After winning five World Cups, the Black Ferns' place in history is assured. For that, and their off-field inspiration, they are our New Zealanders of the Year, writes Liam Napier.

Fifth time lucky, perhaps.

Almost two decades after their first World Cup triumph, the Black Ferns are close to clutching a sustainable future for the next generation of women's rugby.

It took a long time, but this team of amateur athletes has finally sparked a watershed conversation about the status and investment in women's sport, here and abroad. It took five World Cup crowns to reach this turning point.

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The Black Ferns' groundbreaking feats this year — recognised as team of the year at the World Rugby and New Zealand Rugby awards ahead of mens' teams for the first time — placed them on a pedestal above the All Blacks and British and Irish Lions in 2017. In a male-dominated and largely governed sport, such achievements cannot — and should not — be understated.

Rugby may have been dragged to the cliff but the penny appears to have dropped. The leap of faith, and chance to be world leaders in this space, now draw closer.

In part, pressure has come from the new Labour-led Government and its push for pay equity. Theirs, however, was just another voice echoing louder and longer than ever before.

The groundswell of support which awoke a movement that refuses to subside means, this time, momentum has been grasped.

You don't climb Everest in one hike — getting to base camp comes first. Work to scope what the summit of the women's XVs' game looks like, and devising a long-term strategy to get there, is under way.

NZ Rugby is investigating a potential eight-week summer competition, one that would attract its own sponsors in its own window and tick several boxes, including the chance to groom coaches and develop talent outside the established 11 provincial teams.

Many of the Black Ferns are mothers and, therefore, working around family commitments is paramount. At present only 20 Black Ferns — all from the sevens team — are contracted full-time. In the near future their XVs counterparts could get a slice of the pie.

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A potential landmark deal between NZR and the Players' Association is being hammered out and will take time to sign off — the push for professionalism encompasses many aspects well beyond simply improved pay. In an ideal world, such a deal would give XVs players security to plan ahead; access to training facilities and specialised services males consume like breakfast.

Lesley Ketu and Kristina Sue. Photo / Photosport
Lesley Ketu and Kristina Sue. Photo / Photosport

When negotiations conclude, these Black Ferns should etch their names in history by securing a long-sought-after pathway. Leading figures in this team may miss the direct benefits but, in time, can look back with pride as those who follow prosper.

From former skipper turned university lecturer Dr Farah Palmer to Fiao'o Fa'amausili, the 37-year-old captain who has attended five World Cups, the Black Ferns have embraced and promoted role models on and off the field since their first title in 1998. Only now, though, are they truly being recognised. Portia Woodman is the instantly recognisable star from this recent success — a global one at that after 13 tries to finish top points-scorer at the World Cup in August.

But look no further than Selica Winiata to appreciate the significant sacrifices these athletes have made.

Winiata, this nuggety, elusive, fast fullback, faced a predicament at the start of this year after assuming custody of nephews Cooper, 6, and Corbin, 4, alongside her parents.

On top of that, in her ninth year as a detective in the Palmerston North police, she was told to either accept shift work, resign, or take leave without pay to chase her rugby dream.

Knocked out in the semifinals of the last World Cup, Winiata was determined to do everything she could to go one better this year. No regrets; no looking back thinking "if only".

To achieve that she set her sights on training with the Manawatu men's team — alongside All Blacks Nehe Milner-Skudder and Aaron Cruden — which eventually led to a two-week stint doing likewise with Dave Rennie's Chiefs.

Juggling police work would have been impossible so she put her career, and regular wage, on hold.

"The guys were obviously a lot bigger than me — fitter, faster, stronger — but I was able to push the boundaries and pick up things that could help my game. It hasn't been easy — everyone needs money, nothing is free."

Sarah Goss of the New Zealand Black Ferns leads the celebrations after their victory during the Women's Rugby World Cup 2017 Final. Photo / Getty Images
Sarah Goss of the New Zealand Black Ferns leads the celebrations after their victory during the Women's Rugby World Cup 2017 Final. Photo / Getty Images

Winiata managed to find work through Manawatu Rugby, taking skills sessions at local schools. She also had a short-term paid stint in Japan to ease the financial burden.

Come the World Cup, she still had her nephews to consider. Taking them to Ireland was the only option.

"Once I found out I was in the team, I organised for my parents to bring them over. I look at it now and think we won the World Cup and how cool it was for them to have been a part of it. They're young and don't really understand but when they look back they'll be able to say they were there when their auntie won it and they were able to take the cup around.

"They're not my own kids but they're my nephews and I want the best for them. Being a police officer I obviously see quite a bit and I just want to make sure they're being raised in a safe, loving environment."

Attending training is not foreign for Winiata's nephews. They love the pool recovery sessions. At other times, they wait at gyms or kick a ball around the side of a field.

"It's challenging — you definitely have to manage your time well and make sure you balance everything out but it's like anything, you can't have excuses. You've got to make it work as best you can."

Winiata scored two tries in the World Cup final, and during celebrations the boys had a ball playing with the gold confetti.

Now she is back on the beat, as is lock Charmaine Smith. Their stories are but two examples. The Black Ferns are filled with teachers, students, nurses, farmers, mums, all of whom make time for 5am gym sessions before working full days, and often training again in the evening.

Lock Eloise Blackwell, a PE teacher at Epsom Girls' Grammar, and firefighting prop Rebecca Wood returned to their "real" jobs two days after arriving home. Rugby, after all, doesn't pay the bills. Attending the World Cup involved using the majority of allotted holidays.

Full-time work and training is a schedule many professional athletes never encounter. Clearly, it builds the character of these dedicated women.

The men's progression is usually from school to academies, provinces and on to Super Rugby teams. For now a comparable pathway in the women's XVs arena doesn't exist.

