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The women's rugby program in New Zealand has the potential to serve as the premier example to other countries in how to structure, build, and promote women's rugby; however, it has yet to fulfil its promise while other countries, with the incentive of 7s Olympic gold, are rapidly restructuring and growing their programs.
Coming from the USA as a player and a coach, I have both seen and participated in the recent and staggering growth in women's rugby there. On offer is non-contact rookie rugby for 10-14 year olds, full contact high school rugby for 14-18 year olds, and the traditional university and senior side club rugby.
To encourage the growth of high level competitive rugby, a multitude of representative sides for U-17, U-19, and U-20 have been formed that are available locally, regionally, and nationally, as well as championship series that allow the best teams nationwide to play against each other.
This means that no young girl or woman goes without the opportunity of taking her craft to the next level and that is really where the future success of women's rugby lies: in creating as many opportunities as possible.
The program that recognizes this and takes the time, the energy and spends the money to develop all age grades is going to see the rewards in not only a thriving women's rugby program, but in Olympic gold, as well as World Cup champions.
But the rewards aren't just in winning, they are also in seeing women become strong both mentally and physically, in seeing women excel, in seeing women persevere, in seeing young girls blossom into confident, independent women who can be team players on and off the field and who become valuable members of society.
That is the side of sport, of rugby, that is often forgotten. It's not just about winning; it's about cultivating beautiful, strong individuals for life.
This is where New Zealand should have the upper hand. With such a well-developed and established program that offers boys from a very young age the opportunity to play rugby and rise through the ranks, it is only natural to branch out and start offering girls the same opportunities.
Right now, one can look at the website for any union or club in New Zealand and see a staggering selection of rugby for the boys, but only a small amount for the girls.
With the dissolution of the Otago Spirit, the opportunities for Otago women and girls to excel, to see how far they can go with their skill, talent, and love of rugby have been snatched away, and that breaks my heart.
Adam Thomson of the Highlanders - also a member of the 2011 Rugby World Cup Champion All Blacks team - has made it his personal mission to ensure that the women of Otago do not lose their opportunity. When I had been told by many that there was absolutely no way the Spirit could be saved, this man, along with some others, decided otherwise. But why?
Because he is a "believer in the game... Anyone who wants to play should have the opportunity to play. It doesn't matter whether you are female or male, there is so much to be gotten out of rugby."
With his years of involvement with the Varsity rugby club in Dunedin, he got to know the women's team who are, as he says, "the best socializers in the club, and they just really love it. It's not about money or endorsements, it's about having fun, making new friends, about that side of the sport."
By helping to save the Otago Spirit, he sees this as not only his chance to give back to the sport and region that has given him so much, but to save a side of rugby that is still played for pure love of the game.
And in response to those who belittle and naysay women's rugby and the effort to save the Spirit, Adam says "it's about the game of rugby... and to give anyone who wants the opportunity to play the game, the chance to play it, no matter if they are kids or adults, male or female."
Opportunity... We all deserve it.
If you want to help give the women rugby players of Otago an opportunity, please feel free to donate what you can at http://otagospiritfundraising.tumblr.com/ or bid on one of Thommo's amazing donations found on Trademe: 2011 RWC ball signed by the All Blacks, Highlanders polo, and Highlanders shorts.
Donations can also be made at any Westpac bank to this account: 03-0675-0531096-001, with "Otago women's rugby" in the subject line.
To find out in what other ways you can help, check out the Facebook page Save Otago Women's Rugby.