Unpredictability makes for women’s rugby comeback

As the reinvigorated Farah Palmer Cup heads into the play-offs this weekend, Taylah Tomokino-Hodson looks at why unpredictability has made the competition so enjoyable this season. 

For many years the Auckland Storm were an unstoppable force in the women’s national provincial rugby championship, winning 16 titles of 19.

The Storm’s dominance was aided by the City of Sails being home to the highest number of female players in the country, and the biggest concentration of Black Ferns in one team.

It’s fair to say people lost interest in the competition because the winner was often predictable early in the season.

But when the competition was rebranded the Farah Palmer Cup in 2016, it coincidentally spelled the end of an era for the Auckland-based team - through no fault of their own. Participation in women’s rugby had skyrocketed, thanks to the success of the Black Ferns and a conscious effort by New Zealand Rugby to promote the game to schoolgirls and cross-code hopefuls.

Now it seems the other regions have caught up with the traditional powerhouses of the women’s game – in participation numbers at least. New Zealand Rugby’s latest figures revealed that 27,838 females registered to play rugby this year - a 14.6 percent rise on last year.

Taranaki joined the expanded Farah Palmer Cup this season, taking the team total to 14. But it’s been a tough season for the Taranaki Whio, who failed to win a game, conceding 435 points and scoring just 22.

Spectators have labelled their entry into the competition as bad for the game and discouraging for potential athletes. But this is far from the truth.  

Hawke's Bay completed the 2017 season without a win, but now find themselves with four wins from six games and in the championship semifinals tomorrow.

Women in the Taranaki region needed a team to aspire to and they’ll be better for it next season.

World Rugby Sevens Player of the Year, Michaela Blyde, hails from the Taranaki region and was a diamond in the rough in their sevens team. The more teams in the competition the better for unearthing talent across the country.

The Farah Palmer Cup format was heavily criticised for producing one-sided drubbings like Auckland’s 86-0 rout of Tasman, and Bay of Plenty’s 78-0 defeat of Taranaki. But these are the result of crossover matches between premiership and championship teams.

Each team plays one crossover match, to be used as a benchmark for championship teams – not only to see the standard of the premiership, but where they rank against the top sides. Obviously some of these matches have racked up cricket scores, but Wellington toppled last year’s champions Canterbury in a crossover match, showing us that they are worthy contenders for the premiership.

Refreshingly, this year the Farah Palmer Cup has been great due to its unpredictability. Last year’s wooden-spooners Hawke's Bay defeated Wellington, who then went on to beat Canterbury.

Waikato overcame 2016 champions and last year’s runners-up Counties Manukau in round one, and Manawatu and Bay of Plenty recorded wins over the Auckland Storm for the first time in their history. After just the second round, no team was left undefeated.

Canterbury are looking like the hot favourites heading into this weekend’s playoffs. They’ve locked up the JJ Stewart Trophy for the summer - the women’s equivalent to the Ranfurly Shield - and meet Manawatu in their semifinal. Waikato have also emerged as title contenders, but will need to fend off Counties in the other semi.

Schoolgirl Lonita Ngalu-Lavemei has been a standout in the Waikato side this season. Photo: Getty Images

Auckland will not feature in the playoffs this weekend after finishing last in the premiership. But they’ve been thrown a lifeline in a final placing match against Bay of Plenty - who finished one place above Auckland and should feel hard done by.

After all, what’s the point of fighting to stay off the bottom of the table only to be told you’re still a chance for relegation?

In the championship, Wellington are clear favourites after being relegated last year and are a much improved outfit this season.

Next season I’d love to see Southland and Northland join the championship and have all 16 Mitre 10 Cup provinces represented in the female competition.

Southland Girls High School has featured at the Barbarians national top 4 secondary school nationals every year since its inception and are regarded as one of the best female rugby schools in New Zealand. But a women’s NPC team has been hard to conjure up when schoolgirls leave the region to study or pursue jobs elsewhere. Southland’s Amy Du Plessis has been a standout on the wing for the Otago Spirit this season.

Another fantastic feature of this competition is that the contracted Black Ferns play week in, week out, for their provinces, alongside a combination of provincial rugby veterans and schoolgirls.

Black Ferns head coach Glenn Moore sits in a very comfortable position ahead of the November internationals. He sees his squad members in action and gets an accurate view on the best our country has to offer in terms of female athletes.

I’ve been blown away by the skill level on display this season, and it’s because women and young girls are picking up the sport at an earlier age.

Transitioning from a circular ball to an oval ball is incredibly difficult, and everything about throwing a rugby ball feels unnatural – unless that’s all you’ve known.

Schoolgirls like Manawatu’s Kalyn Takitimu-Cook – who’s playing sevens in the Youth Olympics in Brazil this weekend - and Waikato’s Lonita Ngalu-Lavemei have been a joy to watch; direct products of the improving pathways for young female athletes.

Other standouts for me across the competition are Canterbury’s elusive fullback Olivia McGoverne and Waikato’s flanker Kennedy Simon. It would come as no surprise to me to see new faces enter the Black Ferns team.

Comments about the Farah Palmer Cup being a flawed competition are ill-informed. This is only the third year of the reinvigorated competition and new teams are always going to face teething issues.

I strongly believe in the next few years the competition will only strengthen. Coaches, players and spectators need to be patient because the best is yet to come. 

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