28 September 2022

as seen as stuff.co.nz

A year or so ago Southland’s female rugby league participation was close to zero, now there are female teams spread across a raft of age groups in what’s been a remarkable spike in interest. 

The initial comments summed up the size of the job for Maima Afutu.

Afutu – the mother of Black Ferns sevens star Alena Saili – was last year appointed Southland District Rugby League’s new rangatahi and female development officer.

Some early feedback from the wider community wasn’t all that pleasant.

“When I was first given this role, around this time last year, my first thing was to go around and talk to people and hear their opinions,” Afutu says.

“The most common comment was, ‘[rugby league’s] a thug sport. It’s for thugs and bullies’. I thought, ‘well there’s my goal’, to change the mindset of how people think this game is.”

“It’s nothing like that, it’s such a fun sport. Everybody that’s been involved from our juniors up to our women’s team and the Rams are having a great time in rugby league.”

One of Afutu’s key assignments has been to grow female participation in Southland. An easy task to write, but not such an easy task to deliver.

After all, rugby league is viewed by many as a sport for blokes. Those thoughts are now starting to subside though.

At the point of taking on the assignment, apart from a scattering of girls mixed in with junior teams prominently made up of boys, there was no female rugby league participation in Southland.

Many women have had a significant presence in Southland rugby league through administration roles, not so much pulling the boots on themselves.

Much of the focus has been on keeping Southland’s four or five-team senior men’s club competition alive, and ensuring its flagship senior men’s representative team, the Southland Rams, remained competitive.

Fast-forward the clock a year or so and the rise of female rugby league participation is one of the current success stories in Southland sport.

In fact its captured national attention within the New Zealand rugby league community.

“There has been a few comments from people saying, ‘what are you doing in the south, it’s amazing’. There’s still a lot of learning on our behalf, we still have a lot to learn. We want to keep building on the momentum we have for everyone involved in league,” Afutu says.

The initial female growth was at the youth level.

Southland District Rugby League has mustered enough teenagers to put together various Southland under-14, under-16, under-18 representative girls teams to attend South Island tournaments.

Earlier this year Southland District Rugby League dipped its toes into the introduction of senior women’s rugby league.

Three teams were formed to take part in the Murihiku All-Nations 9s tournament to be played in February.

Covid-19 restrictions scrubbed that tournament out, although the overall quest to get senior women’s rugby league operating in Southland remained.

For the first time in 17 years, Southland District Rugby League has been able to put together a senior women’s representative team.

At the weekend the group of newbie rugby league players travelled to Dunedin to take part in a South Island tournament that also involved Otago, Canterbury and Tasman.

Southland beat Otago 20-18 in the playoff for third. Although this story isn’t about results.

It’s about a group of Southlanders who challenged themselves to a completely new sport and have now become hooked.

“To be honest I’ve been hounded by the women saying, ‘what’s next?’ I’m trying to see what opportunities there are,” Afutu says.

“They’ve just said that they’ve loved this, they’ve loved every minute of it. They’ve said, ‘Maima, you’ve got me, I’m hooked’.

“I was buzzing to hear those comments. You always want them to have a great experience.”

On top of providing more participation opportunities for females, Afutu points out that rugby league now provides a genuine pathway to the elite sporting ranks.

Southland’s very own Hailee-Jay Maunsell throws up a shining example of that.

The Invercargill-born and raised Maunsell has made her way through the rugby league ranks since moving to Australia. She is now contracted to the Gold Coast Titans which plays in the National Rugby League Women’s [NRWL] competition.

The teenager was also part of the Kiwi Ferns squad for their test against Tonga in June.

“With NRLW and the popularity that it has gained, we’ve now seen two more [NRLW] female teams. That’s probably a massive incentive for females for giving it a go. In another couple of years there will be two more teams added.

“That’s telling us there’s growth in the sport,” Afutu says.

At a local level, there will be a South Island Scorpions team named for the first time this year with some Southland players expected to be included.

The South Island team will play a game against New Zealand Universities in Dunedin next month.

Afutu says it’s just another pathway and step in rugby league’s female revolution.

Southland Rams’ South Island decider

Meanwhile, Southland’s senior men’s representative rugby league team the Southland Rams will contest the 2022 South Island provincial final against Otago in Dunedin on Saturday.

A 46-20 win over Aoraki Eels and a 30-28 victory against West Coast had already banked the Rams a spot in the final before its final round-robin fixture against the Otago Whalers last Saturday.

Otago’s 56-18 victory in that game would suggest the Whalers head into the decider on Saturday as warm favorites.

Although there seems to be a genuine sense of belief bubbling away in the Rams camp for its second trip to Dunedin in as many weeks.

“We’ve got a lot of expectation on ourselves. We are expecting us to fire back up,” Rams coach Nathan Anderson says.

Anderson opted to rest about seven players from last Saturday’s game against Otago but back at full strength he felt they could give Otago a good shake.

The Rams will be without leader Dylan Lovett who broke his leg in the win over the West Coast, but Southland still has plenty of experience on offer through the likes of Daniel Low who Anderson says is having a standout season.

Prop Albert Qoro has been one of the Rams’ best this season, alongside fullback Crete Waaka.

On top of the South Island Championship the Greg Dawson Trophy played between Southland will be up for grabs. The winner will also book a ticket to Auckland to take on the North Island championship winner.

Rams team to play Otago:

Crete Waka, Brennan Sutherland, Juita Naqianivalu, Nehemiah Fa’amoe-Ioane, Korey Pennicott, Osika Kafononga, Kieran Turuwhenua (cc), Daniel Low (cc), Junior Topera, Tupou Kaufononga, Thomas Watts, Albert Qoro. Reserves: Kelepi Holi, Marama Reti. Leo Wiki-Quest, Sione Kaufononga, Calder White, Josh Wilson.