World Rugby Hall of Fame inductee Anna Richards has witnessed first hand the strides made by women in the sport over the past three decades.
Richards was required to pay her own travel expenses in order to represent New Zealand at the inaugural Women’s Rugby World Cup in Wales in 1991. The union did not send a team to the next tournament in Scotland three years later.
By the time she walked away from the test arena in 2010 aged 45 and with a fourth Women’s Rugby World Cup winner’s medal dangling from her neck, however, the event had become a global showpiece.
Since that September afternoon at a sold-out Twickenham Stoop, Richards has continued to give back to the sport that provided so much, spending four years as Hong Kong women’s sevens coach before returning home to New Zealand in December 2017. In March she took up a newly created role as women’s player development manager at Auckland Rugby.
“It’s been awesome,” she said of the job. “Great guys there, really enjoying the atmosphere and the Auckland Rugby Union is very, very supportive of women’s rugby which is great.”
Not that Richards gave herself much time to settle into life at Eden Park. In April she coached the Women’s Barbarians to their first test victory, a nail-biting 34-33 defeat of the USA in Colorado, and last week she was back in London to prepare the invitational side for their clash with England at Twickenham.
“Being associated with such an amazing and historic organisation like the Baa-Baas I think there are eyes on you to see what happens, how you play and I thought we did really well in that first test match against the USA,” Richards said.
“The girls really bought in to the Baa-Baas ethos of really enjoying it, having a go and just expressing themselves. I told them my mantra was ‘Be a Ferrari, don’t be a Skoda’.”
Unfortunately, the squad were not able to purr quite like an Italian sports car at Twickenham last weekend, losing 40-14 to England in front of a crowd of around 18,000.
But the passion that helped Richards become the most-capped Black Fern at the time she hung up her boots still burns bright and she refuses to put a ceiling on the potential for women in rugby.
“I hope that it will just continue growing,” she said. “I hope we get lots more girls playing, and it would be great to see more international matches.
“You know, the world’s our oyster if it keeps growing. We could have the Six Nations up in the northern hemisphere, we could have the Rugby Championship down in the southern [hemisphere].
“I don’t want to put a limit on where we could go. I don’t want to put a limit, you’ve got to dream.”
A viable option
Richards believes that progress made in the last 10 years, which have seen sevens become an Olympic sport and countries such as England and New Zealand reward their female players with full and part-time contracts, have made rugby a more viable option for young girls.
“It’s the biggest growing sport,” she explained. “I think too that we’ve genuinely got a chance to attract more people to choose it as the sport that they play.
“We get a lot of kids [in New Zealand] who play lots of different sports at school and then when they leave they tend to set on one.
“But now with the Olympics and fully contracted players for sevens, now we’ve got semi-professional 15s, it’s actually a real opportunity for people to say ‘Well, that’s the path I wanted to go. I want to do that as my chosen sport’.”
Indeed, Richards’ role at Auckland Rugby is the direct result of increased funding from New Zealand Rugby and she points to outside factors – such as the election of the “wonderful, young, amazing” Jacinda Ardern as New Zealand’s Prime Minister – as proof of a wider women’s movement.
Richards is proud, too, that the current Black Ferns squad are getting increased exposure to international matches. Even if it means more players will join Fiao’o Fa’amausili in overtaking her tally of 49 test caps.
“I think the girls have got six tests this year, which is kind of crazy,” she added.
“I played for New Zealand for 20 years and I got 49 tests, and I didn’t miss many. So, I think it will progress.
“The support in New Zealand is huge, [and] hugely growing. NZR just put NZ$90,000 into provincial unions to set up high performance units for women specifically, so it’s just growing.
“You can’t take a massive leap, you’ve just got to keep on taking small steps. Like a driving maul, small steps. Keep moving forward, small steps, not too big or you’ll fall over.”
One step on the horizon for the game is a first southern hemisphere Women’s Rugby World Cup as New Zealand prepares to host the tournament in 2021. It is a development that Richards did not believe was possible.
“I never thought we’d have a World Cup in the southern hemisphere,” she admitted.
“Purely from just looking at the financials, World Rugby’s financing a lot and it’s easier to get the majority of the teams, who always come from the northern hemisphere, to the one place. So, I think it’s kind of cool. I think it’ll be great.
Change and evolve
“It’s funny I’ve talked to a lot of people this week who’ve said ‘Oh, it’s gonna be great, I’m going to come down and watch, I’ve always wanted to go to New Zealand but it’s just too far away’. It’s like we’re on the moon!
“So, it’ll be good to get a lot of people and hopefully we can have a World Cup that’s to the standard – like Dublin was amazing, France was incredibly well attended and so was Guildford.
“I think the last three World Cups have been really cool.”
Just don’t expect Richards to slow down in the two years until the tournament kicks off. She might have achieved more than most but her appetite for success has not been sated.
“It’s just like when I was a player, there’s always things to improve,” she said. “It didn’t matter what everybody [said]. ‘Oh, you’re so good Anna’.
“Nah, there’s always places I can improve. It’s the same with coaching, there’s so much to learn and at an international level I haven’t done a lot of coaching.
“So, I just think that there’s so much to learn and to change and evolve. If you stop evolving you might as well give up.”