To say there were absolute scenes at Eden Park following the Black Ferns’ win in the Rugby World Cup final on Saturday night would be an understatement. 

There was jubilation. There was relief.

And there was defiance as the team and its supporters asked New Zealand Rugby: “Will you finally take us seriously now?”

Because while 42,500 people turned up to the game on Saturday night and another 1.3 million tuned in from home, there’s still a long way to go in giving women’s rugby the resources and attention it deserves.

But commentator and former Wellington rugby player Alice Soper is hoping that’s all about to change now that the public has finally had a chance to see the potential of women’s rugby.

“Every other World Cup has been played in the northern hemisphere, so it's been played in the middle of the night,” she says.

“And if it was even on broadcast, we were asking people that haven't maybe seen women's rugby before to get up at 3am to tune in, so it's pretty tough.

“We've known the stats and the details about how [the Black Ferns are] good, but we've never got to see, and we've never got to feel, and be in that front row cheering them on before.”

Professor Jennifer Curtin from the University of Auckland, whose research covers many aspects of women in rugby, agrees, saying this World Cup has given the women’s game a much sharper focus.

“We've seen the Black Ferns play before [but] the women's game was always played in advance of one of the men's games,” she says.

“But this time around, women's rugby was the focus, and it was undiluted.

“Even though there was some disappointment, I suppose, that it wasn't available all around the country, that the focus was Auckland and Northland, it was still put on weekends, [with] multiple games across the Saturday and Sunday, enabling those who wanted to travel for it to come.

“You just got to watch the elite of women's rugby from around the world play, so quite separately to the Black Ferns, it was this magnificent exposure to women's rugby from everywhere.”

So, what now?

Soper says it’s up to New Zealand Rugby to capitalise on the wild success of the tournament and to act quickly.

“Let's not wait another three years to supercharge this game. That means actually building it properly from the grassroots up,” she says.

“We need to be looking at our domestic game. Four or five rounds of Aupiki [the women’s Super Rugby competition] is not good enough.”

“You need to also be looking at the Farah Palmer Cup [the women’s domestic league],” she says.

“We're not going to get good playing less than 10 domestic games a year. We need to be playing quality rugby regularly. We've got to be investing in players. We've got to see them play.”

Curtin says New Zealand Rugby also needs to focus on what’s going on behind the scenes of the game.

“They need more women's voices at all sorts of levels,” she says.

“[Rugby in New Zealand] has been a little bit tunnel vision and traditional up until this point, but we know just from watching this tournament, that there are lots of really good women out there, who can can make contributions at the governance level, at the administrative level, at the advocacy level, to really reshape what's possible for New Zealand rugby.”

Curtin says after seeing at least six young girls at the post-World Cup celebrations in Auckland with strips of dyed red hair like Black Ferns star Ruby Tui, the marketing opportunities are also huge in women’s rugby.

“There are plenty of really fabulously qualified people here that New Zealand Rugby could be drawing on to build a strategy, to build a future direction that is more inclusive of the grassroots community and elite women players.”

‘Trust us to take the next steps forward’

Soper says she wants New Zealand Rugby to make that investment in the women’s game.

“I would tell [New Zealand Rugby] to embrace the women's rugby community like the New Zealand public has,” she says.

“That means listening to our leaders. [New Zealand Rugby] do not have the internal capability to deliver on this moment. But we do. We are the ones that have built to this pinnacle event. So now trust us to take the next steps forward.”

Soper also says rugby fans should pay respect to all the women who have brought the Black Ferns to this moment.

“Back in 1991, at that first World Cup, there was a group of women who bet big on rugby and paid $5,000 each to turn up there.

“Well, their investment in this game paid off big time on Saturday. So we need to be respecting our heritage and heralding those champions as well.

“But now, it’s going to be really all about making sure that we don't lose this opportunity and that we understand how to build to what we can really achieve in this space.”

Top photo: Black Ferns player Stacey Fluhler scores a try at the Rugby World Cup 2021 final between New Zealand and England at Eden Park. Photo: Fiona Goodall/Getty Images

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