From The Vaults

12 April 2022
The Rise of the Black Ferns

The New Zealand women's national team, the Black Ferns, are uncontestably one of the best international rugby teams in the world. Their success record sets them apart: five Rugby World Cup titles, including four consecutive victories, and a winning track record against every nation they have played in test matches since 1991. Since the advent of World Rugby rankings in 2003 they have consistently been in the top 2. But what is the history behind the meteoric rise of the Black Ferns?

Women's rugby union in New Zealand has a surprisingly long history, with the earliest records dating back to the Victorian era. In June 1891 Nita Webbe attempted to form a touring women's rugby exhibition. The following advert appears in several newspapers across New Zealand:

Wanted, 20 Young Ladies (with parent's consent) to PRACTISE FOOTBALL, preparatory to playing Auckland Ladies.- Apply, with photos. - 'Advertisements', Otago Daily Times, 4 June 1891, 3.

Rugby Football, more commonly referred to as football in New Zealand, was already a popular male pastime and the concept of a touring women's rugby exhibition attempted to monetize the novelty of women performing a traditionally masculine activity. Unfortunately, Webbe's daring scheme also attracted negative press from more conservative social groups, and it appears that no games ever occurred in front of a public audience.

Attitudes shifted twenty-five years later and there are several examples of women's rugby in New Zealand during the First World War, but usually playing very short matches as a form of half-time entertainment. Women's rugby union only started to be taken a more seriously during the late 1970s and was nurtured in the universities. Clubs formed initially by students were soon joined by locals, with both Pākehā (of White European origin) and Māori players taking part. The clubs and regional sides grew in strength during the 1980s, especially when teams from the United States began to tour. The California Kiwis toured New Zealand for 2 weeks in August 1980, and according to one of the US players:

the New Zealanders were extremely curious about American women playing a "man's game" (it's unusual for New Zealand women to play rugby) […] there was some question among the New Zealanders that women could/should play the game of rugby'. - Sue Ince, 'California Kiwis Complete Successful Tour of New Zealand', Rugby - All the News that's Fit, 15 December 1980, 21.

Indeed, the Kiwis first played against a male under-17 team. Tours like this demonstrated the potential of women's rugby to New Zealanders, and despite the sometimes significant institutional barriers women faced the sport continued to grow during the 1980s, leading to the eventual formation of the first New Zealand women's national team in 1990.

In fact, New Zealand formed their first national women's team for the Women's Rugby World Festival, organised in Canterbury New Zealand by Sam Leary and Laurie O'Reilly, two male-allies of the women's game. The tournament featured a week-long club competition and then a second week of international fixtures, many of which are not formally recognised as test games today. Only 4 national teams took part: USA, Russia, Netherlands, and New Zealand, with the week culminating in a match between a New Zealand XV and a World XV selection, which the hosts won 12-4.

New Zealand's early success on the international scene was not wholeheartedly greeted with applause by their national governing body, and the New Zealand team who competed at the 1991 Women's Rugby World Cup did so with independent funding. But in 1994 New Zealand Rugby (NZR) began funding an elite women's rugby programme, financially supporting the team with training camps and international matches vs Australia, although this support prevented New Zealand from participating in the unsanctioned 1994 Women's Rugby World Championship. However, the integration of women's rugby helped the development of the sport and the ambitions of the New Zealand team at the first official World Cup in 1998.

New Zealand blew away all competition, storming over nations such as Germany (134-6) and Scotland (76-0) to face former champions the USA in the final. New Zealand defeated the United States 44-12 to win their first World Cup title. Farah Palmer captained a side which raised the bar on what women's rugby could be in 1998, a team that needed their own name before the press permanently branded them the Gal Blacks or the Lady Blacks. The players chose a new name, the Black Ferns, a name which is now synonymous with success. The Black Ferns have continued to set the pace for international women's rugby, winning the RWC in 2002, 2006, 2010, and 2017.

New Zealand are the hosts for the delayed 2021 RWC, which has been rescheduled to take place between 8th October and 12th November 2022 in Whangerai and Auckland. But can they add a sixth title to their collection?

You can find out more about the history of the women's Rugby World Cups in the new exhibition at the World Rugby Museum - tickets available here.

About the Author - Dr Lydia Furse is an expert on the history of women's rugby union and recently completed her PhD from De Montfort University. She co-curated the special exhibition 'The Rugby World Cup: In Her Own Words' at the World Rugby Museum and her forthcoming book will cover the social and cultural history of women in rugby union between 1880 and 2016.