Here Sexton delves into some of the strategies that she and the NZR hope will ensure a bright future for the Black Ferns.
What were some of those new strategies implemented in 2015?
CS: In 2015 we were three years out from a World Cup and the Black Ferns have always been reasonably successful on the world stage, so we were confident as long as we kept creating opportunities for the squad to prepare for the World Cup that we could make progress. We have a very good domestic competition; with the new strategy it was very important to make sure we had good support around those performance plans; the coaching etc. and so there was more investment there. The other part was around the community game; we see our players in the black jersey as role models and ambassadors for the game; and they’re fantastic in that role. At the same time, having pinnacle events such as the World Cup can really showcase the quality of our players and we can use those pinnacle events and put those players on a pedestal for others to see them. It gives girls confidence that this could be them one day.
If a girl wants to play rugby in New Zealand will she have access to facilities and a coach?
CS: Absolutely. We play a lot of our under-13s rugby through our club rugby and there’s always access to that. A lot of secondary school sport is played through our schools; we’re looking at new initiatives and it always comes down to the people who are involved. Then once they leave school they go through the clubs again, so we have a strong club structure within New Zealand that’s a welcoming place for women, who feel as if they’re getting just as much value out of it as a male would.
What lessons have you learnt over the past two or three years?
CS: We’re certainly not there yet! I think most people in New Zealand recognise that. Things take time; that’s one thing, to be a little bit patient. We have to continue asking questions of our women in rugby or women who want to play rugby or sport; what is it they’re after. We have to be agile with how we create opportunities for them to play because time at any one tour at the moment is limited and is probably the scarcest resource, how do we make it a really cool experience if they get involved in rugby. I think you cannot underestimate the power of our ambassadors, our women in the black jersey, there’s a massive pool and a lovely rippling effect into our community game; the more we can get those players into our communities. It’s massive and really invaluable.
What age groups do you cater for?
CS: Any child in New Zealand comes to rugby at five, or under-five, so right up until under-13s grade they play co-ed; so you play girls and boys, then you start playing non-contact and then you go into the contact version. We’re probably branching out now to going through a non-contact version all the way through as well. This we start really young, then, at secondary school, this is offered a little bit more restrictively as not every school offers it; so we look at different ways of doing that. Then, again, to the club system once they leave school.
It seems like a natural step.
CS: Yeah, my children are all playing junior rugby, for example. Obviously there will be more boys but as they come through we’ll have more girls playing; we have a non-contact version called ‘Rippa Rugby’ that’s great fun. We’re doing more and more girls-only contact grades as well. Kids just like playing with their mates and they just migrate to where their mates are really. It’s pretty cool.
At what age do you witness players taking ownership?
CS: They’re all different but in terms of talent identification into our performance system rather than just playing, it would be at under-18s; so that’s 17 and 18-year-olds; we try not to interfere too much through their secondary schools. But certainly in the men’s game they talent ID into the performance space at under-16s. So, in terms of players taking ownership, it’s late teens really but at school they have really good structured programmes. The women’s programmes are a work in progress; very structured, so they’re coming out with several years of performance training under their belt coming out of high school. That’s the same with rowing and other elite sports, but you certainly are competing in the performance space for talented athletes.
What age group teams do you have?
CS: In the sevens game we have under-18s and under-20s but it’s all about building into the Olympics. In the 15s, we don’t have a New Zealand under age team at this stage; we are just looking at our talent identification at under-20s players through secondary school players through our domestic senior competitions; identifying those and looking at development type camps or programmes.
What questions do you and your colleagues ask each other?
CS: In the community game it’ll be things like how do we ensure we’ve got quality coaching with all of our girls so that they have a really good experience? We work very closely with our coach development team; if we want our numbers to grow how do we get more women into coaching rugby? It’s been a very male-dominated sport and we’re looking to target ex-players who have really good knowledge in rugby and would like to coach; it’s the same with refereeing. We’ve got great coaching and referee development courses but we’re not getting enough females to sign up so how do we create a comfortable environment for them to come on training courses? There’s a lot of those sort of questions so there’s a directive from the NZR Board to grow numbers; we have to work hard and fast to make sure our infrastructure can cater for the numbers.
What are some of the challenges presented by a semi-professional rugby environment?
CS: Our sevens players are paid full-time. Our Black Ferns are contracted as semi-professionals and they are required to do so many hours training and playing but many also hold down full-time jobs or whatever. There’s always challenges with that and the ability to ensure there’s no burnout, to ensure they’re recovering well enough, and to ensure they’ve got balance in their life and around their work, and obviously their rugby, and them having a life outside of those. Those are the challenges and we have people within each of the regional hubs that they support them with that, but everyone’s a little bit different because some are studying, some are working, some are on shift work, so it’s a matter of making sure that the programs are very individualised for that person.
Why has this momentum come now?
CS: I get asked this a lot and I think we’ve placed a big emphasis on letting people know. I’m very proud that a lot of our rugby community know our players by name; they see them and say ‘that’s Portia Woodman’ or ‘that’s Kendra Cocksedge’ or that’s ‘Fiao’o Fa’amausili’ – people see them and so they know these players by name and I think that’s a big part. They’ve won the World Cup before and we haven’t had the same momentum so I think it’s about a whole change of women in sport in general. The media are picking up a lot of stories, more so than they ever have. The stories have always been there but they’ve decided to pick them up; it’s quite topical, women in sport. They’re trying to put more on TV so it’s not just men’s sport. There’s more female commentators and I think there’s been this whole momentum shift; so it’s a timing thing. Having our Black Ferns in the community, having older, well-established rugby people just coming up and shaking our Black Ferns hands and congratulating them and talking rugby. All those things have changed, so I think it’s a bit of everything put together that’s made a difference. It’s not just rugby, there’s a lot talked about in football, cricket and netball. You’ve got to let people know and social media is fantastic for our Black Ferns; women love social media so we use that to our advantage. We’re really proud of where we’ve come from but we still have a heck of a load of work to do, but we’re heading in the right direction, which is a good thing.
Read how Black Ferns Head Coach Glenn Moore prepared his team to reclaim the World Cup here.
And learn from Black Ferns Strength & Conditioning Coach Jamie Tout about his work preparing the team for their return to the summit here.