Friday represents a significant milestone in the build-up to Rugby World Cup 2021, as the countdown to the first women’s edition to be played in the southern hemisphere hits the ‘one year to go’ mark.
It is a staging post that, until November 2018, Farah Palmer did not believe she would see. The three-time Rugby World Cup winner played a pivotal role in the bid process, and has since been appointed to the Rugby World Cup New Zealand 2021 Organising Committee.
However, with the majority of established women’s national teams being based in the northern hemisphere, Palmer once feared that the cost of hosting the tournament in the south would prove prohibitive.
“[RWC 2021] is another one of those moments that I never thought would happen,” she told World Rugby.
“A few years ago people said, ‘Well, do you think it will ever come down here?’ And I said, ‘I don’t think so’ because I was thinking of the cost. I was thinking it was a big challenge to get all the, predominantly northern hemisphere, teams down here.”
Impact in Oceania
Rugby World Cup 2021 promises to be the most anticipated women’s tournament yet, building on the success of Ireland 2017 with the exciting addition of a quarter-final stage and matches being played at three world-class venues.
Fiji will also make their tournament debut on New Zealand’s North Island, and the event has the potential to be transformational for the Oceania region as a whole, according to Palmer.
“We want to also acknowledge that we’ve got Pacific Island players that play a key role in New Zealand,” Palmer added.
“So, if we can do something to increase the profile of our Pasifika neighbours in terms of giving them the opportunity to play rugby then that would be awesome.”
Melissa Ruscoe, who captained the Black Ferns to Rugby World Cup glory at England 2010, believes the tournament could inspire a whole generation of female rugby players in the country.
Pool stage and quarter-final matches will be played at Waitakere Stadium and Whangarei’s Northland Events Centre, while the semi-finals, bronze final and final will all be staged at Eden Park.
“It's great that World Rugby obviously looks at the big global picture and sees where support and everything is needed,” she said.
“I think it's valuable to see a pathway in any sport, and so to now have the pinnacle of women's rugby coming down here, it’ll be huge.
“I think [you’ll see] kids running around, getting autographs and all that sort of thing, which as a youngster playing sport I never had for rugby and I didn't really have for football either.
The launch of Rugby World Cup 2021 attracted the great and the good from New Zealand.— World Rugby (@WorldRugby) February 4, 2020
Catch up on the official #RWC2021 event in Auckland, as dates were announced and the brand revealed. pic.twitter.com/zCRR1vldlS
“So, that's a huge change just to have that level of women's sport in the media and being seen.”
Opportunity to inspire
Like Palmer and Ruscoe, Selica Winiata has experienced Rugby World Cup success with the Black Ferns on foreign soil.
And she agrees with Ruscoe that seeing the pinnacle of the women’s game live and in the flesh can only be a good thing for participation numbers in New Zealand.
“I think it’ll be a great opportunity to help inspire more girls within New Zealand to play the sport,” Winiata said. “To have it being played here where they’ll have the ability to come and watch the games I think is only gonna help to boost numbers even more.
“And I think as a player we all love to play at home and we struggle at times to have a series of test matches here on home soil. So to have the family and friends on the sideline watching us live will be incredible.”
But, while the Black Ferns have won five of the previous six Rugby World Cups, Winiata will take nothing for granted next September despite the added home advantage.
“We won it but it’s not ours now. We’ve got to go back out and we’ve got to fight for it again, and it’s never a given,” she added.
“You’ve only got to look at the men’s [Rugby] World Cup and I don’t think anyone would have thought that those two teams would have made the final, and then South Africa winning it.
“So, it’s just about taking it a game at a time, but I know that as a Black Fern you’re definitely eyeing up that World Cup because [next] year we do want to retain it but [there’s] nothing better than being on home soil.”
‘New Zealand is just so unique’
And it is not only Kiwis who are looking forward to Rugby World Cup 2021. England centre Rachael Burford has experienced playing, and winning, in New Zealand and would relish the opportunity to return next September.
“The opportunity to go and play in New Zealand is just so unique. I’ve played in New Zealand twice and everybody knows about it,” Burford explained.
“What we’ve seen every [Rugby] World Cup cycle is it gets bigger and better. You look at 2010, England, through a brilliant World Cup, sold out the Stoop. Then you go to Paris, then to Ireland and the Kiwis like to make a point so I think it would be an unbelievable experience to play out there.
“It would be tough and just the thought of winning in New Zealand would be the ultimate.”