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Why NZ is now the outlier in world women’s sport

New Zealand, it seems, is leading the world getting women’s sport back up and running. And new fans around the world are watching.

Among the fears triggered by Covid-19's global shutdown of sport was that the growing women’s sports movement would be severely knocked back.

As sports bodies have looked at their diminished bank accounts to revive their codes, there's been a real concern women would be shuffled to the back of the playing queue.

There’s no doubt women’s sport has been shaken by the pandemic. But 10 weeks out of lockdown, New Zealand's big winter codes have resumed club sport, and have elite women’s competitions either underway or inked in on the calendar.

“Right now, New Zealand is a unique outlier in the women’s sport space,” says Rachel Froggatt, CEO of Women in Sport Aotearoa.

“As sport as a whole in New Zealand is back on its feet, it’s giving women’s sport room to revive and progress. What we’re seeing around the world doesn’t reflect that at all.

“So we have an opportunity to position ourselves at the front end, and provide leadership and inspiration to the rest of the world.”

With three World Cups to be hosted in New Zealand over the next three years, and the International Working Group on Women and Sport based here until 2022, the world is already looking to see what we’re doing to develop sport for women and girls. 

This week’s release of $80m – the first cut out of the government’s $265m sport recovery package – helps boost national leagues like basketball’s women’s NBL and hockey’s new premier league, as well as community sport and clubs struck hard by Covid-19.

“The first tranche has reiterated [the Government’s] commitment to women and girls, and diverse communities. It seems to be woven into everything they’re doing,” Froggatt says.

Here, LockerRoom takes a look at our major winter codes to see how they’re helping their female athletes back into action.

Karin Burger gets airborne for the Pulse in this year's ANZ Premiership. Photo: Getty Images.

NETBALL

The world’s eyes are already on netball’s rejigged ANZ Premiership. International viewers in 88 nations have so far tuned in to see the world’s only national netball league playing. While 57 percent have been from Australia, there are also some unlikely netball fans tuning in from Lithuania, China, Iceland and Iraq.

This weekend, viewer numbers should overtake last year’s total live views of 129,000, says Netball NZ head of commercial, David Cooper – “and we’re only half-way through the competition”.

“It’s a bit of a kick-back to the fact we’re world champions, but also that we are up and running – and very grateful for the opportunity, and the support we’ve had from so many."

Netball NZ were given $2.2m in the original Sport NZ relief fund to get the ANZ Premiership restarted. With shortened games, and more matches each week, the netball on show has been more intense too.

With extra funding now available to “accelerate future planning”, Netball NZ is looking at a reviving a national second-tier competition - like the cancelled Beko League, but in a different format - possibly in September. That would help involve younger players who will miss out on age group and schools nationals ruled out this year.

With club netball in full swing, netball centres and clubs are being encouraged to reapply for support through the government’s $10m community resilience fund, now the criteria has been extended to cover running costs.

The Silver Ferns squad will be named later next month, with a home series (maybe with the New Zealand men's team again) still on the drawing board. The annual Constellation Cup with Australia is planned for November, but there will be no Super Club this year.

Black Stick Frances Davies on the run against the Netherlands in last year's Pro League. Photo: Getty Images. 

HOCKEY

Benched for four months, the country’s top hockey players now have a new national premier league, after the sport was granted $198,000 in the sports recovery package.  

The competition, involving four women’s and four men’s teams, doubles as Blacks Sticks selection trials for next year’s postponed Pro League and the Tokyo Olympics. The women’s matches will be played at the end of August and mid-September, all at the new National Hockey Centre in Albany, and will be free to watch.

Black Stick Frances Davies, who’s been playing club hockey for Harewood in Christchurch, is thrilled she now has something else to train for.

“After the huge disappointment of the postponement of the Pro League and the Olympics, I’m excited to play against the country’s best players,” Davies says. “I always love playing at home against different regions and the competitive games that brings. It also gives everyone an opportunity to compete in the high-performance environment and showcase their talent for a place in the 2021 Olympic squad.”

Even with no internationals on the immediate horizon, the Black Sticks still returned to training this week, at various performance hubs around the country.

No date has been set on when the extended Pro League will resume, with only a third of the season played before Covid-19 struck. There should be an Oceania Cup with Australia early next year before the Olympics.  

While club and schools competitions are underway, all 2020 national age-group tournaments are cancelled - but associations will look at putting on regional festivals. The national schoolgirls’ Federation Cup has been replaced with regional premiership tournaments.

Lincoln and Canterbury team-mates (from left) Grace Brooker, and sisters Chelsea and Alana Bremner and Forne Burkin making the sign of the Lincoln Ewes. Photo: supplied. 

RUGBY

This could turn out to be a monumental year for women’s domestic rugby. Virtually all Black Ferns and NZ Sevens players are home and ready to play in next month’s adapted Farah Palmer Cup. And with the World Cup in New Zealand next September, it’s crucial our top players get back on the field.

