The new Kaha Cup pays tribute to wāhine toa rugby

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Rugby

Featured in the year of the Rugby World Cup, a new taonga recognizes Auckland’s three loyal women’s rugby clubs. And it was offered by a wahine which is also a treasure of the game.

Chantal ‘Shorty’ Bakersmith put down her microphone and cried as 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 in August 2020.

“I was so emotional – I couldn’t believe it after so long,” she says. “It had really hurt; I had played in the final and had to present this 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.

This led Bakersmith to believe there were not enough cups or trophies to play in the Auckland competition. And that there should be a taonga to celebrate the three truly dominant clubs in Auckland’s women’s history, especially in the year when the Rugby World Cup will finally be played in Aotearoa.

Three “faithful and unwavering” clubs: Ponsonby, Marist and College Rifles.

“I thought of the Rugby World Cup and recognized the path forged by women in club rugby before us. The Black Ferns story really started here – many came from Auckland and these three clubs,” says Bakersmith. She herself is somewhat of an Auckland rugby taonga, having been a player, coach, volunteer and administrator, who has helped develop the women’s game.

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

Then she went in search of the right trophy for the three clubs.

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

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

The scintillating Kaha Cup in the first match was up for grabs: Marist v Ponsonby Fillies. Photo: provided.

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

The trophy was then baptized Kaha Cup.

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

“The last 30 years have not always been easy. As a manager, 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 is a lecturer and academic manager 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 that each time two of the teams meet, the cup is up for grabs.

“In my ideal world, he could move three times in a season. It will keep it alive, keep it moving, keep the interest. These three clubs are so close that they won’t stay in one place and get boring,” she says.

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

In the very first match in April, Bakersmith presented the cup to Ti Tauasosi, the Marist captain of that match, after his side beat Ponsonby, 51-24.

“It was a close game until the last 15 minutes when Marist ran away,” Bakersmith said.

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

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

Fiao’o Fa’amausili, former captain of the Black Ferns and faithful Marist, with her nieces and nephew – and the Kaha Cup. Photo: provided.

Then last weekend, the Ponsonby Fillies edged the Rifles Thunderbirds, 53-26. The cup will now reside in the halls of the Ponsonby club for the remainder of the rugby season.

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

They dominated Auckland’s club scene for nearly a decade, winning the league title every year until 1993.

The Marist Brothers Old Boys formed a women’s team in 1987 and would go on to become one of the super clubs in women’s football. (They have produced 33 black ferns since then).

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

Black Ferns legend Anna Richards has been 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 club’s full support, other top players were enticed to join them.

The Rifles Thunderbirds then began a ding-dong battle with Marist that lasted for the next two decades. “They had good coaches, they were in good shape and it was hard to compete with them,” Bakersmith recalled.

Around the time the Rifles were born, a good part of the Ponsonby squad also left playing for rugby league, and so they were forced to rebuild – not just the squad, but a tight-knit culture .

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

Ponsonby, of course, won the Coleman Shield that year and met Manurewa in the first women’s final last year – that time Manurewa emerged champion, winning with the last game of the match.

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

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

Teddy steered the Rifles to a club league title and then was offered a place at Marist “with the opportunity that if I played well that season I could play in a Black Ferns shirt,” says- she. “The rest is history.”

(She played seven Tests for the Black Ferns and was part of the 2006 World Cup winning squad).

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

“When Shorty first mentioned she was going to start it, I thought it was a tremendous opportunity to improve the game and increase awareness and involvement in the club’s rugby. Rather than to hear all the issues the Black Ferns have been through, it puts a positive light on the women’s game.

Reigniting old rivalries and having another honor to play, Teddy thinks, will show that schoolgirls’ women’s club rugby is the next step on their way to the Farah Palmer Cup, Super Rugby Aupiki and the Black Ferns.

“I hope it will also encourage women to coach rugby,” says Teddy, who has returned to Auckland after living in Perth and plans to coach a club next season.

“For us old ladies who have been away from the game for a while, it’s about reconnecting with our clubs. And putting some excitement back into club rugby.

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