I was there to speak to Sarah Ulmer, who was competing at the national champs and in the build-up to what would become her crowning glory; a gold medal and a world record at the Athens Olympics.
At this time Ulmer was fairly well known. She was the Commonwealth Games champion and the face of cycling in the country. After the interview, I vividly recall Ulmer saying to me “thanks for your interest.” Huh, I thought, she’s thanking me? An athlete I greatly admired, who I thought was a household name, and she’s appreciative of talking to a baby radio journo.
What I didn’t know then but do now is the battle a sport like cycling has to generate interest and coverage outside of a few times a year, let alone when the cyclist is a woman. What I also didn’t understand back then is the adage of “you can’t be it if you can’t see it”, a premise being talked about in many industries when it comes to getting more women and more diversity across the board. Without writing an entire manifesto for change on the media coverage of women’s sport, the idea of “see it to be it” is one many female athletes like Ulmer have long been acutely aware of and a mantle a generation of rugby players are now taking on their shoulders.
Nowhere will it ring truer than this weekend when Northland etches its name into the Farah Palmer Cup story. The fourth new team to join the competition in three years, Northland opens its campaign against Hawke’s Bay before playing their opening home game the following week in Whangarei.
Charmaine Smith, Te Kura Ngata-Aerengamate, Leilani Perese and Northland’s most famous rugby export Portia Woodman are just a few of the current internationals to come out of the region, but none have been able to do so while officially registered to the Northland Union; unable to put their home province alongside their name on a team sheet.
That will now start to change. Ngata-Aerengamate, contracted national squad member Harono Te Iringa and World Cup winner Victoria Subritzky-Nafatali are all part of the Northland team. With the 2021 World Cup to be played in the region, Northland accelerated their entry to the FPC by a year, partly in the hope of showing their huge crop of rising talent the pathway to the top… while the top is right on their doorstep.
An official women’s club competition was re-launched this year, a schoolgirls first XV competition implemented and an under 16 age grade rep team established. The under-18s are training regularly with the FPC squad, learning the practices of some of the best in game in the formative stage of their rugby career.
Northland is aware they’ve need somewhere for their players to go after the age of 13, teams and competitions to play in, ways to keep them in the game initially and in the region long term.
Entering the Farah Palmer Cup may seem like building from the top down, but sometimes it doesn’t matter how you get there, it’s along as you do. If girls in the region couldn’t see it to be it before now, they will this weekend.