New Zealand has produced some fine rugby players, and had some great performances over 2016. The game is varied, with society today more fairly represented on the field as women take a prime position in New Zealand Rugby (NZR). The women’s game is strong, and it is time to celebrate that openly.

The numbers of women participating has risen year-on-year. From all levels, growing numbers, teams and success. From the five year old girls playing in mixed-teams with the boys, all with smiles on their faces. Right up to the Farah Palmer Cup and Black Ferns representing their country–women take the prize when looking at the game in 2016.

Women Take a Prime Position in NZ Rugby

If the 2015 Rugby World Cup heralded the epoch moment for men like Richie McCaw and Dan Carter, then Women take the prize for their achievements this year. Many of the most enthralling and well deserved results were from women’s rugby. That included the XV’s game, Sevens and in the Domestic Rugby competition.

Across the board, there have been outstanding contributions that all areas of the game that reinforce the quality, and improvement in both women’s play and coaching standards. That mix has been highlighted in the heightened exposure of the women’s game too. With such great improvement, it is an area to be proud of.

Amateur level provides fulfillment for Girls and Women

The traditional journey for girls entering the sport is the same across the world. Like the boys, they begin early and then graduate through to age-grade and learn all the core skills and values. From the smiles and satisfaction levels you see in the early stages, girls gain as much from sport as boys do.

This can continue through Club rugby or through the schools program. There, representative successes can see a progression up through the age levels. From secondary school and college, the options available to girls has often meant there is a natural drop-off in participation, but those numbers are on the rise thanks mostly to Sevens rugby. The faster game is retaining the numbers to see girls dream today of ‘Olympic Gold’.

Silver Medal for Sevens Sisters

Reaching the Gold medal final at the very first Olympic tournament for the Women, that was a major achievement. It has placed the ‘Sevens Sisters’ at the top of NZ Rugby teams–nominated for Team of the Year at the ASB Rugby Awards for 2016.

Along the way, there were some fantastic performances. Last Word On Rugby recognizes several of their contributions with a couple of bouquets;

‘High Flyer of the Year’ award: Portia Woodman. Some would call her the speed and power of the side, a threat from anywhere on the paddock. Woodman is a great organizer too, often calling the defensive lines along with Sarah Goss. As much as she is a high flyer, Woodman is a role model for women to look up to.

‘Players Player of the Year’: Hazel Tubic. While there will always be the flashy players, the hard workers can go un-noticed. This is where Tubic is the strength of the Sevens team. Always available in defense and attack, a consummate team player. The player others can rely on. And a handy kicker too.

Players player of the Year
Hazel Tubic of New Zealand scores a try against China during the IRB Women’s Sevens World Series (Photo by Warren Little/Getty Images)

While Sean Horan may have moved on, his contribution should also be recognized. In directing the side from 2012, he guided them to a Sevens Rugby World Cup win, as well as three of four HSBC Women’s Sevens Series titles. A great team manager, he can be proud of their record and also that his assistant Alan Bunting will inherit a team looking to step back onto the top podium again. The goal is the 2016/17 Sevens Series, and an eye on the 2018 Sevens Rugby World Cup to be hosted in San Francisco, USA.

Profile of the Women’s Game Has Never Been Higher

With that high profile, it has brought wider interest for both sevens and the XV’s game. The Black Ferns (women’s national team) have reinforced their status in International Women’s rugby. But back on the domestic rugby scene, there has been a revitalized competition.

Farah Palmer Cup Brings Improved Competition

Back in August, a fresh domestic Provincial Championship was launched, when the former-Black Ferns captain Farah Palmer was honoured by NZR. The women’s championship was renamed after the player, and it proved to be a fantastic season.

After many years of dominance, the Auckland Storm had owned the Provincial contest. There was little competition, but gladly for fans, that all changed this season. The nine team, round-robin series culminated in strong semifinal, that would see Counties-Manukau Heat challenge the perennial Auckland powerhouse.

2016 Championship Final – Counties 44 Auckland 22

The Counties side (see main picture) overcame years of suffering, when first beating Auckland in the regular season; then seeing off the challenge from the Wellington Pride, to then earn a home final. A superb effort there, they not only realized a dream but were the more dominant team over the year.

Filled with stars like Woodman and Tubic, they played as a family and it showed. The close group outperformed all others, and cemented the high standards that the national side would then illustrate. The Farah Palmer Cup was a resounding success, and look for many new stars to emerge from this stepping stone.

‘Provincial Player of the Year’ Victoria Subritzky-Nafatali. The tough running first-five was a revelation in her second year with the Heat [after shifting up from Otago]. A skilled distributor of the ball, she was a constant threat in helping her team amass 319 points and only 62 points against.

Women Go Unbeaten in 2016 International Season

Under head coach Glenn Moore, the team are yet to be defeated. Bringing together the best of the provincial players, including many Sevens stars [Woodman, Tubic, Goss and Kelly Brazier]. They started by clean-sweeping Australia, in a perfect setting: curtain raiser for the Bledisloe Cup match. That would be a perfect annual event, for my mind.

What they did achieve in Auckland, was only the start though. Heading up to the Northern Hemisphere, New Zealand faced three opponents–England, Canada and Ireland— and ran away with results. The Fiao’o Fa’amausili led squad had perfect results, never bested on tour but they were tested by each side in perfect preparations for next years Women’s Rugby World Cup.

On tour, many players displayed their worth. And LWOR celebrates one of the very best–‘International Player of the Year’ Seleca Winiata. Short on stature, but big of heart, Winiata has become a try scoring machine. Her 65 meter effort on Eden Park was one to remember.

If anything, the forwards may not be as acclaimed, but all play their part. From Charlene Gubb and Aleisha Nelson in the tight, to Charmaine Smith and Aroha Savage in the loose. The close knit side are on a sequence run of victories (since the last World Cup), and look to take this good form with them to Dublin in eight months time.

A Bright Future for the Women’s Game

With all the success on the field, it will be transferred to more interest and higher levels of engagement off it. All positives, and that must be fully supported by NZ Rugby.

The body has come through a difficult period involving actions by male players. A newly initiated ‘Respect and Responsibility Review’ panel will direct a new philosophy that brings the behaviour of players to the forefront. And woman will play a leading role.

By 2017, change will take hold of the NZ Rugby administration. Women will find representation that is equal to the number of players, and also for the effort put in by female coaches and volunteers across the country. It is still a club and union based system; with very few full time professionals. The grassroots plays a large part.

Women will be leaders of the future, with the game on the field mirroring that effort. From what we have seen in 2016, Women Take a Prime Position in NZ Rugby and with that recognized, long may that last.

“Main photo credit”

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