Rugby

Captain wants fans to see more of Sevens sisters

Sarah Hirini isn’t shy with her opinion.

It’s how it has to be when you’re in the shop window of the fastest-growing women’s sport in New Zealand.

It’s all part of the package when you’re at the forefront of the revolution in women’s rugby, and it comes with captaining the best sevens rugby team in the world.

“We want to say how we feel,” Hirini says. “We want to express how we’re feeling, and we know people are listening to us now.”

Hirini (nee Goss) had a crack at television broadcasters late last year when they didn’t show all of the Black Ferns Sevens games from the World Rugby Sevens series out of Glendale in the United States.

And now the veteran skipper is willing to have a chip at World Rugby for not sanctioning a women’s draw at the HSBC Hamilton Sevens this weekend - the first time the Black Ferns Sevens have ever played on New Zealand soil.

The Black Ferns will run out at Waikato Stadium, but only because New Zealand Rugby organised an invitational event to run alongside the official men’s World Series. The women will play games against France, England and China.

“It would be nice to have a full world series tournament here in New Zealand,” Hirini says. “The more we can play in front of our fans the better.”

While most All Blacks are masters at being bland in public, New Zealand’s women rugby players know they have to be strong advocates for their sport.

Last November, Michaela Blyde, the two-time women’s world sevens players of the year, said it was “totally unfair” the Black Ferns Sevens games out of Dubai weren’t being broadcast in New Zealand.

A month earlier Hirini had tweeted her disappointment that the tournament in the USA wouldn’t be shown on TV in New Zealand.

Sky TV said it showed only the final because a broadcast feed of the earlier games wasn’t available.

Hirini remains disappointed. “It’s frustrating when the games aren’t shown on TV because that’s how we get to be seen.”

Relief has come, in a small way, with World Rugby showing all the tournaments on Facebook, so between that and Sky TV, Kiwi fans should be able to watch all of the Black Ferns Sevens games this year.

It’s a key part of growing the game, because while 15s remains the main game for the men, sevens is leading the way in women’s rugby, and the New Zealand team are fantastic ambassadors for the sport.

They are stacked with superstars like Blyde, Portia Woodman and Kelly Brazier, and play with such joy that it would take an extremely cold heart to not be enthused and entertained by them.

And unlike most of their male counterparts, the women are also happy to talk off the field, even about potentially controversial topics.

They accept that being political is a fact of their rugby lives and talk openly and honestly on a wide range of topics - ranging from how the game is developing, to equality and - for some - their sexuality.

Woodman, who will miss the Hamilton sevens with an achilles injury, talked to Stuff last week about her impending marriage to teammate Renee Wickliffe.

None of the 1181 All Blacks has said he is gay.

Make no mistake, Hirini isn’t whinging. She’s amazed at how far sevens has come: from having no national team seven years ago to now being fully professional with a permanent base at Mt Maunganui.

She simply wants more for her sport. Surely that’s a good thing?

The 26-year-old, who married Conor Hirini earlier this month, has been playing rugby since she was 13. She’s a graduate of Feilding High School, which also produced All Blacks halfback Aaron Smith and the Whitelock brothers Sam, Luke, George and Adam.

She made the Black Ferns Sevens team in 2012, and was part of the squad that won silver at the 2016 Rio Olympics, and gold at both the Commonwealth Games and the World Cup last year.

She made the Black Ferns 15s side in 2016, winning the World Cup the following year. In 15s she is an openside flanker, and is often compared to one of the All Blacks’ greatest.

“She’s a little bit of a female Richie McCaw,” says Deb Robinson, the former long-serving All Blacks doctor who also worked with the Black Ferns at the 2017 World Cup.

She’s also referring to Hirini’s farming background - she was helping out with the shearing at just seven years old - and their work ethic, humility and professionalism.

Uncannily, Hirini also wants to be a pilot - just as McCaw is - and will use a Prime Minister’s scholarship this year to take the first steps toward getting airborne.

She also wants a double dose of World Cup success, like McCaw, and will switch back to 15s after next year’s Tokyo Olympics where she hopes to go one better than Rio and come home with gold.

For now though, Hirini has Hamilton on her mind.

She’s excited to at last be able to wear the silver fern in a sevens match at home, but that expectant joy comes with a tinge of frustration.

This is an invitational tournament. It’s not yet part of the World Series that takes the women to Glendale in the US, Dubai, Sydney, Japan’s Kitakyushu, Langford in Canada and Biarritz in France.

Adding Hamilton to the series would boost the women to seven tournaments, one shy of the eight Hirini thinks they should be playing (and still two fewer than the men play).

It will happen, it’s just when it will happen that frustrates her.

“It’s hard to grow a fan base when you aren’t playing in front of your own fans.”

It’s not perfect but it’s a lot better than nothing. which is what the women had last year.

“It’s going to be awesome,” Hirini says. “I can’t wait to pull on the black jersey at home.”

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