Rikki Swannell gives us an early taster of how the inaugural Super Rugby Aupiki will look come March.
It’s been a long time coming. More than 20 years after a women’s domestic provincial competition was introduced and three years since women were first paid to play as semi-professionals comes the next evolution: Super Rugby Aupiki.
Aupiki is a stepping stone. It draws on the journey of Tane, the Maori god of forests and birds, and his ascent to the uppermost realm to retrieve baskets of knowledge. In creating this competition, New Zealand Rugby’s Maori cultural advisor Luke Crawford has linked Tane’s story with a group of players striving to achieve higher honours. Super Rugby Aupiki is designed to bridge the gap between the Farah Palmer Cup and international rugby.
It’s a gentle dip of the toe into the waters of a professional competition, with a short, sharp format. Super Rugby Aupiki will run across four weekends, beginning on March 5-6, with teams to play home and away games in the following weeks. The final between the top two teams is slated for March 26. Some matches may be played as double-headers with the men’s Super Rugby competition, while teams will have the ability to take games to smaller, regional grounds.
Twenty-eight players have been selected in each squad, at least 15 of whom have come from the Farah Palmer Cup unions represented by each franchise. Others have been drafted from outside their union.
Every player will be contracted to their franchises but not every player can yet be considered a fulltime professional athlete; the majority will still juggle work, study and family. But, for the first time, every single player will be paid via a tiered pay structure similar to that of the Black Ferns Sevens programme. It means more than 100 women will earn money by playing rugby.
Having grown up watching the Chiefs, Chelsea Alley will now be one. The Hurricanes will have another powerhouse storming down the left wing in the form of Ayesha Leti-I’iga, and the Blues may get to showcase the next big thing, Patricia Maliepo.
But you won’t see the Crusaders or Highlanders. Instead, Matatu becomes New Zealand’s newest sports franchise, a combined South Island team that will draw resources and support from both men’s teams and encompass the Tasman, Canterbury and Otago provincial unions.
Blair Baxter will be the head coach, joined by his Canterbury assistants Whitney Hansen and Tony Christie. Baxter is conscious of ensuring the team embraces its entire region, despite being based in Christchurch.
“We’re privileged to be Matatu. The narrative behind that is powerful and the values we’ve been gifted will be worked a lot into our group,” he says. “We’ve got the Highlanders, Otago and Tasman supporting us, so we need to ensure that they belong and are as valued as anyone from Canterbury.”
The values Baxter speaks of are determination, legacy, connections and unity. He says both the coaching staff and the players are aware of the significance of this moment and what is ahead of them.
“It’s new and exciting; we’ve got a new fan base, and a chance to create our own legacy and do something that’s never been done before.”
Because the commitment for players isn’t fulltime, each team will have to hit the ground running. The squads will come together four days a week to train, play, travel and recover over the weekend before disbanding and, for some, heading back to their day jobs.
Baxter expects the teams to be very well matched.
“It’s the best 120-odd players in the country, so I suspect to see really tight, contested local derbies, and every team is going to be well coached and resourced,” he says.
Baxter has no doubt about the quality of rugby that will be on display: “The skillset is higher and higher and growing rapidly, two or three years ago you may not have seen the same skillset like you did in the FPC final,” he enthuses.
“Add in Black Ferns Sevens players who’ve been pro athletes for five years, and the bar will be raised.”
The scheduling means the majority of the Black Ferns Sevens squad will be part of the competition. With international travel still a challenge for New Zealand sports teams, indications are the Black Ferns won’t be back on the World Series until Hong Kong at the start of April. The fulltime professional players will get critical game time, albeit in a different format, as they attempt to defend their Commonwealth Games and Rugby World Cup Sevens titles mid-year. Players like Portia Woodman and Kelly Brazier have indicated they’re keen to be involved in both major sevens events and the all-important Women’s Rugby World Cup, to be held on home soil in October.
The Super franchises have been wholehearted in their support and commercially there has been early traction. As they did in the one-off game in May, Waitomo will sponsor the Chiefs women while Matatu has also garnered a new sponsor independent of their male-affiliated franchises in Bayleys Canterbury. Nib is on board with the Blues women and the Hurricanes also have strong commercial support, with a front-of-jersey sponsor confirmed.
Perhaps, however, the biggest raised eyebrow has come over the appointment of the four coaches, who are all highly credentialled but are all men. Joining Baxter in the coaching cohort is gold medal-winning sevens coach Allan Bunting at the Chiefs, Black Ferns assistant Wesley Clarke at the Hurricanes and former professional player Willie Walker at the Blues.
While every team will have at least one woman in an assistant role, the pathway for female coaches remains a challenge. New Zealand Rugby has acknowledged the progress is slow. For his part, Baxter would like to see a point where people will just be viewed as coaching “the game”, not ones who coach the “men’s game” or the “women’s game”.
The new competition slots into a wider global change to the women’s calendar, which in all likelihood will mean fewer Black Ferns playing in club and perhaps even Farah Palmer Cup rugby. Baxter hopes the structure won’t become a carbon copy of what has happened to the men’s game at grassroots.
“I really hope we still see our Black Ferns play club rugby – we won’t next year due to the World Cup – but hopefully in the following years they can continue because there will be space in the calendar. All the Aupiki players will be involved in FPC… I can’t see it evolving to the men’s space in the next three or four years and the longer it stays that way the better.”
The four-week format is locked in for two years with a view to a possible Australian connection in the future. But the priority for the first generation of Blues, Chiefs, Hurricanes and Matatu women and everyone involved in Super Rugby Aupiki is developing a good competition, a great product and a sound base from which to continue the ascent.