Black Ferns had a minutes silence for Colin Meads during Rugby World Cup Final. Photo / Photosport
Black Ferns had a minutes silence for Colin Meads during Rugby World Cup Final. Photo / Photosport

"If you were to ask anyone in the Black Ferns whether they would like it to be more sustainable they would say, 'Hell, yes.' We've never been in the position where that's been available to us so it's not like we're fighting to get it back. We're trying to push for something we've never had.

A few key factors are forcing attitudes to change.

The first is coverage. The more people you reach, the more impact sport has. A simple premise but another regularly taken for granted.

In a New Zealand context, all the Black Ferns' games were televised live from the World Cup. On a global scale the tournament reached record audiences, thanks to unprecedented investment from World Rugby.

Ratings were not as compelling across the board but England's semifinal victory over France drew a record 3.4 million fans. English viewers set their own record, with 2.6m watching ITV in a historic primetime slot for the final.

Little things help drive change. The Black Ferns featured in promotional ads in the build-up to the tournament, and had dedicated media assistance generating coverage on the ground. Both were firsts.

Social media, so often in the modern world a driver of issues, exploded in Ireland with the World Cup the most tweeted-about event of the year — bigger than the Conor McGregor and Floyd Mayweather megafight.

The next, as former Black Fern turned commentator Melodie Robinson explains, was the nature of the engrossing final in which New Zealand fought back from a seven-point halftime deficit to prevail 41-32.

"The way the final was played people forgot that it was women. They just saw some of the best rugby in a World Cup final they had ever seen," she said. "That was probably the extra thing that changed the perception. People started talking about the quality."

From there, the storyline around the Black Ferns turned to how they were paid $2000 a week for the tournament, while All Blacks receive $7500 every week they are in camp. How they fly cattle class and their male counterparts savour the benefits of business.

Fiao'o Faamausili, the New Zealand Black Ferns captain raises the world cup after their victory during the Women's Rugby World Cup 2017 Final. Photo / Getty Images
Fiao'o Faamausili, the New Zealand Black Ferns captain raises the world cup after their victory during the Women's Rugby World Cup 2017 Final. Photo / Getty Images

NZR chairman Brent Impey and wife Wendy spent time with the Black Ferns in Ireland. Impressed, it was there the spark to commercialise the women's game began. Robinson sensed the goalposts moving.

After arriving home to a packed Auckland Airport — another first for this team — NZR chief executive Steve Tew was careful, speaking more about the commercial challenges around throwing money at the women's game. But as the weeks passed and celebrations rolled on, a collective appreciation grew that this area needs urgent attention.

NZR is believed to have created a position specifically designed to secure commercial support for the women's game. With two world-leading teams that, as a brand, offer positive spin-offs around promoting social responsibility, attracting interest should not be difficult.

That this success came in a year when NZR promoted its first female, the highly respected Farah Palmer, to the board, and hot on the heels of the Respect and Responsibility review which outlined directives around improving attitudes towards women, targeting diversity, respect and inclusiveness, undoubtedly helped the Black Ferns gain further traction.

No doubt, behind the scenes, Palmer has been influential in pushing the message to the board.

Set aside World Cup glory, and evidence says investment is overdue. The women's game has exploded in New Zealand, with over 24,000 registered players representing 11 per cent growth over the past year alone (30 per cent growth from 2012 to 2015).

That ever-expanding talent pool needs harnessing. The largest increase comes in girls under 13, up 9 per cent to 16,000. It should also not be lost that, without such an influx, overall player numbers would be down. Rugby needs women.

In Robinson's playing days, coach Darryl Suasua forced the girls to train at the gym. Now they are self-motivated and look after their bodies in a much more professional way.

Since returning home and sensing change, the Black Ferns accepted the responsibility that comes with taking the trophy on tour and spreading the gospel, inspiring youth along the way, at schools, charities, communities throughout the country.

The upshot for senior players such as Winiata is attitudes towards the women's game feel different.

"We were thinking, 'Why now? Why after five World Cups are things changing?'

"It's exciting times," Winiata said. "Finally the ball is rolling. We just hope it keeps rolling. This is the first time we've had this kind of motion where it hasn't stopped and it hasn't been 'yeah, we'll talk about that next year'. It's actually happening. People are being asked to go and speak at events. There's big hype still around it.

"It's not just New Zealand that's noticing the Black Ferns now. Worldwide we're starting to build that legacy we've been looking for. There's talk of what now, and it's all looking positive for the XVs.

"Hopefully one day soon, maybe next year, there will be women getting paid to play the game they love."

In many ways the catalyst for change began before the World Cup — with the sevens team. The abbreviated game's pinnacle place at the Olympics is a huge lure for young athletes, setting up the reverse of the men's where XVs takes precedence.

With 20 contracted female players on retainers from $45,000 to $60,000, and an additional $2000 per tournament, sevens drove professionalism. It put these athletes on television, in newspapers, and raised the skill and fitness levels. That helped improve the XVs into a product a wider group could identify with.

Fathers and grandfathers, who never dreamed of their girls having the option to play rugby, are now actively encouraging them to do so.

"My daughter wants to be a Black Fern" is far more commonplace.

To ensure those sentiments and aspirations are not squandered, the time is here to provide a genuine pathway for the XVs. What more can they do to state their case?

Being a world champion in any sport is nothing to be scoffed at. Sure, all athletes make sacrifices to reach respective pinnacles but it seems clear these women deserve more.

From sorting pay to establishing a competition and attracting naming rights sponsors, much work remains. But as the Black Ferns have consistently proved, dedication and desire go a long, long way.

Respect is not enough. Reward must now follow recognition.