Paul Charman and sports editor Kell' />

Women's rugby, once thriving, seems to have died a rapid death in Bay of Plenty. Feature writer Paul Charman and sports editor Kelly Exelby investigate.
WHATEVER happened to women's rugby in Bay of Plenty?
Back in the mid-1990s the code was thriving numbers-wise, its coffers flush with pokie money.
Here in the Bay, enthusiastic club teams contested in their own competition and fed players into A and B sides that played for the pride of the province.
Today, competition beyond the eight teams playing at secondary schools level in Bay of Plenty appears all but dead.
"To make it into the Bay development team was considered a huge honour, while members of the No 1 team were effectively treated like superstars," recalls Opotiki resident and former Black Ferns star Exia Edwards.
These teams got to play provincial matches, often as curtain-raisers to the Steamers in the NPC, with about $25,000 received annually from the pokies helping to equip them all with caps, bags and smart blue and gold tracksuits, as well as subsidised travel to training.
Bay of Plenty was renowned for producing Black Ferns, including Edwards, Geraldine Paul, Erica Rere, Kellie Kiwi, Heidi Reader, Emma Thomas, Tamaku Paul and Karen Taylor.
Edwards (nee Shelford) played for New Zealand in three victorious 15-a-side World Cup women's teams. She was named in the World XV at the last World Cup in Canada.
With Rachel Wikeepa, Edwards was part of last year's team that were runners-up to Australia at the sevens World Cup in Dubai. She and Tamaku Paul were part of the 2001 team which won in Hong Kong, where Paul - also a provincial netball and touch rep - was player of the tournament.
In Japan, Edwards was named player of the tournament and also played in the Wellington sevens, the only time a women's side has taken part.
Bay clubs fielding women's teams included Te Whanau Apanui, Opotiki United, Waimana, Paroa, Edgecumbe, Te Teko, Kawerau Sports, Papamoa, Arataki, Judea, Mount Maunganui, Rotorua, Whakarewarewa, Waikite, Ngongotaha, Rotoiti, Rangiuru, Te Puke Sports, Sports Opotiki, Whakatane Marist, Poroporo, Onepu, Kawerau United, Whakarewarewa and Eastern Pirates.
But it all changed when the decision was made to form a national provincial championship, which required the code come under the administration of the New Zealand Rugby Union.
"Once that happened we had to go under the Bay of Plenty Rugby Union banner, which, of course, meant we couldn't get our previous funding. Then it just started dying, and now it's dead," Edwards says.
The last Bay of Plenty women's team was fielded in 2005 - a team which won division two of the national provincial competition.
Club teams dwindled to just four - Mt Maunganui, Opotiki, Whakarewarewa and Waikite. They played on for a few years in a Bay of Plenty-Waikato tournament, travelling long distances most weekends. A Gisborne Pirates team joined in for a game or two, then pulled out.
The last Bay-Waikato contest was played in 2008, with Opotiki beating Tokoroa in the final.
"Soon after coming under control of the union we got pulled out of the first division, in my view because it was going to cost the union too much money to fly us around the country," Edwards said. "There was a lot of politics at the time. We got put into second division so we could [travel by] van and car everywhere, playing the likes of Auckland B, Northland, Counties-Manukau - all the lesser unions - which was okay because it was still a structured competition."
But last year the decision was made to bin the 2010 national competition.
"With the World Cup being held at the same time [in London from August 20-September 5] as the NPC I guess the union thought it better to channel the funding toward tournaments and camps in Rotorua and Ngaruawahia."
Edwards considers this system of selecting for the Black Ferns far from ideal. She is certain the depth of the national side has suffered since the NZRU and provinces' depletion of teams and scrapping of the national competition.
"And, of course, there will be no girls representing the Bay in the Black Ferns at this year's World Cup. I'm despondent about the demise of our code.
"The latest I've been told is there isn't much money for secondary schools teams. I'm not out to run down the union, but obviously our association with it has been far from positive.
"The re-introduction and promotion of the women's game in our province would provide a pathway for the many secondary school girls currently playing in our secondary competition.
"At the moment they've nothing to aspire to when they leave school."
Jeremy Curragh, Bay of Plenty Rugby's chief executive, said the union was as disappointed as anyone with the demise of women's rugby, particularly at senior level.
They had tried to facilitate a women's club competition but found there wasn't enough interest from clubs and couldn't get enough teams.
"We tried to form a women's committee to drive women's rugby in the region but were unsuccessful and, when we endeavoured to get a women's sevens tournament organised ... with our provincial sevens we didn't get enough entries."
Curragh said the union did provide support for the provincial secondary schoolgirls' competition, which wrapped up last week at Tauranga Domain, through staffing resources and its rugby development officers and had been using Rippa Rugby to good effect to get primary-aged female students involved.
"But it's difficult to field a provincial team when there is no competition to play in, and no club competition to support a provincial team."
The relationship between the NZRU and women's rugby is best described as "vexed." The NZRU administers the code but if its managers truly believe women's rugby should exist, you'd hardly know it. Women's rugby was a thriving code right up until the mid-1990s when it came under the NZRU umbrella. Since then it's been run down (some would say systematically) although, despite the recent cobbling together of the Black Ferns, registered player numbers among females have doubled, from 6975 in 2002 to 13,973 last season.
Registered female rugby players in Bay of Plenty, not surprisingly, numbered just three this year, well down on the heyday six or seven years ago, although the game in secondary schools is holding its own.
One observation is that it's all been a woeful mistake in the light of the ascendancy of soccer. A key strength of football is the popularity of its youth leagues. But look deeper and you will see much of the code's youth appeal is generated among girls.
Football New Zealand's under-17 and under-20 sides get to travel overseas to qualify for, and play in, World Cups, and national talent programmes can and do feed promising secondary schoolgirl players into the teams.
It doesn't take a genius to see that - participation wise - those who run soccer have bent over backwards to affirm their young female players.
Edwards points out women's rugby sevens has been included in the 2014 Commonwealth Games.
"Do we want Bay of Plenty women to feature in this? Why don't we set a precedent and lead the way to a women's rugby comeback? The Bay of Plenty Rugby Union, along with clubs, would need to foster and support women's rugby for it to be successful. But they could do this . ... where there's a will there's a way.
"There's a wealth of talent in the Bay, so let's unleash it on the rest of New Zealand and maybe even the world."