Cate Sexton has witnessed the growth of women’s rugby first-hand in the 13 years since she initially joined New Zealand Rugby as team manager of the Black Ferns.

A three-and-a-half-year sojourn to New Zealand Cricket was sandwiched between two spells overseeing the five-time world champions before, in 2015, Sexton was appointed Head of Women’s Rugby Development at NZR.

Her involvement in rugby has come at a time of considerable progress for female sport globally. The Women’s Rugby World Cup, for example, has grown from a competition organised and paid for by players to an international spectacle watched by millions in less than 30 years.

In New Zealand, as in England, it is now possible for women to get paid for playing the sport that they love with the Black Ferns Sevens squad professional and their 15-a-side counterparts semi-professional.

Asked what had changed since she first joined NZR in 2006, Sexton replied: “The resourcing and the profile.

“So, people actually know that the Black Ferns play. They have been successful for a long time but having them on TV, having the international sevens series on TV, people follow and watch and you build that fan base.

“It’s the resourcing around them and that really helps them to become better, well-prepared athletes. It’s what happened when the men went professional as well.

Shift in attitude

“The game actually changes slightly but better coaching, better support, better strength and conditioning. I think they’re the big things.”

Sexton is one of 14 recipients of the World Rugby Women's Executive Leadership Scholarship for 2019, which she hopes to use to improve her “confidence, skill set and knowledge in the board room” in order to help maintain that growth in New Zealand.

She believes the initiative is vital not only to provide opportunities for women at boardroom level but to give them the skills and belief that convinces them they belong there.

“To have these scholarships that women will go for and think ‘there’s an opportunity for me to lead’,” Sexton said.

“But then actually having those qualifications or the skill set that they feel comfortable putting their name in the hat for roles which are gender neutral roles is really, really important.

“We’ve always had these wonderful women, we just don’t know about them too much.”

According to Sexton, there are signs that attitudes in New Zealand have already started to shift.

Spotlight on national teams

Black Ferns stars such as Kendra Cocksedge and Portia Woodman have seen their profiles rise due to regular appearances on programmes like Small Blacks TV as well as added coverage of their on-pitch exploits.

“We’re finding now that people call out to them in the supermarkets,” Sexton said.

“They haven’t got their black shirts on and they know who these players are; Kendra and Sarah Hirini (nee Goss). I think that’s really cool.”

It all fits into New Zealand Rugby’s drive to discourage people from differentiating between men’s or women’s rugby and seeing “just rugby” like they would in athletics or swimming.

So, does Sexton feel her union is setting the agenda in this regard?

“We probably don’t see it as leading the way,” she said. “We just see it as very, very important for our sport in general. My role was created four-and-a-half-years ago because the union, the Board felt it was really important to have females and males profiling in their sport.

“The Black Ferns have always been a very successful team but we are now putting the spotlight on our national teams. That’s important for our game to survive, that it’s for men and women and it’s just rugby.”

Showcase of women's rugby

New Zealand Rugby will get another chance to shine a bright light on the Black Ferns when the Women’s Rugby World Cup comes to New Zealand in 2021.

World Rugby visits have already taken place and with preparations well under way anticipation is already building for the first women’s tournament to be held in the southern hemisphere.

“It’s massive,” Sexton said. “To be able to bring the world to our place and showcase women’s rugby in New Zealand, where rugby is a very, very big part of our communities and our society.

“We love rugby so it’s pretty cool to be able to play at home. We’re very excited.”

Sexton is confident that fans travelling to New Zealand in 2021 will witness a “fantastic” tournament, but what does she think its legacy will be?

“My hope is that the showcasing of women in the World Cup at home, rugby communities just absolutely value rugby,” she said.

“Then they will continue to grow more and more opportunities and pathways for women to be involved in rugby, not just playing but in any part of rugby. I think that’s the biggest one.”