10 May 2024

What the new Warriors women’s side means for the Black Ferns

11:49 am on 10 May 2024
The Black Ferns and Warriors Women's teams.

The Black Ferns and Warriors Women's teams. Photo: PHOTOSPORT

The Black Ferns open their season on Saturday in Hamilton against the USA in the annual Pacific 4 Series. The current world champions are favoured to sweep the three-test schedule, with games against Canada and Australia to follow, but there's another challenge looming on the horizon.

The worst-kept secret in women's sport broke just over a month ago when the Warriors announced the return of their women's side for next season. Almost immediately, lines started getting drawn on where their players will come from - a fair few leading right to the current Black Ferns squad.

"We've got our ideas around it, we're getting lists together but our priority decision is to appoint a head coach. We want to make sure we get it right," said Warriors pathways and development manager Andrew McFadden, while stressing that the club's women's programme is still very much in its infancy. He did admit that the Black Ferns were potential recruitment targets for the future, though.

Warriors coach Andrew McFadden speaking to media at Mount Smart Staduim, 11 May 2016.

Photo: RNZ / Cole Eastham-Farrelly

"Yeah that's a possibility for sure. I read that there's some girls that might want to join the Warriors and we'll look at that at the right time. It's a unique circumstance that you get to build the squad from scratch."

Anecdotally, they won't have to go begging either. Bouncing between both sports is a hot topic of conversation among women's rugby players right now, while plenty of their Sevens counterparts have already made the jump.

Black Ferns No 8 Liana Mikaele-Tu'u.

Black Ferns No 8 Liana Mikaele-Tu'u. Photo: Andrew Cornaga/Photosport

Current Black Fern Liana Mikaele-Tu'u went one step further, going on record to state that her future goal would be code swap and to represent the Warriors. While you can fairly question the wisdom of the 14-test flanker's honesty, given that it puts her at a feasible disadvantage with her current and prospective employers in terms of contract leverage, it shows just how open the current player base is to a change.

Liana Mikaele-Tu'u's comments to Newstalk ZB's Nathan Limm.

Liana Mikaele-Tu'u's comments to Newstalk ZB's Nathan Limm. Photo:

"It makes us feel pretty good," McFadden said about the public displays of interest.

"It's a great competition and we're getting inquiries from managers… it is a lot to put together though."

Hannah Porter, NZ Rugby's women's high-performance manager, said that far from being a threat, they see it as "bloody exciting to have another way for females to be professional in this country".

"We've got really strong junior numbers, but we face similar challenges to the men in regard to a drop off through that secondary school age group."

Hannah Porter in her playing days with the Black Ferns Sevens.

Hannah Porter in her playing days with the Black Ferns Sevens. Photo: Paul Seiser/PHOTOSPORT

"I think the other thing is that in women's sport, the pathway isn't as linear. So, we have people having an experience in one sport and then coming later in life and having a different experience in another."

In regard to Mikaele-Tu'u's comment, Porter said: "We've been here before when you saw men's players choosing to play league… in regard to the individual comment we have no problems, if it's an off-handed comment or she is looking to go in the next couple of years, we'll keep working with her on that."

While both sides are playing nice, this does have a bit of an inevitable feel about it given that they are encroaching on each others' seasons. While male players swapping codes has gone on ever since league established itself, the women's versions of both sports have become professional at roughly the same time. They have been able to live together harmoniously through their unpaid eras anyway, given that club rugby and league have traditionally been played on separate days. This has meant most girls coming through the ranks have had time in both codes.

The most prominent example right now is Katelyn Vaha'akolo, who won World Rugby's breakthrough player of the year in 2023 after spending two seasons with the Newcastle Knights in the NRLW.

Katelyn Vaha’akolo of Auckland Storm scores a try during the Waikato Women v Auckland Storm, Farah Palmer Cup semi final

Katelyn Vaha’akolo of Auckland Storm scores a try during the Waikato Women v Auckland Storm, Farah Palmer Cup semi final Photo: Andrew Skinner / www.photosport.nz

Are there enough players to go around, though?

"Maybe, I can't really answer that definitively. I do know the NRLW is the elite women's competition and the salary cap and wages have gone up significantly, so that'll make it enticing for young women," McFadden said.

"Hopefully there is enough to go around, there's a lot of quality in the junior women's space. We'll be trying to maximise that as much as we can."

While player payments are confidential, if it simply came down to money then the Black Ferns hold the upper hand in that regard. At least for now that is, but with a viable alternative on the table that will put pressure on salaries to keep pace with what the NRLW is offering.

There is another upside to all of this as well. The establishment of a player market narrative is a welcome addition to the women's rugby conversation; indeed, it shows that the sport truly has taken the next step in professionalism. Money talks, but more importantly, it gets people talking.

"What we're doing is working with our individual players so that we have a strong relationship with them. Tyla (King) and Stacey (Waaka) have been in the Sevens programme for over 10 years, they were looking for a refresh and we don't have that international market, sabbatical type of clause the men's game does."

Porter is positive about the new dynamic a Warriors women's team will have, because of the increased visibility of female athletes.

"The opportunity to be a professional, I think you'll see more people wanting to play the game, through the community level and into our high-performance spaces."

It's a view shared by McFadden.

"The correlation of skills is so close, the opportunities are double for them. Certainly, it's going to be a good time to be an athletic young girl playing rugby or rugby league."