It's not often I take my hat off to Northland Rugby, but this week was an exception.

On Monday, the efforts of generations of women's rugby players in this region were vindicated when an inaugural north zone academy was officially opened in Kaitaia.

The facility, headed by women's academy manager Joshua Hyde, will primarily service the abundance of female rugby talent in the Far North from clubs such as Te Rarawa and Kaikohe.

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Women's academy manager Joshua Hyde will be at the forefront of the north zone academy. Photo / File
Women's academy manager Joshua Hyde will be at the forefront of the north zone academy. Photo / File

It will also look to cultivate the promising age-group players from the region in a high performance environment. Six women and six men were presented with their academy attire on Monday while women's rugby royalty watched on.

This included Black Ferns coach Glenn Moore, current Northland Black Fern Te Kura Ngata-Aerengamate, and former Black Ferns and current Northland Farah Palmer Cup coaches, Cheryl Smith and Susan Dawson.

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You could certainly feel the excitement emanating from those involved with the women's game in what was a huge step forward for Northland's aspirations in the Farah Palmer Cup (FPC) and Black Ferns programme.

I'm hesitant to heap too much praise on the union, simply because a Far North academy would have been perfect last year in Northland's first year in the FPC.

Even as we will celebrate 100 years of Northland rugby this year, imagine how much talent we lost by not appropriately servicing the talent residing in the Far North. Nevertheless, I have to admit - it's better late than never.

The focus now turns to whether the facility can be a success, along with the revamped south zone academy, which was unveiled on Wednesday in Whangārei.

Read more: Player retention a priority for Northland rugby south zone academy

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Northland's south zone academy prospects. Photo / File
Northland's south zone academy prospects. Photo / File

The expectations for the programme is that it will deliver FPC promotion into the premiership, success at the annual Jock Hobbs under-19 boys' tournament and a rise in the number of players progressing through academy framework to higher honours.

For the second and third objective, it looks like it will be a case of sitting and waiting patiently for about five or so years before we see if these teenage pieces of coal can be turned into Mitre 10 Cup/FPC diamonds.

However, the first task of achieving premiership promotion certainly seems less of a dream and more of an expectation going into the 2020 competition.

Now it's fair to say the Northland Kauri, the region's top women's team, performed above expectations when they made it to the semifinals in their first year ever in the competition.

I have no concerns regarding talent, there is more than enough in Northland to win a game of rugby against most teams in New Zealand.

Similarly, there is undoubtedly the passion and desire to reach the top echelon of New Zealand women's rugby. You only have to speak to Coach Smith or Captain TK to realise the appetite this group has for success.

Northland Kauri captain and current Black Fern Te Kura Ngata-Aerengamate was a big supporter of seeing more academies in more areas in Northland. Photo / Photosport
Northland Kauri captain and current Black Fern Te Kura Ngata-Aerengamate was a big supporter of seeing more academies in more areas in Northland. Photo / Photosport

However, am I confident in promotion in 2020? With fractures appearing in Northland's upcoming senior women's club competition, I'm not so sure.

To succeed on the national stage, the programmes and pathways must be set. They must be tried and tested so standards of training and play are continually heightened.

Nevertheless, I've eaten plenty of my own words before and I will be all too happy to tuck into another meal of 'I take it all back' should the Kauri topple strong FPC championship contenders Hawke's Bay and Manawatū later this year.

But for all the good this north zone academy will do, it is just the start.

Dignitaries from Super Rugby and New Zealand Rugby, who attended this week's academy openings, all identified Northland's chief challenge to overcome as player retention.

We have all the raw materials, it's just keeping them here long enough that's the problem.

And more academies will go a huge way in curbing that problem.

Now, I know money rules all when it comes to these discussions and it's part of the reason why it's taken this long to have an academy up north in the first place.

However, let's put money to one side and look at the overall picture.

Northland will always lose a large cut of its youth to university. With respect to NorthTec, tertiary education opportunities in Northland are extremely limited and we have to come to terms with that.

Northland will also lose a handful of its brighter talents to the big schools in Auckland, Hamilton and Wellington. The likes of Mount Albert Grammar, King's and St Kentigern have too much pulling power for most secondary schools in Northland to contend with.

Northland's north and south zone academy players:
Gill Caan-Vana, Kian Kake, Sage Walters-Hansen, Javarn Porter, Craven Martin, Tomi Baker, Noah Pride, Lucas Payne, Zack Willy, Kalani Snooks, Conner Guest, Brady Foster, Max Brunker, Troy Hona, Chad Boyed, Savannah Bodman, Georgia Brierly, Lily Murray-Wihongi, Serai Murray-Wihongi, Louisa Tuibailagi, Ocean Tierney, Tui McGeorge, Sidney Pomare, Mitikakau Morunga, Esile Fono, Kingi Herewini, Colt Edwards, Raymond Rakete, TJ Waitai, Tyler Nankivell, Rangimarie Chapman-Barber, Helen Kapa, Puru Aboagye, Oliver Hilton-Jones, Tane King, Manaia Webb, Leilani Erwin, Ngapuhi Rogers, Anaru Nimmo, Jurney Blair and Brydie Harrison.


Getting our hooks into these future superstars as early as we can is obviously a priority but at the end of the day, these aren't the players the NRU should be targeting.

It should be making sure the pathways are there for the young people who may travel for a year or two, but will inevitably come back to Northland as so many do.

This means academies servicing Te Kao/Te Hapua/Te Paki, one in Kaikohe, Kerikeri, Dargaville, Taipa. Covering as much ground as possible.

Geographical isolation is lethal in everyday life and the same holds true for rugby development in Northland. Even with a north zone academy in place, players from Kaikohe will have to drive over an hour through the Mangamukas just to get there.

Now, I don't expect promises of a sudden investment in the far-flung areas of Northland in the coming months.

However, if the union is at all serious in its concerns about rugby's decreasing player numbers, it should move forward firm in the belief expansion is absolutely necessary to the survival of the game.