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ANALYSIS: By Jamie Wall, RNZ sports writer

The Blacks Ferns 41-17 win over the Wallaroos on the field at Auckland’s Eden Park last night was good, but the one off it was better.

There had been a lot of conjecture going into the Rugby World Cup about just how people would respond, given the team’s recent history and the fact that women’s rugby has never really been a priority for those running the game in Aotearoa New Zealand.

But it took a World Cup to finally get one thing right.

The people in charge knew that the most important ones at a sporting event aren’t the players. They’re not the volunteers, or the entertainers, or even the guy cooking Fritz’s Wieners.

It’s the ones who are there for the first time ever, most usually children but occasionally adults who are giving something new a go.

They’re the most important because their entire experience could well mean they come back next time, and again and again until they call themselves true fans. They will bring their friends, their family and eventually their own children.

If the sporting event can get it right, they lock in that person for life.

Lacklustre experiences
It’s something rugby hasn’t been very good at lately. Lacklustre game day experiences have played a huge role in crowds for everything below (and sometimes including) the All Blacks gradually declining, to the point where NPC attendances are pretty much non-existent. There is nothing unique, very little that’s special.

Last night at Eden Park flipped that notion on its head. While there is a conversation to be had around just exactly how many fans were in attendance (43,000) and whether a clearly not full stadium can be described as “sold out”, in the end it didn’t really matter.

Looking around showed a different sight than an All Black test match, far more children and families. Groups of people who were clearly drawn to women’s rugby and its World Cup for reasons they’d arrived at themselves.

It was up to the day itself to carry them further.

If it was their first time at a rugby game, what they got most definitely ensured that they’d be coming back. The wave ridden by new fans of a fixture that, for a while there, the Black Ferns had no right to win, is a wonderful and unique experience of its own.

It was an evening of making sure the fan experience was paramount: from Rita Ora’s performance to affordable tickets to the Black Ferns making sure every single kid got a photo after the game – even if it meant they didn’t get into the sheds until well after 10pm.

Black Ferns' Portia Woodman celebrates with fans after the match. Australia v New Zealand Black Ferns, Women’s Rugby World Cup New Zealand 2021 (played in 2022) pool match at Eden Park, Auckland, New Zealand on Saturday 8 October 2022.
The Black Ferns’ Portia Woodman celebrates with fans after the match. Image: Photosport/RNZ

The energy of the crowd was clearly different too to one usually found at Eden Park. For a start, there were no massive howls of protest at refereeing decisions. No one was getting rotten drunk either, despite it being Saturday night.

Happy and safe
The general feel was that this was an environment that you could feel happy and safe in, something that is less directly quantifiable than numbers but infinitely more valuable in the broader context.

Does it mean that every Black Ferns test can be assured of a big crowd if they are held in a big stadium? Probably not, as the World Cup factor plays a huge role in getting people along.

But it’s a new dawn for women’s rugby, this time with an actual professional NZ Rugby competition to follow it up and a commitment by World Rugby to continue the momentum in test matches. It is proof that if you do things right and invest properly, people will show up in numbers.

From an elite level perspective, this all makes sense as it should have all happened years ago. But there was a sign during the week that the penny had finally dropped in regard to what it will mean in the long term.

When asked about how the Black Ferns would inspire player numbers, coach Wayne Smith said that “the future generations will be inspired to play rugby, be fans and follow the game”.

That’s the nail on the head, because it’s not going to matter whether those future fans are girls or boys. They will grow up and fill the seats at Eden Park and other stadiums.

While the World Cup opener should rightfully be held up as a celebration of women’s rugby right now, years from now it will be remembered as an important day for the national game of New Zealand in general.

This article is republished under a community partnership agreement with RNZ.

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