IRB eyes on Pasifika Aotearoa Women’s rugby cup
The rugby focus in Auckland will be this Saturday’s Eden Park clash between the Blues and the Cheetahs. Added to that is the excitement of seeing Jerome Kaino and Maa Nonu returning to Super rugby.
But for the global game of rugby, including the International Rugby Board (IRB), it is the Pasifika Aotearoa Cup for women kicking off at North Harbour’s Northcote club that’s of greater interest.
From Pacific Guardians sources we hear, if the four-week tournament turns out to be a success, it is probable the IRB will use the format to run similar women’s tournaments in other countries around the world.
That’s a huge intellectual currency NZ Rugby Union (NZRU) should claim as it is in the women’s where rugby’s global growth gains will be the greatest.
The Pasifika Aotearoa tournament is the brainchild of the NZRU, but the idea stemmed from the mind of its Women’s Development Officer for Pacific, Ms Vania Wolfgram.
Talking to the Pacific Guardians, Ms Wolfgram said the tournament is based around a ‘Four Nations’ format with Counties Manukau Cook Islands, Northern Region Maori, Auckland Samoa and Auckland Tonga playing in a five week tournament. Its an opportunity to showcase Pacific culture and add its colourful flavour to attract Pacific women to participate.
So far the interest has been immense, “I’ve got texts and emails from as far away as Australia and Hawaii,” said Ms Wolfgram.
Held over a five-week period from 22 March to 19 April around the Auckland region, the matches will be played in 20 minute quarters (17 minute quarters for U19s), while all front row players will take part in a ‘front row factory’ covering new scrum laws.
The players attending the mandatory scrum course will be among the first to participate in New Zealand Rugby’s new regulations for 2014 allowing contested scrums at First XV secondary school level and above.
According to Ms Wolfgram, the opportunity came up when the regular Maori national women’s competition that usually takes place at this time was postponed.
“It was the perfect opportunity to put a tournament for Pacific women formally into the NZRU schedule,” she said.
The tournament will have two segments, an open (20 years and over) and an Under19 section.
“The statistics we have is that girls playing rugby at school once they finish do not continue with rugby when they leave.”
There are all sorts of reasons for that when it involves girls, and it also includes girls still at school.
“I really feel for young college girls getting caught in little pockets or in schools that don’t accommodate rugby. But there are ways around that whether its composite teams, or entering into 7s tournaments where there’s room for that, and most unions are okay with that as girls rugby is just getting back to where it used to be.
“Then there is also a perception that the step up from school to club is too big. And in all honesty that’s a fair statement. You’ve got your Black Ferns playing at club level so a young 18-year old fresh out of school is excused if they feel intimidated in that scenario.”
However, her job is to grow women’s rugby and the tournament will not only help gauge the interest, but also promote women’s rugby to the Northern region clubs to be more active in women’s rugby.
As the teams prepared over the past weeks, a number of interesting observations have already been made why Pacific women enter the cup and not clubs.
For the Cook Islands, they fielded four fifteen-a-side teams in one Cook Islands sports event.
“The reasons for that turnout are mothers coming back, the timing of the competition where its still warm, they can bring the kids to training, and the three to four weeks is not too long.
“And then there’s playing for your parents or grandparents country which is something very precious to our people.”
The same goes for the Samoan and Tongan groups.
“In all my years of playing rugby, I’ve only seen two maybe three Tongan women in club rugby. This week, there are more than 40 of them. Representing your home country is one of the really big reasons for them turning up.”
The other perception is that club rugby is for women with aspirations to higher honours.
However, the main focus of the Pasifika Aotearoa Cup is not winning. It’s about re-engaging former players and more importantly, gauging what needs to be done to attract ‘new to the game’ younger players.
“We aim to encourage those who played rugby before to come back or continue once they leave college. But of really keen interest will be girls who are new to rugby, who have never played the game before.”
The environment and rewards for women’s rugby could not be more exciting said Ms Wolfgram.
“For young women wanting to travel the world, through rugby, the world’s your oyster,” she said.
“We’ve got girls who have come across from netball and football that are now playing rugby all over the world representing New Zealand 7s. We are leveraging off the Sevens as it is a definite pathway for women. We now have contracts up for grabs for women.”
And even though winning is not the ultimate aim there will be Black Ferns players playing, the Black Ferns management team will be there and National 7s coaches will be out scouting talent.
It means there are plenty of opportunities for players seeking higher honours to strut their stuff.
As the cup kicks off, Vania acknowledges the work of the many supporters for women’s rugby over the years.
None more so than Mr Nick Bakulich who has been involved with Samoa women’s rugby for well over ten years.
“Nick has been immense for the Auckland based Samoan girls. There is never enough competition for them but Nick’s always active searching out competitions for the girls whether its overseas or where-ever he’s always on the lookout.”
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The Pasifika Aotearoa Cup Women’s Rugby Competition Fixtures
22nd March – Northcote Rugby Club
5th April – Manurewa Rugby Club
12th April – Auckland Marist Rugby Club
19th April – Ardmore Marist Rugby Club