REUTERS: Rugby powerhouse New Zealand is keen to leverage the success of its all-conquering Black Ferns to create an opportunity for women to make a living from the game but will not rush into the creation of a professional league until due diligence is done.
New Zealand players hailed Monday's announcement of a landmark pay deal for the nation's top women which will award playing retainers to 30 members of the world champion Black Ferns squad for the first time.
Although the deal does little to bridge the huge gender pay gap with the All Blacks, the global titans of the men's game, it will give the country's amateur women more hope of carving out a professional career in the rugby-mad country.
New Zealand Rugby (NZR) is studying the feasibility of a professional league above the Farah Palmer Cup, the peak amateur competition, which could provide another pathway to international level much as Super Rugby does for the All Blacks.
A proposal will be put to the NZR board in June, with a best-case scenario likely to push for the establishment of a pro league in 2019.
However, as much as the governing body sees a growing appetite for elite women's rugby, it remains wary of disrupting a model that sees most female players engaged in employment outside of the game.
"There is a lot of excitement around women's rugby and I think people want (another league), but you have to go through the process," NZR head of women's rugby development Cate Sexton told Reuters in an interview on Monday.
"We don’t want to put competitions in place that will fall over because we haven’t done our due diligence.
"I would love to see that we have a playing programme that takes players away from their jobs and study.
"It’s just making sure that we’re not putting our players at risk."
OPPORTUNITY, NOT COST
New Zealand's women are even more dominant in 15-aside rugby than the men, winning five World Cups compared to the All Blacks' three, but they lag far behind in terms of profile and pay.
The Black Ferns' fifth World Cup triumph in Ireland last year put the glaring gender pay gap in the national spotlight, with the record revenues being raked in by NZR raising more question about investment in the women's game.
Last month, NZR announced a record NZUS$33.4 million (US$24.42 million) profit for 2017 on the strength of the British and Irish Lions tour, and invested an unprecedented NZUS$224 million in rugby.
Critics have queried the level of investment in the women's game, with Black Ferns players earning only NZUS$2,000 fees per week for a handful of matches and training camps compared to the NZUS$7,500 fees given to All Blacks.
Sexton defended NZR's commitment to women's rugby and said that ensuring players were given adequate support in a high performance environment, along with more playing opportunities, was of greater urgency than offering salaries.
"Overall, women’s sport isn't invested in as heavily as men’s sport in NZ, and the world, but we’ve seen a massive shift," she said.
"What we’re working really hard on is the support people and the capability of the people we wrap around them, that is critical," she said.
New Zealand has cast admiring glances at the development of women's sport in neighbouring Australia, where professional cricket, soccer and Australian Rules football competitions have sprouted in recent years.
Rugby Australia launched its inaugural Super W competition over the weekend, a hastily assembled tournament featuring five teams, four of them aligned with the country's professional men's Super Rugby sides.
The Super W players are not being paid but are hopeful sponsors will jump on board to allow for salaries in subsequent editions.
Sexton said NZR was watching Super W with great interest and had spoken to Rugby Australia's high performance department about possible future collaboration.
"I think we can take confidence of the success of the (women's) Big Bash, the AFLW, those types of competition that have been really successful (in Australia)," she said.
"We need to get to a place where women's rugby is not seen as a cost but rather an opportunity."
(US$1 = 1.3676 New Zealand dollars)
(Editing by Peter Rutherford)