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Black Ferns: a new dawn for women’s rugby worldwide

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ANALYSIS: By Jamie Wall, RNZ Sports Journalist

The Blacks Ferns 41-17 win over the Wallaroos at Auckland’s Eden Park last night was good, but the one that did go was better.

There had been a lot of guesswork before the Rugby World Cup about how people would react, given the team’s recent history and the fact that women’s rugby has never really been a priority for those who run the game in Aotearoa New Zealand.

But it took a World Cup to finally achieve one thing.

Officials knew that the most important at a sporting event are not the players. It’s not the volunteers, or the entertainers, or even the guy who cooks Fritz’s Wieners.

They are those who are there for the first time, most often children but sometimes adults trying something new.

They’re the most important because all of their experience just might mean they’ll come back next time, and again and again until they call themselves real fans. They will bring their friends, family and possibly their own children.

If the sporting event can succeed, they lock that person up for life.

Poor experiences
It’s something that rugby hasn’t been very good at lately. The lackluster matchday experiences played a huge role in crowds for everything below (and sometimes including) the All Blacks gradually declining, to the point where NPC attendance is virtually non-existent. There is nothing unique, very little special.

Last night at Eden Park turned that idea upside down. While there is a conversation to be had about the exact number of fans in attendance (43,000) and whether a clearly not full stadium can be described as “sold out”, it ultimately didn’t really matter. ‘importance.

Looking around showed a different view than an All Black test match, many more children and families. Groups of people who were clearly drawn to women’s rugby and its World Cup for reasons they had come to themselves.

It was up to the day itself to carry them further.

If it was their first appearance at a rugby match, what they got guaranteed them that they would definitely come back. The wave of new fans of a game that for a while the Black Ferns weren’t allowed to win is a wonderful and unique experience in itself.

It was a night of making sure the fan experience was paramount: from Rita Ora’s performance to affordable Black Ferns tickets to making sure every kid got a picture after the game – even if this meant that they did not enter the hangars until well after 10 p.m.

Black Ferns’ Portia Woodman celebrates with the fans after the game. Image: Photosport/RNZ

The energy of the crowd was also clearly different from what is usually found in Eden Park. For starters, there were no massive outcries of protest against the refereeing decisions. Nobody got drunk either, even though it was Saturday night.

happy and safe
The general feeling was that it was an environment in which you could feel happy and safe, something that is less directly quantifiable than numbers but infinitely more valuable in a larger context.

Does that mean every Black Ferns Test can be guaranteed a big crowd if it’s held in a big stadium? Probably not, because the World Cup factor plays a huge role in getting people going.

But it’s a new dawn for women’s rugby, this time with a genuine professional New Zealand rugby competition to follow it and a commitment from World Rugby to continue the momentum in Test matches. It’s proof that if you do it right and invest right, people will show up in droves.

From an elite perspective, this all makes sense because it should have happened years ago. But there was a sign during the week that the penny had finally gone down in terms of what that will mean in the long run.

Asked how the Black Ferns would inspire player numbers, coach Wayne Smith said “future generations will be inspired to play rugby, be fans and follow the game”.

It’s the nail on the head, because it doesn’t matter whether these future fans are girls or boys. They will grow and fill the seats at Eden Park and other stadiums.

While the opening of the World Cup should rightly be seen as a celebration of women’s rugby at the moment, years from now it will be remembered as an important day for New Zealand’s domestic game in general. .

This article is republished under a community partnership agreement with RNZ.

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