A lot has changed since Ōpōtiki's Exia Edwards started playing rugby.

When she began, she had to play senior reserve grade rugby with men.

Edwards did not let that stop her and went on, in a career than spans more than 20 years, to become Bay of Plenty's most decorated rugby player.

Last week, at the Bay of Plenty Rugby Union's (BOPRU) annual general meeting, her efforts were recognised when she received the Distinguished Service Award, one of the union's highest honours.

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A leader on and off the field, Edwards won three Rugby World Cup titles in 1998, 2002 and 2006 and was a member of the team that won the first Sevens World Cup title in 2001. A key member of the Black Ferns, she was selected for the World XV after the Canadian World Cup in 2006.

She played in the Bay of Plenty women's first XV from 1999-2005 and was a formidable force. In her 30 games for the Bay, Edwards scored 128 points - 16 tries, 18 conversions and four penalties.

BOPRU women's rugby development officer Kendra Reynolds says Edwards is "a shining example of the type of character we all strive to be in the sporting world".

"For myself, starting out in rugby Exia was always the gold standard as a women's rugby player in the Bay and in the country. She's been there when women's rugby wasn't on the TV, they weren't paid, but she still represented her province and her country with such pride."

She says the fact that Edwards played against men before there was a women's team for her to play in helped create the pathways that exist for females in the game today.

"I certainly wouldn't be putting myself down to play with those big men. Her playing days were an era where there was a lot of change and they were pushing the boundaries doing things like that. I don't think it would've been as accepted if it wasn't her ... she's so respected in the community that she had the power to make that change."

Exia Edwards runs the ball for the Black Ferns against England at Eden Park in 2005. Photo / Getty Images
Exia Edwards runs the ball for the Black Ferns against England at Eden Park in 2005. Photo / Getty Images

Despite having hung up her playing boots, Edwards remains as involved in the game as ever.

She is Sport Bay of Plenty's Eastern Bay primary school director and coach of the Ōpōtiki women's rugby team - one of two Eastern Bay teams entered in the Baywide women's competition this year. She also coached the Whakatāne High School girls' sevens team who competed at the North Island Secondary School tournament in Tauranga recently.

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Reynolds says Edwards is a valuable asset to women's rugby in the Bay.

"Working for Sport Bay of Plenty, she's giving back to our community ten-fold - creating that support network for all of our other stakeholders in rugby and other sports. It was really neat to see her and her husband coaching her daughter's sevens team at the North Island Secondary School Sevens, it's gone full circle."

Women's rugby is consistently growing in Bay of Plenty.

"It's really important we keep creating opportunities for our girls and our ladies to participate in rugby year round, in all the different forms.

"I think the advertisement we get now on social media and on national platforms has definitely shown people it's okay. I've always been a big believer that if you provide females with the opportunity to participate, they're always going to jump on it.

"I don't know if we've always provided the kind of framework to allow for that, but I believe we're starting too. We're modifying the game and the structures to put the player at the centre of our decision making process."

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