The resurgence of women's rugby in Northland has received another boost with the Marist Rugby Club's sevens tournament including a women's under-14 division for the first time.
The tournament, which takes place at William Fraser Memorial Park today , will feature 29 teams from under-11 to under-16 in what has become a regular preseason fixture for younger players.
By law, women could not play in a gender-mixed team once they passed the under-13 age grade, and in the past, Northland Rugby had not run teams that catered for 14 and 15-year-olds. Now, with under-15 and under-18 women's rugby programmes in the works, this tournament was a great chance to stretch the legs before the season started.
"I thought if we had an under-14 grade, it would get those 13-year-olds out there and not playing against the bigger 15-year-olds and easing them into it," Marist junior rugby co-ordinator Chanelle Salmon said.
"We want to grow all grades and we want to get more people out there playing rugby, but we really want to focus on girls' rugby."
The tournament had been run by the Whangārei junior rugby management board in the past and had featured under-15 and under-18 women's grades. With Marist now running the competition, it gave younger female rugby players more opportunity in the local rugby scene.
"It's given them a stepping stone and hopefully they'll enjoy the sevens, then move on to the bigger format," Salmon said.
Northland's women's rugby programme was set to reach new heights in 2019 as it had been confirmed that Northland would field its first team in the domestic women's rugby competition, the Farah Palmer Cup.
The reinforcement of the women's game could not resonate more with Northland's rugby community after the Black Ferns sevens team, containing a selection of Northland players, won the "Team of the Year" award at the 2019 Halberg Awards on Thursday night.
Salmon saw the Farah Palmer Cup inclusion as a huge win for Northland rugby, and said this was the first step in bringing women back into the game.
"A lot of these girls play other sports, but they'd love to be playing rugby and they see that announcement and that's where they want to go.
"It's quite exciting for them to see because they understand that they don't have to leave Northland for Auckland or Counties Manukau, they could make it in rugby in the Northland team in a couple of years."
She noted the influence in the Far North of Black Fern legends Rawinia Everitt and Aroha Savage, who had made great strides in building women's rugby up there.
"It's why they've got more players up there and that's what we need to do down here, get those big names in and get them out into the schools."
Salmon said she could see enormous potential in the youth of Northland women's rugby and hoped this tournament could help advance the careers of those players with the ability to reach the top level.
"I can definitely see a few potential Black Ferns in there so we've just got to stick to it and make sure there's somewhere for them to go in the future."