Friday, December 8, 2023

‘A Sports Team, Not A Spectacle’ Why It Took So Long To Get A Black Ferns Doco

They’re the most successful rugby team and yet 2022 is the first year players have been offered full-time contracts and it’s the first time there’s been a documentary about them. Capsule chats to Sarah Hadfield, producer of Sky Originals NZ documentary The Black Ferns – Wāhine Toa about why telling the stories of these world-class athletes is so important.

The rugby team is reunited, they’re catching up at the start of a busy training season as they lead up to the World Cup and in the middle of the hui, a player starts breastfeeding her child. Yep, it’s just one of the ways you know you’re watching a not-so-typical rugby documentary… and thank god, because this is a story we’ve needed to see for a long time.

Despite the fact that they are the most successful rugby team in history (!!!!), the two-part Sky Originals NZ documentary The Black Ferns – Wāhine Toa is the first documentary about The Black Ferns in NZ history and it comes at a very interesting time, as the popularity of the women’s game is now growing faster than popularity of the men’s game in Aotearoa.

“Historically, there were a lot of people out there that thought that women couldn’t play rugby – or shouldn’t play rugby,” says Sarah Hadfield, producer of The Black Ferns – Wāhine Toa. “There were a lot of comments that we couldn’t put in the documentary – because we didn’t have time – about how ‘women shouldn’t play rugby because it will hurt their breasts.’ Ridiculous stuff, but it’s taken a long time to shake that perception. Only in the last 10 years have The Black Ferns been taken seriously as a sports team and not as a spectacle.”

The original concept for The Black Ferns – Wāhine Toa was to show the lead-up to the World Cup and highlight who the women were in their own lives, as well as who they were as top athletes. “Often with sports people, we often don’t learn enough about them as people before we know them as athletes,” Sarah says. “We judge them based on sports performance – but these women in particular, a lot of them have been through a lot to get where they are, and when we see how successful they are in the media, that side of the story is never told.”

Of course, the original concept was pre Covid and like everything else in our life, Covid-19 had a huge impact on the team – the training, the timing, the World Cup preparation. But the pandemic isn’t the other universal factor that gets highlighted in The Black Ferns – Wāhine Toa, there’s also the look at the work/life juggle the players have to face, as well as the demands that motherhood can place on an athletic body.

Former Black Ferns captain Les Elder talks openly about her determination to return to playing rugby after giving birth and the gruelling reality at making that happen. It meant training throughout her entire pregnancy – for instance, doing a CrossFit workout on the morning she went into labour (!) – and starting training again just four weeks after a Caesarean birth, something she says she would absolutely not recommend. But because the athlete to motherhood to athlete path is still barely trodden territory, it’s a hugely important part of the documentary.

“Anybody in sport will say this – women returning to sport after pregnancy is something we don’t know a lot about. And because there are so few women who think that they can do it, no-one does it,” Sarah says.

Another disparity the documentary highlights is who gets resources and who does it. Unlike most of our top male rugby players, our top female rugby players are not full-time athletes, because they cannot afford to be. That’s right, it was only this year (featured in episode two of the documentary) that members of The Black Ferns were offered full-time contracts to be on the team.

So as well as being professional athletes and all the physical upkeep required, the Black Ferns were also working as teachers, nurses, lawyers, civil engineers etc. Even the uniforms were a point of contention, early on in The Black Ferns history; the team used to inherit the boys’ jerseys from the day before – unwashed – to play in.

But the tide has slowly turned, because where audiences go, advertisers follow – and then the money starts improving. But you literally have to be able to find the game in order for that to happen, and it’s one of the long-held commitments from Sky, who already broadcast more female-led sport than anyone else in Aotearoa and are looking to improve that with their ‘See The Possible’ initiative, aimed to highlight women’s sports even further.

It’s how we got the first ever The Black Ferns documentary and why the behind-the-scenes team was also female-led. “Almost all of the crew that worked on the documentary were women, because we wanted to give a different perspective – and being able to tell women’s stories, by women, it felt like a different angle that, particularly in New Zealand, hasn’t been investigated before,” Sarah says. “It celebrates women’s sport, when we get to see our females on the same pedestals that we put our male athletes on.”

With the Rugby World Cup starting in October, what’s the best way we can support The Black Ferns? Buy tickets to the matches themselves, Sarah says. “When people watch them play, they can see how good the quality of rugby is,” Sarah says. “And that it’s not a joke – it’s not a joke to watch women play sport, they’re incredible athletes. And for them to be headlining their own events, in these massive sports venues, this is a prime opportunity.”   

The two-part documentary The Black Ferns – Wāhine Toa starts on Prime today at 8.30pm (and again on Saturday at 9pm).

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