For a long time, the Farah Palmer Cup was the only stepping stone between club rugby and the international stage.
An amateur league, participants played for pride and a chance at catching the Black Ferns coach’s eye. The annual domestic competition was the only place you could regularly see our Black Ferns play. This talent now has more options than ever, which is asking questions about the future of this competition.
The DIY inter-provincial matches of the early days of modern women’s rugby were replaced by the New Zealand Rugby-sanctioned competition in 1999. This provincial competition grew to its full height of 18 teams a year later and since then has been through a variety of formats with fluctuating numbers. We’ve had full round robins, limited match schedules, divisions and crossovers. In 2020, Covid-19 saw the cup split geographically into North versus South-ish. The Southern pool included Hawke’s Bay, Manawatū and Wellington.
The regular format since the competition took Dame Farah Palmer’s name in 2017 mirrors the men’s NPC, with two grades, Premiership and Championship, playing a round robin and then playoffs. Promotion and relegation are at stake between divisions, depending on a team’s results.
Women’s rugby today however is virtually unrecognisable to where things were in 2017.
At that time, the Black Ferns were still community rugby on the New Zealand Rugby books. They were finally offered their first contracts in 2018 and in 2021, Sky Sport committed to showing all of the Farah Palmer Cup live. Prior to this, much like Heartland Rugby, players received their match schedule and then hunted for an asterisk which indicated which of their games that year might end up on the telly.
The goalposts have shifted for women’s rugby and so have the standards. This league, still largely amateur, is now being dominated by professionals. Being a Black Fern is a fulltime job and as a result, they are outpacing those for whom rugby is sidelined by other commitments. Those climbing up the ladder to higher honours have a leg up over their provincial sisters too. A good number are now exposed to a higher level of competition in Super Rugby Aupiki.
The gap between established and emerging talent is growing wider by the day. It is not surprising then that we have seen some of our most lopsided results across the competition this year. I feel for those players representing their provinces against these odds. We all go out there to play the best footy we can. But right now, only a choice few of us are being invested in to make our best better. The rest make the highlight reels as the players being broken through. What that costs a player’s wellbeing, both physically and mentally, to be asked to front up without adequate preparation and even less recovery, is yet to be accounted for.
Talent has covered a multitude of shortcomings in the women’s system for a long time. The Black Ferns brought home the World Cup six times with only the short runway of the Farah Palmer Cup, one disrupted Aupiki and a couple of tests to launch off. It is right that their hard work is finally rewarded but it can’t stop there. No one player gets there alone, they need teammates, opposition and competition to thrive.
If the Farah Palmer Cup is to remain the first step on the senior women’s representative pathway, let us honour it as that. Let us stop running it as the training ground for those that should have ascended to the next step. Let the professionals play the professionals, in a league of their own. And let the amateurs dream of one day joining them.