Around 500 junior female athletes flocked to Dunedin last week for a chance to meet the Black Ferns, as the team prepared to play their first test match in the city in 26 years.
The ‘Fern Fever’ event was a collaboration between Otago sports organisations, which promoted an active and healthy lifestyle for girls in a range of different sports.
Among those involved was the recently-retired Black Ferns legend Kendra Cocksedge, who was adamant that some future talent was present amongst the eager participants at Dunedin’s Edgar Centre.
“I was lucky to run some rugby sessions with these girls and I was like, man, there’s some talent,” said the 69-test veteran, who hung up her boots after winning a third Rugby World Cup title last year.
“Such good sidestepping and passing. A lot of them play other sports as well and that’s what [the event] was about, rotations through rugby, cricket and football. I can tell you there’s definitely some girls in here that will be pulling on a black jersey one day.”
Event organiser Zoe Whatarau, from the Otago Rugby Union, said that the girls-only day was about learning skills and having fun.
“We had the Black Ferns come through and they’ve been a huge hit, but we also had a surprise visit from the Wallaroos, who were here doing some testing,” she said.
“They came over and started playing some Rippa Rugby with the girls, but that’s women’s rugby – everyone’s always keen to give back at that level.”
Whatarau was very pleased at the turnout and agreed that the future looks bright for women’s rugby in New Zealand.
“All the girls want to be inspired, so to have these players in front of them is really cool. It’s so exciting, I know there will be multiple girls in this group who will one day be the ones who will be signing the autographs. The Black Ferns are those girls’ idols.”
Black Ferns second-row Charmaine Smith, who has recently returned to the game after a long injury layoff and pregnancy, said that she never thought one day she’d be surrounded by hundreds of eager fans seeking autographs.
“When I was a kid, I didn’t even know New Zealand had a women’s rugby team. It’s awesome for the game, it’s awesome for the kids and we’re really excited to be here," Smith said.
“I will never get sick of it, the more we can get out and meet kids in the community, the more of them will want to take up the sport.”
Cocksedge said the turnout meant that the Black Ferns’ profile had lifted far beyond what it had been when she began her test career back in 2007.
“For me we’d come to these events as Black Ferns as it was good, but to see 500 girls here is so awesome,” Cocksedge added. “We almost need security to look after them now.”
Whatarau said she was proud to be playing a part in the journey to a black jersey that some of the girls would take.
“This is where it starts, this is the grassroots,” she said.