On Friday, the eve of New Zealand’s first home Women’s Rugby World Cup, the last thousand tickets were evaporating. Bars around Eden Park began checking their drink stocks. Fans tried on their black-striped jerseys – the team’s first line of official apparel, finally developed last year.
“The girls have been talking, walking down the streets, and people have been saying ‘there’s the Black Ferns’,” says Kendra Cocksedge, the team’s most-capped player. “I’m getting messages from people I went to primary school with … they’re sending photos with the jersey.”
The explosion of fandom has also come with a dose of anxiety. Sarah Hirini, who has slipped straight back into the 15s squad after winning silver at this month’s Sevens World Cup, is “getting goosebumps”. “For it to be close to 40,000 is crazy,” she said in a Friday radio interview.
Even Cocksedge, a veteran of three World Cups including New Zealand’s triumphant 2017 campaign, has never experienced that level of exposure. “What [does] it sound like – how are we going to hear each other on the field?”
These are a new set of concerns, borne of success, as women’s rugby experiences a national and international boom. In a year when women’s matches have attracted record crowds overseas, the Black Ferns will kick off their first ever home World Cup on Saturday to a sold-out Eden Park stadium. Sales are expected to surpass 40,000, shattering the previous record for a woman’s rugby match: 29,581, set last November at Twickenham.
England have been established as the leaders, the tournament favourites, because they invested first
“It’s the moment of becoming – and it’s been a long time coming,” says rugby commentator and women’s sport advocate, Alice Soper. This is the Black Ferns’ first year on professional contracts, and Soper believes this will likely to be the last World Cup for which amateur teams have a shot at qualifying. The tournament marks an inflection point for women’s rugby, as the code builds its fanbase and turns increasingly professional at the top level.
“This is the end of amateurism for women’s rugby,” says Soper. “England have been established as the leaders, the tournament favourites, because they invested first … but we’ve seen a growing number of other teams picking up on this – very quickly. This year you’ve had Italy, Wales, Ireland and New Zealand all join them.”
That shift will affect every level of the sport, she says, and is likely to also flow out into the Pacific where new talent is emerging, with Fiji qualifying for the first time this year. “You can’t have a professional outfit without also looking at developing the players that are going to come through, Soper says. “So I think this will be the one time we do see a trickle down … to the domestic leagues.”
With the All Blacks struggling on the international stage, the Black Ferns’ rise over the past five years has helped inject new excitement to the game. But the years of low investment, delays granting professional contracts, culture problems and a relatively low number of matches – the women play around half as many a year as their male counterparts – have all taken a toll.
And while the Ferns are reigning Cup champs they are, after a disappointing year, far from favourites to win. England’s Red Roses, coming off a remarkable 25-game winning streak, are tipped to take the trophy. A gulf in experience and financial investment has opened up: the Roses have been professional for a year longer, and have 1,200 Test caps to New Zealand’s 380.
“The game has changed,” Black Ferns coach Wayne Smith says. “You’ve got the early stages of the professional game here, and you’ve got women coming from Europe who have been professional for a few years. There’s been a lot of money poured into their game.”
But the Black Ferns are also playing for a country still coming to terms with its loss of international rugby supremacy, and the weight of an expectant nation is very much on their shoulders.
“The landscape is slightly different but the expectation remains,” Smith says.
For some, that leads to concerns a disappointing performance mean nascent, hard-won coverage and support for women’s teams wanes. “Everyone loves a winner, and I am worried that if we don’t progress far enough in this tournament, that coverage will drop locally,” says Soper. “We always have the best talent in the world. But now it’s talent plus program, and we no longer have the best program in the world. So this is where we’re having to play catch-up.”
Coaches hope this tournament will allow the team to close that experience gap. “They don’t play a lot, and I think that is reflected [in the performance],” says Graham Henry, the taciturn ex-All Blacks coach who is now Smith’s assistant at the Black Ferns “The men’s game has a huge base – they’ve been playing since they were five. Some of these girls haven’t started playing until, well, later on in their lives, so they haven’t got that built-in knowledge.”
Odds of success aside, for long-time fans the prospect of a sold-out home World Cup is electrifying.
“I’m going to attend as many matches as I can,” says MP Trevor Mallard. The previous speaker of the house is likely parliament’s most ardent, long-time fan of women’s rugby – a fixture on the sideline of local games who once snuck out of a Labour party conference to attend a match. Having watched the Black Ferns compete in four other countries, Mallard says it will be “fantastic” to watch them on home soil. “They certainly aren’t favourites because of lack of matches and investment,” he says. “But I’m still backing them to surprise and retain the cup.”