I've only ever cried once while watching a game of rugby. It happened last year, when I got up early to watch the final of the Rugby Women's World Cup in Ireland. It was a blistering game, full of drama and magic. I cried happy tears from the final whistle, through the trophy presentation and the haka. It was one of those games that you remember forever. It's one I might even tell my grandkids about one day.
I love the Black Ferns. Don't get me wrong, I'm a staunch BOP Steamers, Chiefs and All Blacks fan too, but the women in black fill me with so much pride I could burst. They are inspirational athletes who play with guts, determination and class, but they are also everyday Kiwi women who fly home from international fixtures to go back to their day jobs.
Captain Fiao'o Fa'amausili is a police detective in her other life. She's 37, she has played for the Black Ferns since she was 21, and, while she thought about retiring after the World Cup in 2017, decided to stick around to nurture young players coming through.
Lock Eloise Blackwell is a PE teacher at Epsom Girls' Grammar School. Teammate Aleisha Nelson is a nurse. While the Black Ferns have recently been offered $40,000-$45,000 contracts with NZ Rugby, many of them will still work, at least part-time. They serve their families, communities and their country, juggling each commitment and giving their all. They are the kinds of role models who set an amazing example for Kiwi kids - of any gender.
If you're looking for a team to feel proud of, this is it. I could go on and on gushing about them but, to cut a long story short, it's fair to say that I think they're pretty special. Which is why I believe that all of New Zealand should get behind them. Particularly with a World Cup-hosting bid in the mix.
The location of the 2021 Rugby Women's World Cup is currently up for debate. New Zealand is pitching to host the event, and I'm already dreaming of soldout crowds at Eden Park, watching our fierce wāhine steamroll whoever is unfortunate enough to be pitted against them. Fanzones, World Cup trails to the ground, school visits, the whole shebang. It could be one hell of an event.
New Zealand is up against Australia, England, France, Portugal and Wales in the fight for the right to host the Cup. Call me biased, but given the Black Ferns' World Cup record (we've won five out of the past six World Cup tournaments) and the fact we've never hosted the event (previous World Cups have been held in Wales, Scotland, the Netherlands, Spain, Canada, England, France and Ireland), it would be a crime not to give us the hosting rights. Given the enormous success of the men's World Cup in 2011, the IRB must know that we know how to put on a decent party.
The Black Ferns deserve to have a World Cup at home. But, as a country, we need to make a promise to them that we'll get behind them. They've played their hearts out for decades, totally dominating the game globally, so, really, it's the least we could do.
I know that there'll be naysayers out there. The kinds of people who say that women's sport is "boring" or "not real sport". The very same people, in short, who bore me so thoroughly that I hastily exit any conversation with them. If you can't enjoy a fierce battle for sporting glory just because the athletes happen to be ladies, you're not a real sports fan. And I'd challenge anyone who derides women's sport to watch that 2017 final and tell me that it wasn't a bloody good game of rugby.
Women's rugby is the biggest growth area in the sport. Kiwi girls are getting into the game at record rates. Toni Street's daughter, Juliette, is just one of the thousands of New Zealand girls getting out on the rugby field each winter. All around the country, more and more little girls are lacing up their rugby boots and heading off to rugby training. The Black Ferns are inspiring an entire generation of Kiwi girls to give it a go.
How amazing would it be for our young female rugby players to be able to go and see their heroes play in cities around the country? To have the most inspirational women's players in the world converge upon the nation for the tournament? For some young players, it could cement their dream to become professional players. And, hopefully, by the time the little girls playing Rippa Rugby grow into adult players, being a Black Fern will be a well-paid, fulltime career option.
In order for that to become a reality, we need to get behind women's rugby. Those little girls' dreams are in our hands. Women's rugby needs to be financially viable, with a passionate fan base both at the game and at home in front of the TV.
If we get the rights to the Cup, I know I'll be there at Eden Park, cheering for our women at the top of my lungs. Will you?