New Kaha Cup honors rugby wāhine toa

Rugby

Presented in the year of the Rugby World Cup, a new taonga recognizes the three stalwart women’s clubs in Auckland rugby. And it’s been gifted by a wahine who’s also a treasure of the game.

Chantal “Shorty” Bakersmith put down her microphone and cried when the Ponsonby Fillies won their first Auckland women’s rugby championship in 27 years.

Bakersmith, a former Filly and Auckland Storm second-five, was the ground announcer at Western Springs Stadium on that historic day back in August, 2020.

“I was so emotional – I couldn’t believe it after so long,” she says. “It had really hurt; I’d played in finals and had to present that shield to other clubs for Auckland Rugby.”

After 80 minutes, Ponsonby had been locked at 20-20 with Manurewa, their final opponents for the Coleman Shield, but the fitter Fillies went on to win 35-20 in extra time. Among the victorious Fillies that day were Black Ferns Theresa Fitzpatrick, Eloise Blackwell, Charmaine McMenamin and ‘newcomer’ Ruby Tui.

It got Bakersmith thinking there weren’t enough cups or trophies to play for in the Auckland competition. And that there should be a taonga to celebrate the three truly dominant clubs in Auckland women’s history, especially in the year the Rugby World Cup will finally be played in Aotearoa.

Three “stalwart, unshakeable” clubs: Ponsonby, Marist and College Rifles.

“I was thinking about the Rugby World Cup and recognizing the path paved by women in club rugby before us. The history of the Black Ferns really started here – so many have come from Auckland and these three clubs,” says Bakersmith. She’s somewhat of a taonga to Auckland rugby herself, having been a player, coach, volunteer and administrator, who helped to develop the women’s game.

So she put the idea to friends, current and past players, and they approved.

Then she went searching for the right trophy for the three clubs to play for.

“I wanted something different, not your standard silver cup,” Bakersmith says. “So I found a beautiful glass cup. It’s feminine and strong.”

(But, she adds, there have already been complaints that the lid is glued on and you can’t drink from it.)

The glistening Kaha Cup at the first match it was up for grabs: Marist v Ponsonby Fillies. Photo: supplied.

Then one of the Ponsonby Fillies and Auckland Storm lock, Sophie Fisher – an apprentice builder – offered to build a special box to house it.

The trophy was then christened the Kaha Cup.

“It’s about recognizing the past. Kaha – being brave and resilient. Those three clubs have had to be all those things to survive,” Bakersmith, 42, says.

“The last 30 years haven’t always been easy. As a coach you see it – you might have 20 players one week, and 15 the next. Finding coaches and managers is still a challenge today.”

Bakersmith, who’s a lecturer and academic leader at Te Whare Wānanga O Wairaka (Unitec) and will be a team liaison at the Rugby World Cup, introduced the Kaha Cup to the Auckland competition this season. The idea is whenever two of the teams meet, the cup goes up for grabs.

“In my ideal world it could move three times during a season. That will keep it alive, keep it moving, keep up interest. Those three clubs are so close, it won’t stay in one place and get boring,” she says.

And that’s exactly how it’s played out in the inaugural season of the Kaha Cup.

In the very first match back in April, Bakersmith presented the cup to Ti Tauasosi, the Marist captain for that match, after her team beat Ponsonby, 51-24.

“It was a tight game until the last 15 minutes when Marist ran away with it,” Bakersmith says.

But Marist barely had time to put their fingerprints on the sparkling trophy before it was whisked away.

During Storm Week, when the competition is condensed in the lead-up to the Farah Palmer Cup, College Rifles beat Marist, 10-7, and took guardianship of the Kaha Cup.

Former Black Ferns captain and Marist stalwart Fiao’o Fa’amausili with her nieces and nephew – and the Kaha Cup. Photo: supplied.

Then last weekend, the Ponsonby Fillies out-ran the Rifles Thunderbirds, 53-26. The cup will now reside in the Ponsonby clubrooms for the rest of the rugby season.

Ponsonby is the eldest of these three esteemed women’s clubs – first formed in 1986, when the Auckland women’s competition was in its formative stages with three or four teams. Many of the Fillies players had switched codes from netball and touch.

They dominated the Auckland club scene for almost a decade, winning the championship title every year through till 1993.

Marist Brothers Old Boys put together a women’s team in 1987, and would become one of the super clubs in the women’s game. (They’ve turned out 33 Black Ferns since then).

When College Rifles entered the fray in 1996, they became “a role model club on how to treat women players,” Bakersmith says.

Black Ferns legend Anna Richards was shoulder-tapped to leave Ponsonby and develop women’s rugby at College Rifles, along with her New Zealand team-mate and Auckland captain, Tracy Lemon. With the full support of the club, other top players were enticed to join them.

The Rifles Thunderbirds then began a ding-dong battle with Marist that went on for the next two decades. “They had good coaching, they were fit, and it was hard to compete against them,” Bakersmith remembers.

Around the time Rifles was born, a good chunk of the Ponsonby side also left the game for rugby league, and so they were forced to rebuild – not only the team, but a tight-knit culture.

In 2020, the Fillies received a fillip with the arrival of exciting Black Ferns Sevens star, Ruby Tui. The sevens couldn’t travel overseas, held back by the pandemic, and Tui wanted to play 15s again, with the dream of playing in Rugby World Cup 21. It also meant Theresa Fitzpatrick (who’d come up through the junior ranks at Ponsonby ) was home to play, too.

Ponsonby, of course, won the Coleman Shield that year, and met Manurewa in last year’s premier women’s final – that time Manurewa came out champions, winning with the last play of the match.

Fillies lock Sophie Fisher holding the Kaha Cup in the case she built. Photo: @rugbystudio.

One of the advocates of the Kaha Cup and the mana it’s anticipated to bring to the game is former Black Ferns halfback, Waimania Teddy, who played for both Rifles and Marist in the 2000s.

Teddy captained Rifles to a club championship title, and then was offered a place at Marist “with an opportunity that if I played well that season, I could be playing in a Black Ferns jersey,” she says. “The rest is history.”

(She played seven tests for the Black Ferns and was part of the victorious 2006 World Cup team).

“I would have loved to have played for the Kaha Cup. It would have added to the rivalry, lifted the bar on my skills and my competitiveness,” she says.

“When Shorty first mentioned she was going to create it, I thought it was an awesome opportunity to enhance the game and increase awareness and involvement in club rugby. Rather than hearing all the issues the Black Ferns have gone through, it puts a positive light on the women’s game.”

Sparking up old rivalries and having another honor to play for, Teddy believes, will show schoolgirl rugby players women’s club rugby is the next step on their pathway to Farah Palmer Cup, Super Rugby Aupiki and the Black Ferns.

“Hopefully it will also encourage women to coach rugby,” says Teddy, who’s back in Auckland after living in Perth, and considering coaching a club next season.

“For us old girls who’ve been away from the game for a while, it’s all about reconnecting with our clubs. And putting a bit of excitement back into club rugby.”

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