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World Cup sevens an emblem of equality

From the players to the match officials and commentators, the World Cup Sevens was a breakout event in women's rugby, writes Taylah Hodson-Tomokino.

While celebrating Michaela Blyde crossing the try-line for the third time, in the dying moments of the women’s sevens grand final, I couldn’t help but admire the amazing women who’d played a role in the tournament.

In what is a very male-dominated sport, the Rugby World Cup Sevens was an emblem of equality.

Over three days, 95,000 spectators packed into AT&T Park in San Francisco to watch 24 men’s and 16 women’s teams compete for the title of world champions. Not only was the tournament a huge success for our beloved Black Ferns sevens and the All Blacks sevens, it was an incredible showing of just how far the women’s game has come.

After a comprehensive 29-0 win over the French - worthy finalists after defeating Australia in the semi-finals – New Zealand captain Sarah Goss lifted the trophy in front of a 38,000 strong crowd. This is a stark contrast from five years ago, when the Black Ferns sevens won their first World Cup in front of the empty Luzhniki Stadium in Moscow.

The seventh edition of the Rugby World Cup sevens saw the women’s and men’s tournament held together for the first time. The women weren’t the “curtain-raisers”, as they’re so often titled.

At the 2013 World Cup, the women played the majority of their games at a separate stadium, where the games weren’t televised. Only 14 of their 50 games were played in the same stadium as the men.

World Cup champion Black Fern Linda Itunu recalled being able to “hear myself think” – so small were the crowds.

By televising every game in this year’s tournament, and running the men’s and women’s world championships side-by-side, World Rugby has paid much-deserved respect to the sevens women. And they didn’t disappoint.

Their games were exciting. The knock-out format of the tournament kept viewers on the edge of their seats.

England were the first big team to experience how unforgiving the format was, eliminated in the first round by their Irish rivals. There were shock exits on the men’s side of the draw - Australia failing to progress past the first round after being dealt to by the French. Every game became a must-watch for spectators – and do-or-die for their teams.

The Black Ferns impressed their dominance right from the start - progressing through the first two rounds without conceding a point (beating Mexico 57-0, then Ireland 45-0).

Their semi-final was arguably the toughest match of the tournament, up against the United States who had a home advantage in front of a packed stadium. The 26-21 score-line in favour of the “Sevens Sisters” showed just how hard-fought their victory was.

The Black Ferns sevens then breezed past the French in the final - commentated by popular New Zealand sports broadcaster Rikki Swannell and former Australian sevens powerhouse Tiana Penitani.

The finals were an all-female affair, in terms of commentators and referees. In total, seven females officiated in the women’s competition and assisted in the men’s.

That included Joy Neville and Alhambra Nievas, the first women to referee men’s international fixtures, and our own Rebecca Mahoney. A former Black Fern and member of the New Zealand high performance referee squad, Mahoney was in the thick of the action. When she returns home, she’ll officiate in the men’s National Provincial Competition, where she is tipped to control a Mitre 10 Cup match.

Swannell, now a familiar voice to many New Zealanders, made history earlier this year by becoming the first woman to commentate a Super Rugby match play-by-play. She was joined by very knowledgeable women in commentary throughout the World Cup tournament, who gave fantastic insight and analysis.

Ireland’s most capped women’s rugby representative, Lynne Cantwell, former England representative and World Rugby Hall of Fame inductee Maggie Alphonsi, and Penitani rounded out the female commentary crew.

The World Cup showed us that not only are women capable of playing, refereeing and commentating alongside the men, but they deserve equal treatment at all future sevens tournaments.

Are there seriously still people out there who claim women rugby players don’t deserve the exposure, because they lack skill and are boring? Anyone who parades around trying to convince people that this is the case hasn’t bothered to watch our Black Ferns sevens team in action.

In fact, the women’s teams who took part in the tournament were all exceptional and downright entertaining.

I’d never been a big fan of an Australian athlete (as a patriotic Kiwi) until I saw Evania Pelite bedazzle defenders with her footwork and speed. I also developed an admiration for the pure physical prowess of All-American track star-turned-rugby player Naya Tapper, who scored more points against the Black Ferns than any other athlete at the tournament.

Not only are we as New Zealanders incredibly proud of the All Blacks and Black Ferns sevens sides, but any fan of the sport - and the women’s game in particular - will be celebrating the success of the Black Ferns and how well they conducted themselves on and off the field.

From the pure brilliance of Blyde, to the passionate anthem singing of Ruby Tui, and the sheer determination of Goss, these Kiwi women showcased just how entertaining and skillful women’s rugby can be.

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