Kaupapa Matua: Māori women's rugby

Whare across the motu have been tuning into the Rugby World Cup to support the Black Ferns as they cut a track to the finals. The superb athleticism and skill on display has been a huge drawcard, generating enthusiastic support for the players and their teams. The Ferns, which has a large contingent of Māori and Pasifika players, have had to overcome a number of challenges in the lead up to the Cup, including the fallout from their troubled 2021 European tour, which led to the appointment of new coaches. To better understand what it takes for our Māori and Pasifika athletes to flourish in high-pressure team sports, we talked with NPM researcher Dr Jeremy Hapeta who is Co-director of Te Koronga and Senior Lecturer in Māori Physical Education and Health at the University of Otago. Jeremy has been undertaking research on Māori and sport for many years and has also played and coached top level rugby.

“A lot of teams put a lot of emphasis on culture and getting that right. But it’s how they go about creating culture which can be problematic, because if it’s a colonial or western way of conceptualizing and creating culture, many Māori and Pacifika players may not flourish because they don’t come from that worldview,” he says.

“We like to be relational and so we place much more emphasis on whanaungatanga or relationship building, as that is key for Māori and Pacifika people on and off the field. It is what gives our people more of an on-field edge. Unfortunately, traditional coaching practices place more emphasis on some of those other elements of team culture than what we would perceive to be just as, if not more, important.”

“The colonial coaching style is very prescribed and transactional, especially in professional sport where it’s ‘we are paying you and it’s your obligation to go to the gym and do that workout.’ Whereas I think a lot of Māori and Pacifika players are more invested in transformational outcomes rather than superficial transactions. Coaches who come from a colonial worldview either don’t want, or know how, to change and adapt to suit the difference of cultures, he says. “They don’t think change is necessary because of their privilege and taken for granted ways of being and doing, they are not conscious of it.”

Jeremy says the recent appointment of a Māori director of culture and leadership to the Black Ferns’ team, Allan Bunting, has been a positive move. “That’s a new initiative. To have someone who oversees culture within a team is exciting and well overdue to be honest. If culture is so integral to a team, then you need these positions. When you have so many Māori and Pacific players in a team it is extremely important to re-define what culture is – whose definition are you using and what do you mean by it? For Māori, culture includes our taonga, like tikanga and te reo – that’s what culture is, it is bigger than us as players.”

Jeremy says increasing female athletes’ visibility via airtime is crucial to encouraging young players to become involved. “The whole ‘see her, be her’ movement shows the significance of being able to see those role models perform on the national and global stage. For example, from seeing the Farah Palmer Cup on TV to the Super Rugby Aupiki competition and now with the Women’s Rugby World cup, the pathway is more clearly defined.”

Jeremy believes Māori and Pacific women are attracted to the game because it is valued highly within their communities. “It’s a game that brings us mana, not just to the players, but also to their whānau and communities. It’s an opportunity for us, even though the playing field is not level, to celebrate our successes."

However, he says New Zealand Rugby’s provincial unions need to do more to support the women’s game. “I think women need to be heard and feel listened too. So, they need greater opportunities to voice their views in a way where their opinions are valued. While societal attitudes are changing, some practices aren’t, and the women’s game is not getting a fair share of the marketing or resources compared to their male counterparts."

“Generally, rugby needs to start putting nice words into meaningful actions. Sport NZ’s research into public interest in sports showed that 40% of sport followers watch men’s rugby, and the next most popular sport, is women’s rugby (29%). They are second equal with men’s cricket, men’s football, and men’s rugby league (all 29%).” 

“The women’s game is much sharper now it is such an exciting brand of rugby at all levels.” But locally, the game has more work to do if NZ Rugby aspires to remain competitive with other nations. The European nations resource it appropriately. Their players are full time professionals, you can see their standards have improved. Now there is lots of curiosity and interest in the game, and NZ Rugby must ensure environments are friendlier, welcoming, and dismantle barriers to sustained participation.”

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