Men's team funded, women forced to fundraise
A top Waikato women's rugby team will have to partly pay their own way to a national competition this weekend, even though their male counterparts get a free ride.
Rugby stalwarts, including former Waikato captain Matthew Cooper and ex-national sevens captain Eric Rush, have hit out at the decision despite rugby union bosses saying they simply don't have the money to pay all the costs of the women's team.
Both Waikato sevens sides are due to play in the national tournament in Queenstown this weekend but the union has upset the women's team players by telling them via text message they would have to fundraise to repay the union a $300 per player shortfall themselves and later warning them not to talk to media over the issue.
In contrast the men's side have all their expenses paid.
Under tournament rules the NZRU pays two-thirds of costs for each side, men and women's, and it is up to each province to fund the remaining third.
The WRU went to the Grassroots Charitable Trust to make up the shortfall for the women's side but was left with a $300 per player shortfall.
Waikato Rugby Union boss Graham Bowen defended the policy as "prudent budgeting" with money only being set aside for the men's team.
"To be fair there's been comparisons to the men's team, I mean the men's team has won the national sevens championship two or three times and they've been in it every year, and we obviously budgeted for that. So it's quite a different scenario for the girls, to be honest."
The finances of the WRU were still in a "precarious position", Mr Bowen said, adding he and his wife had personally donated $1500 towards the women's team.
"It's a bit precious for them to say they are not being helped because, crikey, a lot of us have personally helped them and we are doing everything we can to do what we can with the restricted funding that we have available," he said.
The Waikato women's side qualified for the sevens nationals on December 8, prompting Sky Sport rugby commentator Scotty Stevenson at the time to tweet he had just watched "some next level sevens . . . Skills, pace, amazing".
Rugby sevens will make its debut as a sport at the 2016 Olympics in Rio and the International Rugby Board is also heavily backing the women's game as an integral part of the code's future growth.
The Times understands the players, and their families, have been told not to speak to the media about the funding issue, but several have contacted the paper on the condition of anonymity.
One relative, said the women felt the decision was a "real kick in the guts".
"These women train just as hard as the men, are real athletes, and are being treated as second-class citizens."
Although the side's participation in this weekend's event was not in jeopardy, families were now busy holding raffles to try to raise the cash, and fund-raising events will continue after the tournament.
Sevens legend Eric Rush said he had seen the team play in Auckland and they "look like a very good team".
"I don't know how to run a rugby union, but on the other hand I know that this is not a good look for Waikato," he said.
Matthew Cooper said he sympathised with the union in tight times but hoped in future years the WRU would give women's sevens a "greater priority".
All Blacks sevens coach Gordon Tietjens said he was aware of the situation but as a national coach could not comment on the WRU's position. "[But] there has been a big surge in women's rugby," he said. "And Waikato is a very good rugby town."
Labour MP, and former Silver Fern and Black Fern Louisa Wall, said the lack of money in the WRU budget for the women's sevens team showed a "lack of foresight".
"The Waikato has a huge amount of talent and has always had a strong touch football team," she said.