Opportunity lost for women's rugby

First, the good news. New Zealand is to host the Women's Rugby World Cup in 2021, the first time that growing tournament will be played in the southern hemisphere.

This is wonderful for the women's branch of our national game, and for those in the rugby community who have been eager to see something more than lip service paid to its rising status.

So, too, will it be a boost for girls and young women considering picking up a ball and running with it. They will be given a priceless opportunity to be immersed in elite rugby, and to see their idols up close and in primetime.

Women's rugby is unquestionably on the rise. A Deloitte review of the state of the union this year showed female player numbers in New Zealand leaped by 2100 - a whopping 13.7% - last year. At a time when many team sports are reporting a battle to keep people involved in organised competition, that is a remarkable statistic.

Much was made of the poor crowd at Eden Park when the Black Ferns played the curtain-raiser to an All Black test. But perhaps that is more a reflection on that city's general attitude to major sports events. And the fact that game had a viewing audience of 576,000, according to Nielsen figures, suggests there is an appetite for women's rugby. Sky director of sport Richard Last also revealed the 2017 Women's World Cup final rated about the same as a Silver Ferns netball test.

Helping push the women's rugby cause here is the simple fact our Black Ferns are very, very good. They might have slipped to a loss to France at the weekend - perhaps it was fortunate that shock came after the World Cup bid had been secured - but they have set the standard for a long time.

The Black Ferns have won the world title five times, they have an overall winning mark of about 90%, and they made history in 2017 by becoming the first women's team to be named World Rugby Team of the Year.

No cause for complaint, then, as we prepare to host the global celebration of women's rugby in 2021.

Or is there? For as the news sank in that the tournament was to be restricted to Auckland and Whangarei venues, it became clear a massive opportunity had been missed.

Spreading the tournament around the country would have been "logistically difficult'', New Zealand Rugby boss Steve Tew explained. And it would have cost too much.

We have heard these sorts of excuses before. Surely, in the interests of capitalising on the surge of interest in women's rugby, it was time to get creative, to pick up the ball and run with it.

Taking the safe option of kicking for touch without truly exploring the case to create a meaningful legacy for women's rugby in all of New Zealand may be regretted.

AND ANOTHER THING

Have All Black fans developed their ability to deal with defeat with grace?

Or is it simply because the latest conqueror of the world's No 1 rugby team is the Irish, widely respected for their verve, skill and good cheer?

Perhaps most worryingly, are New Zealand rugby supporters almost resigned to the fact their beloved team is on the slide?

The All Blacks have not often hit top gear in 2018, and Sunday's comprehensive loss to Ireland has sounded another alarm warning, especially over the futures of some veteran players.

This has been a glorious era - indeed, the All Blacks still hold the Bledisloe Cup (15 years and counting) and the Rugby Championship, and remain the official No 1 side in the world - but Steve Hansen and his fellow coaches have some serious work to do as they chase a third consecutive World Cup in Japan next year.

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