Gregor Paul is the Herald on Sunday's rugby writer

Rugby: Silver sevens stars set to boost NZ women's game

The Womens Sevens team perform a Haka after the Gold Medal Match in Rio. Photo / Photosport
The Womens Sevens team perform a Haka after the Gold Medal Match in Rio. Photo / Photosport

Hazarding a guess at the timeline is tricky but possibly within 10 years, maybe longer, there is a chance there will be more women playing rugby than men in New Zealand.

Such a scenario would have been considered preposterous a decade ago but that was before sevens earned its Olympic status and before the New Zealand team so magnificently won a silver medal in Rio a few days ago.

The players, so clearly heartbroken by their defeat to Australia in the final, may find it hard now to consider themselves as landscape-changing, heroic figures. But the impact they could have on driving playing numbers and changing attitudes in a male-dominated sport could be profound and lasting.

It's not exaggerating to say revolution is in the air - that already across the country there are girls, perhaps previously reticent to even think about playing rugby, now desperate to get involved.

Sevens showcased itself as the perfect sport for the Olympics. The rugby, both male and female, was fast, skilled, exciting and best of all, it captured the imagination without the stands being full of drunken morons in supposedly hilarious costumes.

The New Zealand women's team illustrated to an even finer degree, that sevens is not only the perfect fit for the biggest stage of all, it's also perfect for supremely conditioned, physical, female athletes with the appetite to play a contact sport.

Sarah Goss, Tyla Nathan-Wong, Kayla McAlister and Portia Woodman are going to become household names and may already be on the strength of what they produced in Brazil.

Now that the penny is dropping that sevens is a vehicle to the Olympics and a sport with credibility, and within the women's team, an obviously good high performance culture, the female participation rate in all rugby will increase at significantly higher rates than it previously has.

No one can be sure what effect the Olympic campaign will have in driving playing numbers, other than it will be big. Female numbers have been steadily growing as it is and the boom is mostly in juniors - girls aged between five and 12.

In 2009, there were 9,176 registered girls aged five to 12 playing rugby in New Zealand. By 2015, that number had increased by almost 50 per cent to 13,525 - roughly about a sixth of all junior players.

Overall last year, there were close to 20,000 female players registered in a total of 150,000. That showed an 11 per cent rise on 2014.

For Cate Sexton, head of women's development at New Zealand Rugby, this moment has long been expected. She and her colleagues had long known the New Zealand team's capacity to deliver an inspirational campaign in Rio and that it would be critical to have a plan in place to manage the inevitable boom in the sport's popularity among girls.

"It's critical that we are able to provide meaningful competitions around the country and show that we are set up well - that we are a well organised, well coached sport and that players can enjoy the experience of playing.

"We already have a large number of girls playing in the Small Blacks age-group and we have to try to take those players through the journey into secondary school and then transition them again when they leave there."

When the Olympic team arrives home, they will in time be sent out to exploit their new -found profile and drum up business as it were. To pitch up at schools and see who may be interested in giving rugby a try.

The difficulty, though, is not going to be finding players, it will be finding coaches, facilities and resources.

Sexton is urging all parents to think about getting involved and then the harder part again will be making sure that if thousands of girls suddenly start playing early next year, that they can be accommodated in a team that is part of a competition that suits their needs.

Sexton says that while most parts of the country select boys and girls under the age of 12 in the same teams, that better results in terms of skill development and retention are being produced when girls are able to play in their own teams.

"They tend to get the ball more," says Sexton, "as boys won't pass to girls unless the girl is exceptional. We also need to look at how we offer more contact versions of rugby to suit everyone's needs."

- NZ Herald

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