5 Oct 2022

Rugby: Black Ferns - 'Once were Weirdos'

5:30 am on 5 October 2022

Twenty years ago female rugby players regarded as 'Weirdos' says Black Ferns assistant coach Wes Clarke - but now the country is getting behind them.

Black Ferns players during the national anthem ahead of the test against Japan in September.

Black Ferns players during the national anthem ahead of the test against Japan in September. Photo: Andrew Cornaga / www.photosport.nz

The Black Ferns will defend their world crown when the World Cup kicks off at Eden Park on Saturday - the first time the women's tournament has been held in the southern hemisphere.

Black Ferns assistant coach Wes Clarke has been involved in the women's rugby for 20 years.

And as the Black Ferns count down to their tournament opener against Australia on Saturday evening he's been reflecting on the changes he's seen in the sport.

"I was there when they were very much on the fringes of society and they were 'wierdos' for playing the game so it's massively rewarding to see this (the transformation) now happening," said Clarke.

"We were driving to training and saw a billboard talking about the country getting behind women's sport...it's special, reallly special."

Clarke is well aware of the transformation in the two decades of his involvement.

But there's also been a transformation in the space of a few months for the Black Ferns too.

In fact Clarke has likened the past year to a "horror movie" at times.

In April the side was in disarray with coach Glenn Moore resigning in the wake of a horror northern hemisphere tour at the end of last year where the Black Ferns failed to win a test.

Team management was accused of favouritism, verbal abuse and bullying which triggered a review, that ultimately found New Zealand Rugby had not sufficiently supported the women's game.

Former All Blacks coach Wayne Smith was appointed head coach with Clarke, who had been part of the previous coaching setup retained.

Black Ferns head coach Wayne Smith.

Black Ferns head coach Wayne Smith. Photo: Andrew Cornaga / www.photosport.nz

"It's been a massive year as everyone knows. The start of the year seemed like one those horror movies - where the hallway gets really long and the end seems so far away but the last month has gone really quick and it's a great feeling to have gone from where we were to where we are now."

While Clarke expects more females will want to play rugby post the World Cup he wants the focus to also be on retaining players in the sport.

"I want to see the support structures (put in place) - good coaching, fun experiences, great changing rooms, and a welcoming environment so they stay."

Black Ferns loose foward Charmaine McMenamin.

Black Ferns loose foward Charmaine McMenamin. Photo: Sarah Reed / www.photosportnz

The Black Ferns feel a strong reponsibility to advance the woman's game.

Black Fern loose forward Charmaine McMenamin made her first class debut 13 years ago and was part of the 2017 world cup winning side.

Last year though she was struck down by a rare spinal injury and wondered if she'd ever play again.

She's battled back from surgery to reclaim her place in the side but is adamant its not solely about how the side performs on the field that will dictacte the future fortunes of the sport.

"Performing on the world stage is going to be massive and especially at home but I think it's the smaller community things that the Black Ferns do, which makes the Black Ferns what they are.

"Sevens became an Olympic sport and the sport boomed and then we won the 2017 world cup and it boomed again - participation in the women's game is a whole lot higher than what it is with the boys, the boys' are actually declining so having the best countries in the world here is just going to be unreal."

But McMennamin knows there are still some doubters.

"The game has obviously gone professional. You'v got Super Rugby Aupiki which is a step up from FPC (Farah Palmer Cup) and that's just going to grow and around the world I think it will do the same thing.

"They (World Rugby) wants to introduce club championship further down the line, so I think people are finally going to see women can play rugby and its an exciting electric game now," she said.

Organisers are hopeful Eden Park will be a sellout for the triple header opening day on Saturday with over 35 thousand tickets already sold.