Turns out people do enjoy watching women play rugby

The Rugby World Cup opening day on Saturday showed that people will happily watch women play sport when it’s marketed and staged properly, writes Mad Chapman.

Chalk it up to being fresh out of isolation with Covid but I nearly cried watching Hinewehi Mohi perform the national anthem at Eden Park last night. It was the beauty of Mohi, who first sang the Māori anthem 23 years ago, having tens of thousands of New Zealanders singing alongside her. But it was also something else because here’s an incomplete list of other times I found myself welling up yesterday:

  • Walking out of our front gate with my partner, who has no interest in rugby but was excited about a fun day out at Eden Park
  • Getting on the train to Kingsland and seeing it filled with people, young and old, on their way to the rugby
  • Walking around the stadium to our gate and hearing the Fijian anthem and the huge cheer after it
  • Getting to our seats and watching the stadium fill up and knowing the only reason anyone was there was to watch women play sport
  • The haka

Wow, the haka. I’d seen the Black Ferns perform the haka on TV a number of times and it was always great, but have the Black Ferns ever performed with 34,000 supporters behind them lending their voices to the challenge? It was electrifying. Three leaders and formation changes? The All Blacks have never. Genuinely one of the best haka I’ve seen on that ground. With the Australian team approaching and the Black Ferns answering with their own advance, it felt like a genuine back and forth, and one that wouldn’t have been quite so goosebump-inducing without the roars from the crowd and the poi twirling in the stands .

The game itself was a decent display of rugby, particularly for those who were watching the sport for the first time in their lives. The Black Ferns’ seeming inability to catch a pass in the first half was frustrating, but not in a way that showed throughout the stadium, which was filled with families and groups of friends just having fun. Then as the comeback gathered momentum – thanks to simultaneous yellow cards to Australia – it became the best type of match, one with plenty of point-scoring and not too much stoppage. Perhaps the two most recognizable names on the field, Portia Woodman and Ruby Tui, did not disappoint with five tries between them.

As the fans wandered out after the 41-17 victory, I felt no need to be a little bit on guard, as I would typically be after a rugby match when the streets are filled with drunk, often angry, fans. Last night everyone strolled through the streets of Sandringham, largely sober and enjoying the perfectly still night.

Walking with the crowd and catching the train back home I found myself wanting to cry again. I’ve watched women play rugby to a crowd of 20. I’ve watched the best basketball players in the country play in an empty arena. I’ve watched Valerie Adams throw the shot put at what could be mistaken for a local club meet. I’ve become so used to watching women play sport in near silence that to see and hear the crowd at Eden Park last night, there entirely for women playing sport, felt like a turning point for all sport in Aotearoa.

Fans twirl poi that was handed out on opening day (Image: Hannah Peters/Getty)

And it felt particularly momentous given how little effort has been made by local parties to boost both the event and our home team. World Rugby puts on the Rugby World Cup and its footprint can be seen in the billboards and social media ads. Meanwhile Sanitarium, an official partner of New Zealand Rugby, released a new batch of Weet-Bix Stat Attack cards last month which included All Blacks who no longer play, as well as the All Blacks coach, but not a single Black Fern.

This is what the sport has been dealing with since the beginning.

People will continue to argue fruitlessly about the commercial value of women’s sport (as if men’s sport didn’t require huge investment early on) but what yesterday’s opening day showed is there are people who will happily spend all day watching women play sport when it’s a ) been advertised to them, and b) presented as one would expect from an elite sporting event. Halfway through the second match of the day (Fiji-England), my partner turned to me and said, “do I like sports now?” She wouldn’t have been the only one there asking that question.

The crowd of 34,000 wasn’t an All Blacks crowd being served women’s rugby before the test they actually paid to see. It wasn’t even a “women’s sports” crowd of dedicated followers. It was families and friends who saw the opportunity for a fun, very cheap day and night out and got far more than their money’s worth in entertainment. I’d be surprised if anyone left Eden Park last night feeling that the event under-delivered, and I hope that, like me, many booked their tickets for the grand final (also at Eden Park next month) when they got home.

This tournament was always going to be a make or break moment for women’s rugby in Aotearoa. And despite, in my view, an embarrassing lack of investment from local parties in the lead-up, the opening day was everything you would want from a women’s sporting event. All of the good rugby and tension and entertainment, and a lot less of the anger and drunken debauchery.

If there was one disappointment on the night, it was still seeing empty seats (despite the crowd being the biggest by far for a women’s sporting event in New Zealand history).

That extraordinary haka was better than it’s ever been because it always is when fans are on your side. Next month’s final – assuming the team tidies up the basics – will be another level entirely and I will almost certainly cry seeing what’s possible with a bit of investment in women athletes. You wouldn’t want to miss it.