On Monday, the Black Ferns named two squads that sounded very similar but who are playing for two very different reasons.
The Black Ferns WXV Squad are those that will be representing Aotearoa on the hunt for another trophy. They are the team playing the top tier of WXV, World Rugby’s new global competition. Meanwhile, the Black Ferns XV borrows its branding from the All Blacks XV and represents the players of national interest aka ponies, giving a new place for emerging talent to shine.
It’s not just the name that launched confusion but the makeup of the sides - the selections raising questions as to the state of the women’s game.
As it stands, the XV side selected could be renamed as a South Island development team. They make up 44 per cent of the participants with only a smattering of selections from the North Island. There are more players from the Canterbury Farah Palmer Cup team than the entirety of the Hurricanes region.
This simply makes no sense when you look at the geographic distribution of the player pool - or where the feeders, our schoolgirls competition, is dominant.
It is true that Christchurch Girls’ High and Southland Girls’ High have regularly placed but they face fierce competition from Hamilton Girls’ High, Wellington’s St Mary’s College and Manawatū's Manukura and Feilding High. That these players aren’t reliably coming through highlights the tangled web of our senior women’s environment.
The addition of XV at the moment in time only ties tighter these knots, entrenching rather than uplifting our talent.
Thirty-seven per cent of those named in this development side have never played Aupiki while at the other end of the scale, 15 per cent are capped Black Ferns. So is this team a development space, a holding pen or simply a box being ticked?
I am all for seeing form rewarded but when we are overlooking talent in the Aupiki squads for what is presented as the next step up, you have to ask what role Super Rugby has in player ascension.
Perhaps this is the concession that Aupiki, as it currently operates, isn’t fit for purpose. I have always maintained the timing is off, not just that it’s too short to be meaningful but also in its placement in the calendar. The competition would operate better at the end of the Farah Palmer Cup to facilitate proper talent identification and to allow this competition to act as a more cost and time-effective preseason for Aupiki players.
While we are talking costs, what bill are our contracted Black Ferns running up being paid to stay home?
Injury is one thing but Hazel Tubic, Joanah Ngan-Woo, Kelsie Thwaites, Kendra Reynolds and Pip Love are all sidelined while Grace Brooker, Esther Faiaoga-Tilo and Grace Gago get a run. I understand this is all an exercise in developing the depth of your player pool but if you’re dropped surely it’s because the coaches need to see more from you. These players won’t get that chance now until next February.
All of this reminds me of the scene from the 2016 Richie McCaw documentary.
McCaw recalls sitting down as a teenager and mapping his pathway to the black jersey. It was clear to him, all the steps between where he was and where he wanted to be. The introduction of the Black Fern XV offers none of that clarity for young girls in the position that McCaw once was. Their pathway still includes many side steps and leaps of faith in order to ascend.
So the great untangling still needs to occur in the women’s game. We need to do that by focusing on undoing the knots, rather than pulling talent further in different directions. For now it appears, the strategy behind Black Ferns XV is just as confusing as the name itself.