Attempts to get women playing rugby in New Zealand date back to 1891. However, it was not until the 1980s that this involvement became significant. Women’s teams in both rugby union and rugby league began emerging in the provinces in the mid-1980s and the first national women’s rugby team was selected in 1989. The team, now known as the Black Ferns, won four consecutive world cups and six of the nine contested by 2022.
Māori women have played a significant role in the team’s success. High-profile Māori players have included university lecturer Farah Palmer (Tainui and Ngāti Maniapoto), who captained the Black Ferns to their first three world cup victories, television presenter Melodie Robinson (Ngāi Tahu) and dual rugby/netball international and member of Parliament Louisa Wall (Ngāti Tūwharetoa, Waikato). The 2022 world cup held in New Zealand embraced many Māori cultural elements, with simple poi made from fabric twirled by thousands of fans.
Wahine toa – strong women
Some have suggested that the high proportion of Māori women playing rugby union and league is because, in opposition to a western view of femininity, the Māori view of femininity encompasses courage and physical strength.
The Kiwi Ferns, the national women’s rugby league team, first played in 1995. The Kiwi Ferns won three consecutive women’s rugby league world cups from the tournament’s inception in 2000.
Among the Māori women who have contributed greatly to women’s rugby league is former Kiwi Fern and coach of the side in 2012, Lynley Tierney-Mani. The New Zealand Māori women’s team played in the 2005 Women’s Rugby League World Cup and knocked out the Australian team in the semi-finals. The Australians took the Māori team lightly and rested players for the game. This meant an all-New Zealand final, with New Zealand Māori playing the Kiwi Ferns.