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The buzz around women’s rugby has magnified considerably since the Black Ferns Sevens won Gold at the Tokyo Olympics.
Activist Alice Soper talks to Matthew Casey about sustainable support of the women’s game at all levels, not just a flurry of excitement once every four years.
Alice Soper, a former Wellington Pride front-rower, has been generating attention for the sport for some time. Spurred on by New Zealand Rugby’s (NZR) silence on the 2020 Farah Palmer Cup season, and delays around the Rugby World Cup, Soper has stepped into a role as the media’s go-to voice on all things women’s rugby. Acknowledging the women who have “paved the way” before her, and before her contemporaries could “carve out (their) track”, Soper is making Aotearoa sit up and take notice.
Soper has been playing rugby since high school, and at the age of 13 joined the Wellington Women’s Sevens team. In 2020, she played her final game of professional rugby for the Wellington Pride in New Zealand’s premier provincial competition, the Farah Palmer Cup, almost two decades after her debut. I talked to Alice about the recently formed advocacy group Women in Rugby Aotearoa.
I asked whether women’s rugby should be run by the NZR (a recent subject of contentious discussion), and Soper said “I actually don’t think it should.” Regarding women’s rugby on all levels, she says, “When women aren’t involved then it falls on men, who will only put a team on if you turn up. If we didn’t turn up then we didn’t have a girls’ team anymore,” Soper said, referring to her own experience as a schoolgirl.
Soper notes that the women’s game being run successfully looks very different, despite the current “copy and paste” format. In general initially women’s matches have been played at an earlier time at the same ground as men’s games. This season’s FPC began a month before their male counterparts, and it has shown a glimpse of what more intimate venues can provide in terms of atmosphere and support.
“Resource doesn’t just mean money. It means – creativity of thought and innovation, like if you look at any time women’s sport has moved forward, it’s been designed by women and we’ve done stuff.” For instance, the inaugural Rugby World cup in 1991 was organised by four women in the United Kingdom. This grassroots initiative got picked up by the International Rugby Board in 1998. The ninth edition of this Rugby World Cup is due to be hosted in New Zealand next year.
After a stint in England in 2017 playing in the English Premierships inaugural two seasons, Soper realised the same problems occurred there as well. While she was there, one of her “rugby mums”, Tia Paasi (a former Black Fern), passed away. The write-up by NZR really annoyed Soper. “It was just a paragraph. I said, ‘that’s not her and that’s not her impact on us.”
Believing that what was published had not done justice to Paasi’s sports career, prompted Soper to speak up about the continued problems in women’s rugby. She quotes a saying she draws upon when talking with her forward pack – “If you have got time to ask who, the answer is you.”
And Soper has done just that. She has stepped away from the Pride, switching her attention to the establishment of Women in Rugby Aotearoa. WiRA is a centralised advocacy group for all women in the game. Soper believes they have held up their “part of the bargain, which was about better performances, making the effort, turning up to the training and doing this thing. And we’re still not getting the respect. So it’s like, when is that going to happen?” Rather than patience, they’ve chosen pressure.
The women’s game isn’t just “men’s rugby lite” in Soper’s eyes. “It is a missed opportunity because they don’t realize it’s not about tricking men into liking women’s rugby. There’s a whole other audience that will like women’s rugby” who currently “don’t like rugby right now.”
As for her role as a spokesperson, she acknowledges that she is radical, but sees it as necessary. “It’s like you have to be the most outrageous version, to achieve a small shift, because you don’t start in the middle.” Soper declares that nowhere is this as true as in the “notoriously male-centric world of rugby.”
After almost 20 years in the women’s club rugby space, she believes “We are doing better at staging it. But are we doing better at changing it?” She believes that on the outside it looks as though the women’s game is in a far better position than ever before but actual progress isn’t as impressive. It is this disconnect between perception and reality which Soper is very passionate about. While women’s rugby may be more ‘in vogue’ than ever before, she makes clear that there is still much work to be done. She talks about club rugby and how they have long fought for women to get the recognition for doing the same as the men such as getting blazers for 100 caps for the club.
Despite the introduction of a new elite women’s rugby competition announced by the NZR for 2022, and the televisation of all FPC games for the first season ever, Soper sees a different reality.
The increased rugby schedule is putting “pressure on these women that hasn’t been there before. It’s cranking up higher and higher now in order to play for the FPC team. Like, that’s my reason I stopped playing this year. I had to go to training three times a week, [plus my own gym training) on top of that. I don’t have that time. I’m working full time.”The players are having to juggle jobs with top-level training and preparation and Soper says of the women’s upcoming semi professional Super Rugby season in 2022, “Semi professional means semi poverty”- If there was appropriate compensation for their time, players would not have such a struggle to juggle aspects such as family life, work and their rugby.
The same is true for some of women’s rugby’s most prominent players. Blackferns Captain Eloise Blackwell, for example, “is a full time teacher at Auckland Girls Grammar”. Says Soper, “Don’t tell me that is because they get paid enough.” Reflecting upon her seasons playing for the Pride, she recalls that it cost her “ a month’s paycheck to play”,because she had to take time off work to play and time off to train.
But is the women’s game ready to stand alone? Soper thinks so.
In response to comments that Soper could be expecting a paid role, she says “It’s not about getting paid, it’s about the players that I’m still in touch with and connected to. Do they think that I’m doing the right thing?” and at this point in time she believes that she is and remains a staunch advocate. As for being a figurehead for changing attitudes towards women’s rugby, Soper says “to the rugby establishment, I am nothing because I am not a Black Fern, I am not a Sky commentator. So I’m nothing to them. So there’s nothing they can take from me.” allowing her to advocate without fear of losing contracts or being stood down from a team.
Soper’s happy to take on the lead but acknowledges that she is “standing on a whole heap of shoulders to have reached the point of visibility in the mainstream. But there are many bodies underneath that and there are stories attached to all of that.” She is frustrated by the lack of recognition of the work done by previous players. She recognises herself as part of a long lineage “It’s not really about me… I’m just one person and I can stop playing.” Soper’s focused on “what happens next”. She’s committed herself to the cause of women’s rugby because she doesn’t “want it to be the same” as it was when she was growing up.
Despite her decision to step away from top level rugby as a player, she continues to play a big part in pushing for the game to get the respect she believes it deserves. Alice Soper is unapologetically advocating for women-led change, and a redefining of our national game.