Women in New Zealand are encountering obstacles, such as training and inadequate number of urinals, as they join the sport of rugby in large numbers.
It is a typical scenario for children where one parent agrees and the other disagrees. The issue at hand is whether Brooke Harley, a 12-year-old girl from New Zealand, can transition from playing tag rugby to tackle.
“I enjoy playing tackle and using it as a way to release my frustrations,” explained Brooke, who is a member of the Suburbs rugby football club in West Auckland. Her passion for tackling was sparked by watching the Black Ferns win the 2022 Women’s Rugby World Cup in New Zealand, which created a sense of excitement for women’s sports across the country.
According to New Zealand Rugby, there has been a 20% increase in the number of women and girls participating in community rugby since the Black Ferns’ win. In the 2023 season, almost 30,000 individuals played. However, this rise in popularity has revealed some issues, such as limited access to change rooms for female players and unequal playing time for girls on co-ed teams.
Safety concerns regarding tackles are a pressing matter, and there has been a lack of training for women in this particular field.
The New Zealand Rugby organization predicted the rise of the women’s game and recently introduced a 10-year strategy to keep players involved by promoting cultural change. This plan involves placing more women in leadership roles within clubs, raising the visibility of girls and women’s teams, and implementing additional tackle training.
Mike Hester, the manager of New Zealand Rugby’s participation development, acknowledges that numerous clubs acknowledge their lack of preparation for supporting girls and women’s rugby. He mentions that obstacles such as inadequate change rooms, limited field availability, and a lack of child-friendly environments are commonly faced by these clubs.
Members of Wairarapa Wahine Toa, a women’s rugby team located in a rural region of New Zealand’s northern island, have encountered these problems. According to Jodie Somerville, the club’s chairperson, they make sure to bring a bin for period products when they go for an away game.
Somerville states that the men’s changing rooms are not welcoming for females when the team travels to away games. The club plans to use a $30,000 grant to upgrade the change rooms for the upcoming season. She explains that the men’s change rooms typically have limited facilities, with only one toilet and multiple urinals. This results in long waiting times and shortened team talks.
In 2022, New Zealand Rugby published a guide for optimizing change rooms to accommodate the needs of all genders, even if a club only has one available. This includes providing showers with individual, lockable cubicles instead of the typical open-space layout found in men’s sports.
According to Hester, it is challenging for rugby clubs to meet the needs of players because they do not own the facilities they use.
According to player Waireka Collings, Wahine Toa, a team consisting of 30 players, promotes a family-friendly environment. This means that if a child happens to run onto the field during training, no one will mind. They also plan to establish a junior team in the upcoming year.
Wahine Toa – which means woman warrior in Māori – also offers babysitting at training and games. Collings, who has five children, says “we have mums who just popped a baby out and are back into the game” a few months later.
Her 12-year-old daughter does the babysitting, along with students from a nearby college. “It alleviates the pressure on mums to juggle everything,” Collings says.
Tackling ‘gives confidence’
Safety concerns regarding tackling are present in both men’s and women’s rugby. In New Zealand, young players participate in touch or tag rugby, and the option to play tackle rugby is introduced at the age of seven. The safe height for tackling in community rugby was recently lowered to below the sternum.
According to Hester, there is a higher level of adoption of the tackle height restriction among boys and men compared to girls. He notes that while tackle training is well-established for younger players, it is not as prevalent for older players, particularly women who may choose to tackle later in life and have not completed training courses offered to younger age groups.
“It simply emphasizes the importance of focusing on both coach and player education.”
Darren Brewer, the manager in charge of the junior division at Suburbs Rugby Football Club, desires to witness an increase in the number of girls choosing tackle rugby instead of touch or tag rugby.
Brewer says that by participating in mixed tackle rugby teams, some Suburbs female players have gained more confidence and are better equipped to combat discrimination on the field and in their daily lives. Some players have shared that they used to feel excluded during games.
This year, Mia McCalman, age 8, was the sole female player on her team. She claims that her teammates in the mixed tackle rugby team would often accuse her of errors she didn’t make and rarely pass her the ball.
According to Brewer, clubs require a sufficient number of players to have all-female tackle teams, which leaves mixed-gender teams as the only alternative. The club has seen success in the junior division and plans to have four all-female tackle teams next year.
Mia plans to participate in tackle rugby again in the upcoming season with a new team consisting of all female players from the Suburbs. She mentions, “I enjoy getting rough and dirty.”
Over the course of 12 months since the Black Ferns’ victory, Brooke conducted a tackle training session at the nearby Ponsonby rugby club. This club is known for producing both male and female players who go on to play in professional leagues and for national teams. Eventually, Brooke’s mother was convinced and she will be participating in tackle rugby during the 2024 season.
“It’s quite fun,” she remarks, about participating in rugby, “once you understand the game.”