As a sports administrator, Nicki Nicol has had to adapt to the changing landscape presented by the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.

Following a New Zealand Rugby (NZR) restructure in May, her role was changed for a second time since she joined the organisation in 2017, to that of Chief Transformation Officer (CTO).

Nicol has since played an active role in the NZR executive team’s efforts to limit the impact of the pandemic on the game in New Zealand, while planning the “rebuild of rugby post-COVID”.

It is perhaps unsurprising, therefore, that the word that springs to Nicol’s mind when asked what she has learned over the previous seven months is resilience.

“We've always talked about resilience in the past, but I think this is taking that to a whole new level. It's really been very intensive,” she told World Rugby. 

“People are our biggest asset. So, wages and working with the government, trying to make sure that we can still keep paying people has been our first priority. 

“You go back to your core principles. It's been pretty relentless from that perspective, and personally around your resilience and what you can do, what you can't do. 

“You're trying to balance that and family, which has on a personal level, been challenging. But, I'm navigating through it. I maybe didn't get it right all the time, but I certainly keep trying.”

Reimagining rugby in New Zealand

In March, it seemed as though Nicol’s year would involve learning in a much more traditional sense, when she was awarded a World Rugby Women’s Executive Leadership Scholarship.

However, as the severity of the pandemic and its impact became clear Nicol’s plans for the programme were understandably put on hold.

She has instead been invigorated by the chance to provide a “step-change” for NZR, ensuring that the community game in New Zealand heads into 2021 in a strong position.

“It has probably accelerated a number of things. We realised the system probably wasn't quite in equilibrium,” Nicol said.

“If you think of the rugby system, the balance between professional and community, our role in New Zealand, all those sorts of things, it’s really made us challenge as an organisation what we want that to be. 

“And, with (CEO) Mark Robinson coming in, we've really repositioned around, ‘if we want to reimagine rugby for the next decade and beyond, what are we going to do differently?’ 

“So, what we've really loved is that opportunity to stand back… and look at the whole sport in a slightly different lens.”

She added: “We really do want to find ways to differentially invest back into the community game, and some of that will go to the culture and the Respect and Inclusion work, but we see that as a real opportunity. 

“Part of our strength for many decades has been that the base of our pyramid has been really strong. But, like many sports, that's been under a bit of challenge.

“And, so for us, we also feel if we can make rugby strong in the community, it also helps New Zealand Inc from a social and human wellbeing side of it. So that's a big focus for us.”

‘This is our moment’

One area of the game that Nicol and NZR are keen to bolster is women in rugby, and the former believes hosting Rugby World Cup 2021 provides an opportunity to “supercharge” female participation.

RWC 2021 is the first event in a busy three years for women’s sport in New Zealand. The International Working Group on Women & Sport and Women’s Cricket World Cup will both be held in the country in 2022, while New Zealand will also host the FIFA Women’s World Cup alongside Australia in 2023.

“We've had a huge focus on raising the profile of our women through our women in rugby strategy because for sponsors to get on board athletes have to be known, people have to recognise them,” Nicol said.

“We've got four big women's sporting events over the next three years now – ’21, ’22 and ’23… Our government, they have a huge focus on women and girls in sport, and so for us, this is our moment. We really want to supercharge the women's game on the back of that.”

The first step on that journey took place in Auckland last month, when 400 people attended the Rugby World Cup 2021 Draw at SkyCity Theatre.

Prime Minister of New Zealand, Jacinda Ardern took part in a stunning ceremony, which threw up some intriguing pool-stage matches and piqued interest in the global tournament.

In her speech, Ardern described RWC 2021 as an opportunity to both “break down gender discrimination” and showcase the manaakitanga that the country is famous for.

“What we're really conscious of is how we make this into a real festival,” Nicol said.

“Spending time with the women's teams, they're very loud, [there’s] singing, there's just lots of music and fun and laughter and things like that. 

“And, so that's really what we would like to be able to create, particularly around Eden Park. Real festival music and entertainment, particularly very much a multicultural Pasifika and Māori influence for us here. 

“So, that's what we're hoping. And, I think that will resonate really lovely with the players and all the other supporters and volunteers that will be part of the system.”

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