Rugby

The unshakable voice of Alice Soper

Her fervent calling out of New Zealand Rugby last week stirred up a hornet's nest. Ashley Stanley finds out who is Alice Soper, and what are her big bold plans to boost women's rugby. 

Alice Soper knows her rugby. She’s been playing in Wellington women’s teams since she was 13 years old.

Now 31, Soper made her debut for the Wellington sevens team in the days when there were no age restrictions.

“I came in when no one gave any attention to what we were up to, so I was 13 and playing in that grade. These are things you wouldn’t be able to do now, so I’ve been around for a while,” she says.

The Wellington Pride front-rower has been in the game long enough to see patterns develop within the code over time. With most of her experience felt upfront on the advantage line, the hooker is taking on another role and throwing her voice to the wind.

“I’m coming to the tail end of my career, so I thought what can I give to my game?” she says. “And maybe that’s my voice now.”

And what a voice it is.

Soper’s stern questioning of New Zealand Rugby around the women’s game in the past week was hard to miss after it blew up online.

She simply wanted to know what’s happening with the women’s provincial competition - and women’s rugby in general - considering New Zealand is hosting the Rugby World Cup next year.

Her annoyance came after a NZR media release confirming Super Rugby Aotearoa and Mitre 10 Cup this year had just one sentence at the bottom to say the Farah Palmer Cup and Black Ferns test options continued to be looked at (29 words out of 650 to be exact).

If history is anything to go by, the lack of real estate left Soper feeling fearful for women’s rugby, again.

Déjà vu was creeping in, as Soper posed the same concerns to NZR 10 years ago when they wanted to cut the women’s provincial competition - in a Rugby World Cup year.

The Black Ferns went on to win their fourth consecutive World Cup title that year and after the historic victory, the decision to dump the women’s competition was overturned following major criticism.

“We made some noise at the time but it wasn’t really picked up [in the media] that much, so I’m always surprised when people do pay attention to what I have to say,” says Soper, who has also played in the UK premiership competition.

Soper isn’t making noise for the sake of making noise. Ultimately, she wants to see a genuine ongoing commitment from the governing body to women in rugby.

“I want to see the awesome stuff they set up last year isn’t superficial,” she says. “That we are seen and valued as the players that we are and that we are invested in.

“Because men’s rugby loses money, and it’s a fallacy to say that it subsidises women’s rugby because that’s bullshit. It hasn’t made money in a long time.

“It’s just that people are more comfortable with making losses in men’s sport. Sponsors are more accustomed to attaching their brand and not getting a return.”

Soper argues women’s sport is the better investment because the overheads are so much lower. And it’s the only part of the game that is growing.

“We are the future of the game, so they need to catch up,” she says. “If you look at what NZR are spending their money on at the moment, a huge amount of it is paying for certain players who are just sitting around and they're letting half of their staff go.”

Covid-19 has exposed a much bigger conversation that needs to be happening.

“Maybe we need to be looking at a restructuring of sport in its entirety because I don’t think we’ve had that right for a long time. And this is just a more obvious bleed when we’ve been slowly bleeding out for years,” she says.

Soper says the recent appointment of Jennifer Kerr to the NZR board - the second woman to join after Dr Farah Palmer - is one more welcome female voice.

As a community organiser by trade, Soper is used to amplifying her voice in political spaces.

She’s currently involved with her local council, Hutt City, working with the youth council and on youth engagement, and helps where she can with her friend, Labour MP Kiritapu Allan, with community engagement on the East Coast. Her skills are working with people and ideas, to action solutions and change.

“My job is generally to chuck my oar in about things I care about and then ask other people to jump in the boat with me,” she says.

Politics also runs in the family. Her brother Robbie Nicol started the ‘White Man Behind a Desk’ political satire performance (which has led to ‘The Citizen’s Handbook’ comedy show), and her father, Barry, is a political journalist.

Soper was also one of four field organisers for Labour’s ‘Community Action Network’ in Jacinda Ardern’s 2017 election campaign. She was responsible for the Wellington region team of trained volunteer leaders, who managed thousands of volunteers on the ground.

“I’m obviously strong in supporting women and strong women leadership, so it’s a natural transition point for me to try and apply those skills to the thing I love,” she says. “People say that sport and politics don’t mix but the reality is my participation in my sport is inherently political. So I’m more than happy to take those tools and bring them across.”

Alice Soper wants to set up a women's rugby players' association. Photo: Liela Hamilton-Dakar

The idea of momentum loss and the code becoming stagnant is driving Soper’s boundary pushing.

The game is still at a growth point and is often benchmarked against the men’s game - which has been operating for a much longer period (because of historical decisions not allowing women to play rugby).

“The idea that our game is not of the same quality is not true - we’re just at a different growth point. We’re just at the beginning of our potential,” says Soper.

“We are just starting to realise what our game could be, and so we don’t want to wait another five, 10, 20 years. I don’t want the girls that I'm playing with or the girls I’ve coached to be retelling the same story in that time.”

It’s the same situation Soper found herself in when she took the argument to her local club, Wainuiomata, last year over her ‘100 game’ blazer. Many rugby clubs issue a blazer when a player reaches the century milestone – but few hand them out to women players.

So Soper sat down with the club’s first sanctioned female captain, Tiriana Turara (nee Tuhaka) who led the Wainuiomata women in 1990. It turned out a lot of the club rugby challenges Turara faced echoed Soper’s experiences 20 years later.

Soper eventually got her blazer.

She says a black jersey is not in her future, so she has more freedom to speak up because rugby is political.

“The women’s rugby community is strong. We’ve got each other so hard on and off the field, so I’m very conscious I’m a loud part of it, but there's a lot of strong women in our game.”

Isolation has brought members of the rugby community even closer through Soper’s online outburst.

Players she has come up against for many years, but has never had a real conversation with. But now they’ve organised a workout together when she’s in their hometown.

“I’ve had players contact me on Instagram after seeing my dumb [workout] videos and that’s been cool,” she laughs.

Soper has been talking with the Wellington Rugby Union and with Cate Sexton, head of women’s rugby development at NZR. Sexton assured Soper that planning for the women’s game was a priority and that they will have a better idea of what the lead-up to the 2021 World Cup will be in two weeks' time.

And she has been invited by her provincial union to join conversations on what can be done in the women’s game.

For now, Soper wants to take action on what she’s been talking about to help strengthen the foundation of the sport she loves.

“I think I just need to do what I keep on saying I’m going to do and set up a players’ association for women. The NZRPA are awesome and they do some really good stuff, but they’re for professionals,” says Soper.

“We need to do stuff for the amateurs as well because you’re never going to get the opportunity to be professional if we don’t sort our amateur game out.

“The stronger our grassroots game is, the stronger our professional game will be because that’s where the talent comes from. So I think I’ve got to sort that out.”

Her Wainuiomata club may not field a team this year, so Soper will most likely run out for Petone. She still has gas in the tanks and aims to play in the Farah Palmer Cup for a couple more seasons.

And similar to the patterns in the women’s game, if Soper’s record is anything to go by, her unwavering contribution to the code will continue well beyond her playing days.

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