The Black Ferns: The Experiences of New Zealand's Elite Women Rugby Players

By Chu, Michael M. L.; Leberman, Sarah I. et al. | Journal of Sport Behavior, June 2003 | Go to article overview

The Black Ferns: The Experiences of New Zealand's Elite Women Rugby Players


Chu, Michael M. L., Leberman, Sarah I., Howe, Bruce L., Bachor, Dan G., Journal of Sport Behavior


Rugby is New Zealand's national game, but has until recently been male dominated. It was not until 1980 that the first women's provincial game was played in New Zealand (Chester, Palenski, & McMillan, 1998). Internationally, the USA, Canada, and England dominated women's rugby in the early 1990's. However, in 1992, the New Zealand Rugby Football Union (NZRFU) accepted responsibility for women's rugby in New Zealand, and the New Zealand women's team, the Black Ferns, has remained unbeaten for a decade. Although they are currently the world champions, little information exists on why and how these women became involved in a predominantly male sport. The research is positioned in the context of rugby as a masculine sport with women now playing the sport. Our research aimed to explore why these women entered and continued to participate in one of the fastest growing sports for women in New Zealand (Hillary Commission, 2001).

Two earlier studies conducted by Csizma, Wittig, and Schurr (1988) and Matteo (1984) revealed both men and women perceived rugby to be a predominantly male sport. Taken together, out of 68 sports, rugby was rated in the top five in terms of masculinity alongside boxing, football, wrestling and weightlifting. In the past decade there have been a growing number of studies in which the experiences of women in traditionally non-female sports are investigated. These studies have provided a mainly sociological perspective and have included boxing (Mennesson, 2000; Halbert, 1997), ice hockey (Theberge, 1995), soccer (Scraton, Fasting, Pfister, & Bunuel, 1999), and rugby (Wright & Clarke, 1999). Data collection methods were predominantly qualitative, using participant observation and in-depth interviews.

Mennesson (2000), Scraton et al. (1999), and Young and White (1995) suggested that the women in their studies were socialized into the sport in an unstructured way. Scraton et al.'s research into female soccer players from four European countries found that the women in their study gained access to the male sporting world through male contacts. Fathers, brothers and male friends provided the encouragement and support for these women to begin playing soccer, typically between ages 4-6. The exceptions to this were the Spanish soccer players who were encouraged by female friends to try the sport, and generally at an older age (10-11 years) than their other European counterparts.

Several consistent themes have emerged from the research surrounding sport participation. In a study of competitive youth swimmers, the top five participant motives identified were fun, fitness, team atmosphere, skill development, and excitement-challenge (Gould, Feltz, & Weiss, 1985). Similarly, Weiss and Frazer (1995) in a study of adolescent female basketball players, identified mastery (learn and improve skills), socialization (be with and make friends, be popular), team aspects (being part of a team, team work, team spirit) and fitness (be physically fit, stay in shape) as important participant motives regardless of playing time or status. Although most of the early participant motivation work has been with children, Thuot's (1995) research with adults provides further support for these motives. He identified the five most important reasons given for sport involvement after college as enjoyment, exercise, social aspects (friends), stay in shape, and enjoyment of competition.

The prime reasons given by women for participation in sports traditionally considered as masculine, were the joy of participating in a sport requiring physical strength and speed, as well as a love for the sport (McDermott, 1996; Mennesson, 2000; Scraton et al., 1999; Theberge, 1995; Wright & Clarke, 1999; Young & White, 1995). Other specific reasons identified in particular studies were a sense of empowerment, self-confidence (McDermott, 1996; Young & White, 1995) and the team environment (Scraton et al. …

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