Dana Johannsen is the NZ Herald's chief sports reporter

Rugby: Women seize on oval ball

The increasing profile of Kayla McAlister and the NZ women's sevens team is helping boost player numbers. Photo / Getty Images
The increasing profile of Kayla McAlister and the NZ women's sevens team is helping boost player numbers. Photo / Getty Images

There are fears rugby is not equipped to keep pace with the surge in the number of girls and women wanting to play the game in this country.

Rugby has experienced huge growth in its female playing ranks in the past few years, with the numbers increasing 11 per cent from the 2014 to 2015 season alone (17,825 to 19,792). It's expected that figure will spike again post-Olympics, particularly if the New Zealand women's sevens team taste success in Rio.

The sight of the women's team standing atop the podium in Rio could inspire a generation of girls to take up the sport. But many unions and clubs don't have the programmes in place to support an influx of female players.

The women's game has long been an afterthought for rugby bosses, with very few unions having formal pathways in place from the junior grades to senior level.

Those regions that do have successful women's programmes in place often rely on the passion and enthusiasm of one or two key individuals to lead it.

That lack of structure is reflected in the playing numbers, which is heavily weighted to the junior grades. Of the 19,000 female players in the country, about 13,000 are registered at junior level - most of those in the highly successful Rippa Rugby programme which caters to both girls and boys - and 5000 at secondary school level. That leaves just 1000 in the senior grades.

Addressing that marked drop-off is a key focus for Cate Sexton, New Zealand Rugby's first women's development manager.

"My role is to make sure post-Olympics we can support the provincial unions to have structures and pathways in place, so when a girl says, 'I want to play with the oval ball' there is that opportunity for them at any level," said Sexton, who was appointed to the role last March.

"A lot of unions are doing some really good things in the junior space. As those kids develop a love and an interest and confidence in the game, it's about how do we push that through to when they move into high school? Because that's where it gets a little bit tricky."

NZR recently conducted a survey among secondary school girls to measure the level of interest in the sport in that age group - not just women's rugby, but the sport in general. Sexton said the research showed, contrary to popular belief, girls have a high level of interest in rugby. And plenty of them are keen to don the boots themselves.

"There was a large part of them that had played in the past or were really interested in playing and they were just screaming out for opportunities," she said.

"When you hit high school, you can't play co-ed any more and you may go into a school that has one team and it's a senior team, or the school doesn't offer girls rugby at all.

Black Fern Chelsea Alley is helping drive growth in girls' rugby in North Harbour.
Black Fern Chelsea Alley is helping drive growth in girls' rugby in North Harbour.

"So our big push this year from my team is to create a regional under-15s competition or for years 9 and 10. What format it is in really depends on the landscape within each of those regions. They're all different and not one size fits all."

A further four staff have been appointed at regional level since Sexton joined the national body - one in the Northern area, another for Central, and one each to service the Crusaders and Highlanders catchment areas - to support the growth of the women's game. A pilot scheme is also about to get under way in the Bay of Plenty.

"My staff are looking at how we can grow the competition, because a lot of what girls want is meaningful competition," she said. "Creating pathways is the critical part for us."

Sexton said there have been pockets of success around the country, pointing to programmes being run out of the North Harbour and Tasman unions, which are keeping girls in the game beyond primary school.

Last year, North Harbour introduced girls-only Rippa Rugby for ages 7-12 and had 77 teams competing in the primary and intermediate school tournaments.

"To have just as many girls' teams running around playing rugby as boys' teams was pretty cool," said Chelsea Alley, the union's women's development officer who combines her role at North Harbour rugby with her own playing commitments with the Black Ferns.

That momentum has carried through into the secondary school grades, with North Harbour introducing a sevens competition for girls on Wednesday nights. Alley also runs a 10-week development course for players at under-15 and under-18 level that has been talent ID-ed, focusing on skill development, nutrition, strength and conditioning.

This year, following a push to establish two women's club teams in the Auckland club competition, North Harbour will re-enter the women's NPC competition for the first time in a decade.

Alley said it can be a challenge to convince clubs to run teams for girls and women, but believes attitudes are slowly changing.

"There are still a few older guys around who are a bit resistant to investing in the women's game. I guess it takes a bit to get their head around girls playing rugby and that it is growing so fast. But there are others who can see the value in it and it has been really cool to see the switch in their thinking as well."

- Herald on Sunday

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