Rugby World Cup
Black Ferns fizzing to fight for Nancy on home soil
When New Zealand hosts the Rugby World Cup - for the first time in this hemisphere – in 2021, it will mean so much to the Black Ferns, both present and past.
To outsiders, it may have been surprising to watch Kendra Cocksedge taking a moment to hold back her tears, before a full room at a Rugby World Cup 2021 launch above Eden Park.
It could have been seen as just another element of the hosting spectacle laid on by New Zealand Rugby and World Rugby.
But for Cocksedge’s Black Ferns team-mates sitting in the front row and others who have a stake in the women’s game, it would have felt completely natural and relatable.
Cocksedge - the first female winner of New Zealand Rugby’s illustrious Kel Tremain Memorial Player of the Year award - had to gather her thoughts when posed with the opening question: what did it mean to her and her team-mates to host the World Cup on New Zealand soil for the first time?
“I’ve been in the game for such a long time, so to see everything unfold - the amount of support and media in the room, the amount of people who want to see this World Cup be successful - it really hit me in that moment,” says the proud Cantabrian.
“I’m not an emotional person either, so to obviously see that happen shows how much it means to have a World Cup on home turf.”
The promo video (below) that screened before the Q & A “topped it off”, Cocksedge admits.
Before the crowd had assembled at Eden Park that morning earlier this month, Cocksedge sat in the stands and looked out to the middle of the hallowed ground, which will host the tournament final.
“I thought ‘Holy heck, in 18 months’ time we could be holding up the World Cup trophy here in front of a home crowd’, and that gave me goosebumps,” says the 50-test veteran, who’s big on visualisation.
“To be honest, everything about [the launch] gave me goosebumps and it’s a great feeling. The other [Black Ferns] here were feeling exactly the same.”
Players like loose forward Charmaine McMenamin, who says playing in front of her family will be huge reward for the sacrifices they’ve made to allow her to become a Black Fern.
And former Black Fern, Louisa Wall, who has witnessed women’s rugby in New Zealand progress from players having to pay their own way to a World Cup, to today’s professional era.
It’s no surprise that Cocksedge, the Black Ferns starting halfback, has already kicked off her training for the RWC 2021, which will be played across September and October next year in two cities – Whangarei and Auckland.
Winning the trophy the Black Ferns have nicknamed Nancy (for New Zealand World War II resistance fighter Nancy Wake) will mean back-to-back RWC titles and number six - out of seven - overall for the Black Ferns.
On a personal note, three from three World Cups is a record not many players can claim, but it’s one that Cocksedge is aiming for.
It would go nicely with the three consecutive premiership titles she’s won with Canterbury in the Farah Palmer Cup (2017, ‘18 and ‘19).
“The Rugby World Cup motivates me and it’s always in the back of my mind, especially when I’m training - like last night on the watt bike in 32 degree heat in Christchurch,” laughs Cocksedge, who’s also involved with rugby at grassroots level as NZR’s women’s development officer for Canterbury.
“Visualising is also a big part of winning, and I’m incorporating that into my training.”
The Black Ferns are being careful not to get too far ahead of themselves. Cocksedge is aware there are some big games coming up this year, including a test in Melbourne against the Wallaroos in August (a double-header with the All Blacks).
And there’s no doubt the domestic competition will feel a little different this season in the lead-up to the World Cup.
The Farah Palmer Cup will provide a chance for players to stake their claim for consideration and others to consolidate their positions. Louisa Wall can’t wait to see the competition unfurl.
“I’m interested in watching the style of rugby played and the teamwork. The quality of rugby increased last year, and it was exciting to watch. Because of Rugby World Cup selection opportunities, it can only be better,” says Wall, now MP for Manurewa, who won the World Cup in 1998.
McMenamin is a marquee player looking to consolidate her spot in the Black Ferns. She was a crucial part of the 2017 World Cup team who beat a fully professional English side in the final, 41-32, in Belfast.
That final drew a record television viewership of 2.65 million in the United Kingdom - a feat New Zealand will no doubt want to surpass when the 12 best teams battle it out for possession of ‘Nancy’.
McMenamin, voted players’ player of the year in 2019, was a Kiwi Fern before debuting for the Black Ferns in 2013 against England.
“If I’m selected it will be a huge honour. Having the RWC at home is everything. Family are the ones who support us through all of our dreams; they sacrifice everything to make them a reality,” says McMenamin.
“I think about Mum and Dad taking me to all of my training sessions. My dad used to drive me eight hours to Wellington, just so I could play league on a Sunday and then drive back home to Gisborne and go to work on Monday.
“Those are the things you think about, knowing we will be able to play in front of our loved ones.”
McMenamin says the status of rugby has changed during her career, for the better.
“When I started playing, people would just ask if you wanted to come and play 15s and you’d say ok, and then they’d ask you to play sevens, so you’d go and do that,” she says.
“But now there’s a massive difference between the two formats - we’ve got actual sevens athletes and 15s athletes. The game is growing phenomenally in all areas, which is great.”
It’s only recently she’s been able to play at Eden Park – not only for internationals now, but Auckland matches too.
“We also used to play out at the scungiest fields, but that’s just how it was. No-one ever cared because we were still playing rugby, and that’s all we wanted.”
Louisa Wall represented New Zealand from 1995 to 2001 - a period when the women’s game was going through significant change.
“My first year [playing] in 1995 was when women's rugby governance merged with NZ Rugby - there were aspirations from administrators for rugby to become an Olympic sport,” she says.
“To do so requires a sport that provides opportunities for both men and women. Before my time, the women were self-funding everything to be a Black Fern.”
Now a growing number of 15s players receive professional contracts, and a Black Ferns high performance development programme came into effect last year.
“We’ve had year-on-year growth in the women’s game with now over 30,000 players,” Wall says. “It means NZ Rugby is continuing to invest in the women’s game and they must continue to do so.”
Wall wants to see the next extension of the game over the next five to 10 years to include a ‘Super’ competition providing further professional opportunities, continued increases in the number of women and girls playing rugby, and more women coaches and administrators.
Right now, there’s only one woman – former Black Ferns captain Dr Farah Palmer – on the NZR board.
Says Wall: “Where we have come from to where we are today and where we want to be in the future, epitomizes the evolution of women in the sport of rugby."