Women’s rugby bounces back from Covid hit 2020

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After a Covid hit 2019 season the Farah Palmer Cup women’s rugby competition returns to its normal format with the start of the competition this weekend, but has the rest of the women’s game recovered.

Canterbury will defend the title they’ve won the last four years.

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Canterbury win the 2020 Farah Palmer Cup
Photo: Photosport Ltd 2020

Like many sports the women’s game in New Zealand suffered last year and for many of the provincial rugby unions it’s time to regain some of the ground they may have lost.

In 2020 the coronavirus pandemic left a lot of uncertainty around the women’s game, but they still managed to play a truncated provincial competition.

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The competition was split into north and south zones to save money but in 2021 it returns to a Premiership and Championship competition with 13 teams taking part.

The pandemic hit the game hard in 2020 with New Zealand Rugby admitting that a decrease in women and girls’ participation reflected their limited ability to run primary school competitions.

The World Cup in New Zealand was also postponed for a year.

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Black Ferns halfback Kendra Cocksedge is New Zealand Rugby’s women’s participation manager for the South Island.

She works with provincial unions to run tournaments and festivals for girls, giving them the opportunity to play.

The 29 Test veteran has been in the role for six years and admits it is taking time to forge that pathway for girls and last year they took a hit especially with provincial unions having to go through restructures.

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Cocksedge says Covid left a lot of people, not just women, wondering about their commitment to a season of rugby.

“That’s the thing with Covid people have probably realised there’s a bit more to life and life is getting busy for people and I guess we just have to be mindful of what rugby looks like in the future.

“One-off festivals and tournaments tend to be ideal for women and girls to get involved.”

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Females are returning to the game with North Harbour enjoying growth in girls non-contact rugby this year with more than a thousand playing a festival day earlier this season.

However at the senior level, North Harbour has just two teams playing in the Auckland-wide competition.

North Harbour’s Manager for Women and Girls is Anna Petersen, who says while they’d love to have more women playing at the highest level, they have to be mindful of what involvement they want.

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Papatoetoe's Mau Joyana Pasikala  Premier Womens' rugby College Rifles v Papatoetoe, 2021.

Auckland women’s club rugby
Photo: PHOTOSPORT

Petersen says they’ve worked hard at North Harbour to build the environment and culture within the teams which is especially important for women with many of them having so many other things going on in their lives.

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“We have to figure out what is best for our players, we have some really talented players who want to keep pushing the envelope and they deserve the best rugby possible to keep doing that, but if we go too early on that then that will potentially jeopardise their development.”

North Harbour are keen to have their own women’s club competition, but Petersen says they have to be realistic about what the players want.

“We also have players here who just literally love club rugby, they love playing every Saturday with their mates and so we’ve got to realise that we have a few different demographics that we have to cater for.”

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Taranaki is another province that would like to double the number of women playing at a senior level to around 200 so that they can run a stronger club competition.

That would then boost their Farah Palmer Cup team that has copped a couple of big losses in recent years, but they did score their first ever win last season.

This year the Taranaki club competition grew from three to four teams.

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CEO Lawrence Corlett admits they do need an under-18 competition to provide a stepping stone to the senior ranks and that’s where the focus needs to be.

“We’ve just got to keep investing in the game, spending the money on developing the base which is the key so we can capture as many players at a young age so they stay in the sport, because there are so many options out there and then follow through to the next step.”

Corlett says to achieve that they need good quality coaching and players having a good experiences, “if you feel you’re developing then you’ll stay in the sport.”

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Gayle Broughton, Taranaki Whio v Auckland Storm, Farah Palmer Cup 2020.

Tarakani Whio vs Auckland
Photo: PHOTOSPORT

It is obvious that to get the girls playing, they need to see the top players in action and that will happen this season with all of the Farah Palmer Cup games to be shown on TV.

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North Harbour’s Anna Petersen says that’s important.

“The more the girls see other females playing rugby, the more they want to be a part of it so the fact that you’ve got the Black Ferns, the Black Ferns Sevens and the FPC (Farah Palmer Cup) on TV means that it’s more visible and the girls can see a pathway and they start to have heroes of their own and they want to be a part of it.”

Black Fern Kendra Cocksedge says to get the young players engaged, one-off festivals and tournaments have proved popular rather than players having to commit to a season-long competition.

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“Especially in the women’s game rugby isn’t necessarily the number one sport for girls so to create opportunities where they might only have to play a one-off tournament has been really beneficial.

“The shorter season may suit some people more than others and so it’s about working out how it works with either a full club season or just the one-off festival.”

Last month Cocksedge helped run a Heartland’s 10’s festival for the South Island Unions.

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“We had women coming back into play the game who hadn’t played since school so it’s been cool to hear that so if we provide these opportunities then these women and girls are going to come.”

Cocksedge’s Canterbury side start the defence of their Farah Palmer Cup title against Counties-Manukau this weekend.

In this weekend’s other games Auckland play Bay of Plenty and Wellington play Otago.

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The other provinces start next weekend.

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