The new coach guiding the Black Ferns, Allan Bunting, has a sit-down chat with Alice Soper on the environment he’s trying to create, closing the yawning gap for women’s rugby and what’s next for Ruby Tui
Allan Bunting wants to usher in a new era of transparency and accessibility with those at the top of our game. So he begins by welcoming me into my first Black Ferns camp.
The lunchroom at the NZ Campus of Innovation and Sport in Upper Hutt is buzzing with the players on their break. They are stretched across chairs, playing cards or getting rowdy telling stories. A group of support staff sit to one side on a bank of laptops and smile hello as we walk past.
We take a seat in this room to have our conversation, well within earshot of those around us – before realising the volume of those relaxing might interfere with our chat.
All of this tells me more about the environment Bunting is looking to create with the Black Ferns than any answer to a question I may ask.
Plenty of questions have been thrown Bunting’s way since his coaching team was announced. The all-male line-up highlighted the gap between the public’s expectations for women in the game and New Zealand Rugby’s historic under-investment.
“There’s a gap, that’s probably about 20 years apart,” Bunting acknowledges. “From seeing where I was in my playing days and where the women’s game is, I guess we can keep talking about it. But how do we start to close it?”
That’s the question he’s been grappling with since taking on the role as the Black Ferns Director of Rugby.
He’s got experience to draw on as a fixer – first in his rebuild of the Black Ferns Sevens programme after the disappointment of the 2016 Olympics and more recently as part of the band-aid brigade who were brought in during the lead-up to last year’s World Cup.
With the international playing standard higher than ever, there’s tension to balance between winning and growing. Bunting’s first priority is the players in his charge and how he can set them up for success.
“I know the ladies experienced something pretty special with what Smithy gave to the women’s game. And I knew I needed to build on that and take them to the next level,” Bunting says, of assembling the new coaching team in the wake of Wayne Smith’s departure.
“It was like, how do we keep moving forward? So it was good humans, expertise and experience in the professional space in certain areas that I felt like the Black Ferns really need, then relationship orientated and growth mindset.”
Bunting is conscious of the part the Black Ferns play in the game’s ecosystem. Understanding that while players may enter the Black Ferns environment, they will spend the majority of their time within their communities.
“Our ladies are so determined but probably losing heart with limited opportunity.”
These communities, he acknowledges, are full of people who are already “working really hard for the Black Ferns”, right from the grassroots up. Bunting sees the pathway to success through valuing these connections.
“How are we helping those people who are supporting our ladies to grow? Sharing their knowledge but then it’s going to extend on,” he says.
“I think the way that Black Ferns are going to grow is if we extend, we can’t become exclusive. We have to extend out to the wider player group, to our Aupiki, FPC and community so that we are growing – so there’s a clear pathway and clarity of what it takes to be a Black Fern. We’ve got no secret, we want the country to know.”
The country is still waiting to know when they can next see the Black Ferns in action. The full details of this year’s test schedule have been slow to emerge as has the confirmation of WXV, World Rugby’s new global competition, that will be played in October this year.
NZ Rugby has entered a bid to host the top tier, meaning we could all be treated to a rematch of that World Cup final between the Black Ferns and England’s Roses. Bunting didn’t have any further details to share but shed some light on what fan favourite Ruby Tui has been up to.
“That Ruby, she knows how to fill her cup. Like, she won’t commit when she knows she can’t,” he says. “She knows what it means to be in this team and how much that is to give. So she needs to fill it up. Last year took a lot of energy.”
Tui was yesterday added to the Black Ferns player group, and will re-join the squad following a sabbatical. Bunting had kept the door open for Tui, reminding her that “the guys take sabbaticals”.
It would have been a surprise, given their working relationship, to not see them reunited. That’s part of the luxury that Bunting has this time around. Without a World Cup looming, there’s an opportunity to take stock and build things that will last.
“Building off the World Cup, we’ve got two-and-a-half years to continue to build solid foundations as we continue to shift into professionalism and what that really means to be a Black Fern and for the future,” Bunting says.
“So that from afar, the young ladies that are seeing this, they really want to be a part of it. And the ones in here want to stay and make it better for the future.”
There’s a lot of work to do. We are just one year on from the Black Ferns Culture and Environmental Review, which was triggered by the experiences of Black Ferns prop Te Kura Ngata-Aerengamate.
There were 26 recommendations put forward in this report and progress has been mixed. While the team may have lifted the silverware, more work needs to be done to lift the standards off the field to unleash the full potential of women’s fifteens.
“There’s a lot of potential and talent in our country, and a lot of work to do to bring that to life especially outside of our space, to capture and lift up the talent New Zealand has both coaches and players. Part of my vision was that we need to build depth in our people,” says Bunting.
For participants in every part of the women’s game, it’s a very short ladder to the top. This means that a lot of folks are doing their learning together and very publicly.
Head coaches in Aupiki are taking on high profile roles, but also a player group who are learning for the first time what it is to receive a pay cheque and its associated responsibilities. Contrast this with the coaching experiences in the men’s game, where coaches at this level just get to coach.
Bunting believes we need to be doing more to support rugby’s “missing piece” – the women in the game, to develop.
Historically, that has seen experienced folk from the men’s game brought into the women’s space to share their knowledge. Bunting would like to see the opposite in action, with more opportunities opened up for women to integrate and learn within men’s spaces.
“How do we give access to the missing piece so we can catch up?” asks Bunting. “The missing piece is in the men’s game. Our ladies are so determined but probably losing heart with limited opportunity.
“How do we get our coaches into men’s spaces? To see what it takes, to leave no stone unturned, to share the knowledge of our game but also do things differently. It’s not just coaches, it’s players too. How do we share our rugby knowledge in New Zealand?”
To answer this question, Bunting plans to lead by example. His camps and his DMs are open for anyone looking to learn more.
Renee Woodman-Wickliffe, who retired from the Black Ferns after the last World Cup, has already reached out and has an open invite to take part in the next chapter for the national side.
However, the Black Ferns won’t just be waiting for folks to join them. Bunting intends for his coaching team to get all around the country to meet our talent where they are.
“I’ve always had this view that everybody has been given gifts. I never gave them that gift, I just helped them realise it,” he says.
“That was passed down through the ancestors. And that’s why family is such an important part of our team in this nation. And then there’s not all good things in that line too, how do we change that for the next generation?”
That’s right. The Black Ferns Director of Rugby is now talking about whakapapa and addressing generational trauma.
It’s this emotional intelligence that is the hallmark of Bunting’s coaching tenures. It’s how he fostered such confidence and loyalty within his playing groups.
Should Bunting do this again for the Black Ferns fifteens, pulling together the collective powers of the talent on offer, we might just enter a new era for all New Zealand Rugby.
“That’s what we’ve got in this country, something really special. We’ve been blessed with a whole lot of diversity of cultures, and spiritual beliefs,” Bunting says.
“And you know, our Pasifika and Māori culture, we’ve got special words that mean so much, that connect spiritually, that bring all of this power. But it’s humility, and it’s service. How do we really capture all of that?
“And that’s where we have an edge over the rest of the world.”