Changing the Game

Rikki Swannell
Written by
Rikki Swannell

Author short introduction. Three to five lines of brief description.

Double World Cup winning Black Fern Victoria Grant is helping coach the New Zealand mens under 20s teams and tells Rikki Swannell she wants to coach the team she once captained too.

Victoria Grant never set out to be the first, but her coaching mentor Tabai Matson would like to see some blokes get out of the way in order to ensure she isn’t the last.

Matson means it in the nicest possible way. But the New Zealand under-20s and soon to be Harlequins coach believes some men are blocking the path for qualified women to come through the rugby coaching ranks in both the men’s and women’s games.

New Zealand's Victoria Grant (C) breaks a tackle from England's Danielle Waterman (L) during the Women's Rugby World Cup 2010 Final at Twickenham Stoop Stadium, southwest London, on September 5, 2010. New Zealand won the game 13-10. Credit: ADRIAN DENNIS via Getty Images

It’s partly why Matson recruited Grant as his skills coach with the under-20s, making her the first woman to be coaching a men’s high performance national or professional team. But he also wants it known in no uncertain terms that the two time World Cup winning Black Fern had all the credentials to join his coaching team alongside Cory Jane, Tom Donnelley and Greg Fleming.

“Firstly, we actually need someone with her skill set to work with the squad in the offloading and handling areas and it seemed like a good fit purely from the coaching piece” he says. “Tors has a very pragmatic approach to the game and is clear in her approach, is very calm and a good teacher.”

However, he’s also acutely aware that women need more opportunities in rugby, especially in coaching.

“If this in any manner creates a fire for other women who wouldn’t consider applying for a job like that, maybe Tors’ opportunity with this team will help a group of aspiring coaches think about putting their CV’s in. The job description doesn’t say men, it just says level 3 coaches with this skill set.”

Grant, 38, is a double World Cup winner who played 17 tests for New Zealand and captained the Black Ferns in her final three.  The physiotherapist, who owns a practice in Hamilton, has been quietly working her way through the coaching ranks for a few years. An internship saw her attached to the Black Ferns Sevens for the eventful 2018 Commonwealth Games campaign, followed by a stint coaching professionally in the Japan women’s sevens competition. She’s now the head coach for the Rotoiti premier men in the Bay of Plenty club comp.

Despite having a strong CV, she was still surprised and a little reticent when the call came from Matson.

“Female coaches don’t have experience so we choose the male option in the short term, but then if they don’t get the opportunity then they’ll never get the experience.” - Tabai Matson

“I wasn’t sure, and I questioned whether I was good enough but I decided to be brave, even though I was quite taken aback,” Grant says. “My main reservations were that I work full time so I’m not full time in rugby and while I’m coaching premier men it’s just been this year so prior to that all my experience was in sevens, so that’s why I second guessed it a bit.”

Like any woman who does something new in the game, Grant just wants to do a good job. But she concedes her role with the 20s is a milestone.

“I just want to be the best coach I can be, get better at my craft, so it’s a bit head down, bum up and do the best I can. I don’t think about the big picture but I know It is important for female coaches; even when I was a player, I never had female coaches. It's important that you do your bit to help mentor.”

Coaching opportunities, or the lack thereof, for women in many sports is the source of angst around the globe. It’s perhaps the single most glaring area where the pace of change has been well, glacial.

World Rugby has set a target of having women as 40% of all coaching staff at the 2025 Rugby World Cup. Currently France’s Annick Hayraud is the only woman in charge of a tier one national team and there are no women coaching on the World Sevens Series.  In New Zealand, two of the 13 Farah Palmer Cup provinces have female head coaches and a handful more are working as assistants.  

Grant says there are a lot of barriers for women trying to crack it in the coaching game.

“You can do all the courses in the world but there’s nothing like hands on in a high-performance environment – you need to be amongst it to know what that looks feels and sounds like but there aren’t enough opportunities for female coaches to do that; you go from a voluntary role, while also working full time, straight to a HP environment.”

“I have no doubt there will be a Super Rugby coach who is a female and that is going to be a great day for New Zealand rugby.” - Victoria Grant

Tabai Matson sees not only a chicken and egg situation but a lot of short-term thinking when it comes to creating opportunities and bringing women into professional coaching set-ups.

“They [female coaches] don’t have experience so we choose the male option in the short term, but then if they don’t get the opportunity then they’ll never get the experience,” Matson muses. “If we want to make a genuine shift then we have to look longer term and say if we give this woman an opportunity, we know she’s hard working, we know she’s got a skill set, we know she brings mana and other things, so why wouldn’t she fly?.”

Matson scoffs at the notion he appointed Grant out of any form of tokenism or to be the good guy and says he’d never jeopardize his own reputation or that of a New Zealand team by having someone involved who wasn’t up to the job. He was heartened by the response and reaction of his young under-20s players to having a female coach.

“I gave the leadership group a courtesy call and said she’s an awesome coach but may feel a little awkward, so you making her feel like she belongs makes the integration accelerate,” says Matson. “The young men have been phenomenal; they haven’t looked at her as if “she’s a woman so I won’t or can’t ask that”, the interactions have all been ‘she’s a coach’ - it hasn’t been a big deal.”

Grant has been mentored by Matson through a World Rugby programme since 2019 and believes it’s the sort of initiative that New Zealand Rugby should look to implement.  She’s had access to the likes of Eddie Jones and Joe Schmidt, as well as being able to chew the fat with Matson whenever she’s needed too. She has high aspirations and while this chance has come with a men’s side, her passion and reason for wanting to coach is the Black Ferns.

“I want to coach a national side be it in fifteens or sevens, that’s the biggie. But also to get really good at what I’m interested in, the part of the game I want to grow and innovate in which is defense at the moment.

Matson is adamant there are quality female coaches coming through the ranks who need to be given a chance just as he was 10 years ago, but sometimes a gentle nudge both ways is required.

“Men will have a crack at something that they’re clearly not capable of doing and a woman will look at the job description and say I don’t have that two percent, so I won’t,” he says.

“I have no doubt there will be a Super Rugby coach who is a female and that is going to be a great day for New Zealand rugby when that happens….So get out of the way men.”

Rikki Swannell
Written by
Rikki Swannell

Sports broadcaster extraordinaire

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