Players like Grace Brooker. The Black Ferns outside back has been turning out for the Lincoln club now that club rugby is up and running around the country.

“We’ve got two teams for the first time in women’s rugby at our club, and it’s really awesome seeing young girls step up want to have a go at everything.” Brooker and fellow Black Fern Chelsea Bremner play for the Lincoln Ewes; the development team are the Hoggets.

Both will turn out for Canterbury in the FPC - aiming for a four-peat of national titles. Brooker is promising something “almost world leading” in their rugby.

“We’re going to try some extra things that haven’t been seen in the women’s game before – like putting some kicks across the field. All things that women’s players can do, but haven’t had the chance to do,” she says. 

With starting the men's Super Rugby Aotearoa the priority, NZ Rugby took time working with provincial unions to revise the FPC format. They’ve included all 13 teams, playing in north and south pools, kicking off on August 22 with seven rounds and two weeks of play-offs.

While schools’ rugby has restarted, there won’t be a national top four 1st XV finals for girls or boys this year.

The Black Ferns had their first training camp last weekend, with two more before the FPC starts. “We’re still working on a test series in November. Let’s hope the borders open,” Cate Sexton, head of the women’s game at NZ Rugby, says.

Football Ferns train with Avondale College 1st XV before the Rio Olympics. Photo: Getty Images. 

FOOTBALL

Still basking in the glow of winning the hosting rights to the 2023 Women’s Football World Cup, NZ Football will now hold a national women’s league this year, with the help of government funding.

The league will get a share of the $900,000 funding towards national men's and women's football and futsal competitions. The make-up of the women's league will be confirmed by the end of this month. 

All local women’s premierships – like the W-League in the lower North Island - started up last month. School football is also up and running, but like most codes, the national schools tournaments have been canned.

With international football on hiatus, there are no Football Ferns camps planned for now. But a “significant” number of Football Ferns have trained with the Future Ferns Domestic Programme while they’ve been back at home during lockdown. Many are now returning to their overseas clubs as travel restrictions are eased.

New female football programmes are being encouraged especially with the success of the World Cup bid, with funding available to support local initiatives and women in leadership. 

Tall Fern Ella Fotu is likely to be a key player in the women's NBL this year. Photo: Getty Images

BASKETBALL

There was excitement - and a sigh of relief - at Basketball NZ this week when a $200,000 funding package came through to ensure the Sal’s women's NBL would tip-off this year.

“The NBL team are working on this behind the scenes as we have a number of teams very keen to get back on the court,” said Joe Wallace at Basketball NZ. The look of the league should be revealed later this month, and it could well be based all at one centre, like the men’s NBL now underway in Auckland.

The sport was fuming when the men’s NBL was overlooked in the original $4.6m relief package, but now there’s $500,000 earmarked for the two leagues.

The new Girls Got Game programme encouraging school-age girls to play basketball is also set to resume this year, with the Tall Ferns likely to head back into schools during an upcoming camp. 

Most school competitions are now in action, and with a little modification, a national schools tournament will be held in late September, with qualification through regional and local competitions instead of the traditional premiership champs. And girls national U17 and U15 championships will now go ahead at Labour Weekend.

Onjeurlina Leiataua made an impact for the Warriors women in last year's NRLW. Photo: Getty Images. 

LEAGUE

They may have a new coach, but the Warriors women remain in limbo – waiting to see whether they will gt to play in this year’s NRLW competition across the Tasman.

After months of uncertainty, the women’s premiership has be given the green light to be played in September with the original four clubs, including the Warriors. But with the Transtasman bubble yet to eventuate, it may be difficult for the New Zealanders to get into Australia to play.

Former Kiwis hooker Slade Griffin has been appointed the new Warriors coach, but he's finding its difficult to prepare the team when there’s still no guarantee they will get on the field.

But on the home front, it’s “99 percent” certain the women’s national league will go ahead in September-October, aided by a $290,000 grant this week. The NZ Rugby League had seriously considered cancelling the inaugural Sky Sport women’s premiership competition until the relief package came through.

Alice Robinson, who made a huge global impact in women's giant slalom last season, is back at home training on NZ slopes. Photo: Erich Spiess/ASP Red Bull 

SNOW SPORTS

Decent snowfall in the past week hasn’t been the only good news dumped on New Zealand snow sports.

With New Zealand expected to collect a decent tally of medals at the 2022 Beijing Winter Olympics and Paralympics, Sport NZ has invested $400,000 in making sure all elite athletes have high quality training at home. Much of that money goes to upgrading the national training facilities at Cardrona for the park and pipe programme.

All of New Zealand’s high performance snow athletes – like Alice Robinson, Zoi Sadowski-Synnott and Jess Hotter - are now back at home, and have been able to train on the new dry slope and skate ramp built in Wanaka during lockdown when the Northern Hemisphere training camps were called off.

On the competition front, the SSNZ Freestyle Series begins next month with events at Mt Hutt, Cardrona and The Remarkables to find the country’s top freeskiers and snowboarders.

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