Rugby: Otago Spirit worth fighting for

The Otago women's rugby team, a casualty of the Otago union's financial collapse, will not appear in the national championship this year. Former Otago and Black Ferns stalwart Farah Palmer offers her thoughts on that decision.

Lisa Waddell, of Otago, is tackled by Auckland defenders Karina Penetito (left) and Bella Milo...
Lisa Waddell, of Otago, is tackled by Auckland defenders Karina Penetito (left) and Bella Milo during the women's national championship match at the University Oval last season. In support is Otago first five-eighth Maxine McInnes. Photo by Jane Dawber.
There is so much to be proud of as a New Zealander, and as a New Zealand woman.

We were the first nation state to give women the right to vote and, over the years, we've provided women with opportunities to excel in a range of careers, leadership roles and disciplines.

Of course, our pride is often greatest in the discipline of sport. As Swiss psychologist C.G. Jung stated: "Through pride we are ever deceiving ourselves. But deep down below the surface of the average conscience a still, small voice says to us, something is out of tune".

Before we start patting ourselves on the back, let us reflect a bit.

Last year New Zealand was the only country in the top 10 to slip one down the list in the 2011 Global Gender Gap report that measures gender-based disparities over time in 135 countries.

We are now sixth in the world in terms of investing in women's education and participation, which is still great but we've slipped behind Ireland, and that is a concern.

We can continue to be proud of what we've achieved in terms of sporting opportunities for women in this country, but we are also quick to turn a blind eye, or shrug a shoulder at the demise of female athletes, teams and programmes that are ruthlessly cut due to budget constraints.

Is this a form of gender discrimination or merely an act of economic rationalisation? A bit of both, I suspect.

Over and over again, however, women's sport programmes and initiatives are the first to be chopped locally, regionally, nationally and internationally.

As a nation that prides itself on gender equity, do we just sit back and accept this? As an ex-Otago rugby player, do I just sit here in the comfort of my North Island abode and consent to the expiration of the Otago Spirit women's rugby team and reminisce about the good ol' days?

We are conditioned to accept, in these financially difficult times, that hard decisions have to be made, but did the women's team have to be axed? Were there no alternatives or second chances?

We all know the Otago Rugby Football Union is up to its neck in debt and has had to prioritise what it will fund and what it will not.

As if to prove gender equity is occurring in this organisation, opportunities for male rugby players have also been minimised by condensing two teams (Otago B and Colts teams) into one (Development team).

Younger male players, nonetheless, are still offered a lifeline, with representative age-grade teams surviving the cull.

In a nutshell, although reduced, the opportunity to excel in rugby still exists for males but is literally non-existent for females.

But wait, there seems to be a glimmer of hope. The NZRU's Neil Sorenson suggested recently that the door was still open for the Otago women to make the NPC, if they can raise the necessary funds by the end of April.

According to his calculations it costs provincial unions, on average, $15,000 to $20,000 to field a women's team in the NPC.

If 200 people donated $100 each, that would be enough to give women and girls playing rugby in Otago some hope.

Surely there are 200 ex-Otago players spread around New Zealand and the world who would donate to this good cause.

High-profile former players who sharpened their rugby skills and knowledge while in Otago include Sky presenter Melodie Robinson, exceptional players Annaleah Rush and Carla Hohepa, Black Ferns manager Hannah Porter (nee Myers) and local greats Margaret McCarrigan (nee McKenzie), Helen Littleworth and Jacinta Nielsen, to name a few.

There are loads of others with healthy bank balances, powerful networks and wealthy friends and family the ORFU could tap into.

We need to invoke some of the Otago DIY spirit personified by Sue Garden-Bachop and realise that if no-one else is going to fight for us, we have to fight for ourselves.

Sue had the vision and tenacity to raise funds in novel ways for a North Island tour. After "slave sales" and auctioning off Marc Ellis' sweaty rugby jerseys and Jamie Joseph's shorts, we had enough funds for a memorable and rugby-packed tour.

I owe my rugby career to that tour and would want any promising rugby player, irrespective of their gender, to have the same opportunities.

I'll pledge $100 tomorrow if someone guaranteed it would go toward fielding an Otago women's NPC team. As a proud New Zealander and member of the Otago Spirit it is the least I could do.

Anyone else keen to close the gender gap?

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