Women's rugby has changed dramatically over the past ten years. Black Ferns Kendra Cocksedge, Eloise Blackwell and Ruahei Demant give their perspective on how the game has progressed in resources, skill and athletic demands, and how they feel about the future of the professional women's game.
Rugby is always evolving – both on and off the park. For the women's game, that evolution has been rapid over the past decade.
Although men's rugby first went professional in New Zealand in 1996, when Super 12 and the Tri-Nations first launched, the women's game has remained largely amateur until the last few years. Now, a small crop of New Zealands's top players are being compensated for their blood, sweat and tears.
For example, the Farah Palmer Cup has developed into one of the more attractive competitions on the New Zealand calendar, while a Super Rugby equivalent is set to kick off next year for the top 100 or so players in the country.
However, the pinnacle of rugby in New Zealand remains the international arena, and it's in the Black Ferns that the changes in the landscape are perhaps most evident.
New Zealand's premier women's team played their first internationals in the early 1990s, and although support in all its forms has steadily improved over time, it's in the past few years where things have really ramped up for the Rugby World Cup title-holders.
Kendra Cocksedge, the second-most capped Black Fern of all time, made her debut in 2007 against Australia, and has been a regular starter for the side since 2011.
"My first year in the side, we got left-over Under 20s boys kit. We didn't have any other gear then; it was just kind of what was left over."Kendra Cocksedge, Black Ferns halfback
The differences between now and when she was first called up to the national team are stark – both in terms of the support provided to the side, and the readiness of the new players making their way into the squad. In fact, in Cocksedge's formative years with the team, the resources they had at their disposal pale in comparison to how the team operates now.
"We had two coaches, a manager and a physio," the halfback says. "As we kind of progressed through the years, we started getting video analysts, doctors, media managers and so it was quite crazy to go through that progression.
"My first year in the side, we got left-over Under 20s boys kit. We didn't have any other gear then; it was just kind of what was left over." Although a huge amount of development goes into taking fledgling Black Ferns from fresh call-ups to world-class operators, Cocksedge is well aware that raw products first arriving in camp are far further along in their development than back when the halfback first debuted.
"Because girls are getting engaged in it a little bit earlier potentially now, as they come through, I think it's just going to get better and better," she says.
"I think the physical side and the way we play the game has changed a lot. Girls are working harder at an earlier stage, and you can see even just the body shapes of girls has changed to be a bit more athletic.
"The quality of the game now, and just to be part of playing in that quality of footy, is awesome."
Watch! Becoming a Black Fern video series
The Black Ferns explain what it takes to make it to the top of women's rugby in Healthspan Elite's four-part video series.
Eloise Blackwell – who captained the Blues in their inaugural clash with the Chiefs earlier this year – first joined the Black Ferns in 2011 as a 20-year-old and is nearing her 50th appearance for the team.
Like Cocksedge, she's noticed some significant changes in the way the Black Ferns operate. While Blackwell once played the game exclusively for enjoyment, there's a lot more riding on the team's successes now.
"For me, my early rugby days were more about just having fun with my mates," she says.
"When you come together in a Black Ferns environment, it's the cream of the crop of players within New Zealand. You need to be up to par, because if your skillset isn't, you're going to be letting your teammates down."
The changes in the professionalism of the women's game have been reflected in the way the team prepares for Test matches. Along with the additional support staff that have been brought in over the years, players and coaches are continuing to work hard, but they're also working smarter.
"I remember my earlier years in the Black Ferns and we trained for like five hours straight one session in the rain and we had sprigs on the whole time," says Blackwell.
Training days are still full-on, but they're now broken up into more focussed sessions – and more thought is put into pre- and post-work-out.
Importance of recovery
"Because training loads have increased, we've had to start using the likes of supplements, so after a big gym session, especially, or a big session on the field, we've had to replace some of that stuff burnt out with some protein," Blackwell says.
"So normally straight off the field, our management will have prepared some shakes for us, so we'll make sure we top up on our protein, and we've got to make sure we look after ourselves, and that maybe taking some other supplements to make sure we're keeping our immune system good and where it needs to be, so we can keep performing at that top level."
Healthspan Elite is the official sports nutrition partner of both the Black Ferns and the All Blacks, and provides the two premier sides with all their supplement needs – including whey protein for shakes and the vitamins needed to ensure the players are operating at their full potential throughout the season.
With players now coming into the Black Ferns environment on a more full-time basis, there's also a big focus from the organisation on supporting women off the field.
Ruahei Demant has had to overcome injuries throughout her career, but has started 11 consecutive Tests for the national side since her debut in 2018.
She says that the emphasis on life outside rugby has amplified since she joined the squad.
"I would say there's a lot more of a holistic approach to training. There's a lot more assistance given financially, mentally. There's a lot more focus based on lives outside of rugby."
"There wasn't much recognition of women's rugby in Aotearoa. I had no idea that there was a Black Ferns team."Ruahei Demant, Black Ferns utility back
Despite the growth in the game, however, Demant is hopeful that it continues to make big strides moving forward – as there's still plenty of work to be done.
"[Early on] there wasn't much recognition of women's rugby in Aotearoa," she says. "I had no idea that there was a Black Ferns team.
"I'm so excited at seeing young girls come into this environment. My hope for them is that they can only focus on this. I would like to see the women's game become professional – not semi-professional, not amateur. I'd like to see more resources invested into women's rugby.
"I think it's exciting. I think there are so many women, so many girls in Aotearoa that look up to so many of the players in this team and want to be exactly like them – and there shouldn't be any reason that they can't do this as a job only."
With numbers steadily increasing at the grassroots level, the future is bright for women's rugby in New Zealand – providing that the talent can continue to be nurtured.
Blackwell, a PE teacher at Epsom Girls Grammar in Auckland, has seen numbers continue to grow for her college rugby side.
"We went from having seven girls at training to now I have [sic] 26 girls on my teamsheet where I have to actually start considering players having to miss out on game day, which is a nice headache to have, versus worrying if you're going to have enough to field a team. It's grown hugely," she says.
"There's just a lot more opportunities and there's more of a pathway for girls to be able to come into the game at any age and any stage."Kendra Cocksedge, Black Ferns halfback
Cocksedge, the Women's Rugby Development Manager for the Crusaders region, is also optimistic with the growth in the game.
"The numbers are just taking off," she says. "There's just a lot more opportunities and there's more of a pathway for girls to be able to come into the game at any age and any stage."
It all bodes well for the future of the sport in New Zealand, and could pave the way for the Black Ferns to maintain their dominance in the international arena for years to come.
Healthspan Elite is proud to be the Official Sports Nutrition Partner of the Black Ferns as well as the All Blacks. Both teams trust Healthspan Elite to supplement their diets with high-quality nutritional supplements. The range is developed for athletes and fitness enthusiasts who aspire to reach peak performance.