Pioneers of women's rugby

Pioneers of women's rugby

The captain of Manawatū’s pioneering first women’s rugby team is proud to see what has become of the sport 40 years on from New Zealand’s first game of women’s provincial rugby.

Helen Dickins (nee McCall) led Manawatū onto the field against Hawke’s Bay on September 14, 1980 at the Manawatū Showgrounds, now known as Central Energy Trust Arena.

Dickins said it was great to see how far women’s rugby has come with the likes of women’s sevens at the Olympics and the highly competitive Farah Palmer Cup.

Remembering back to the first game it highlighted how far the game has come.

The match was the brainchild of radio networks 2ZA in Palmerston North and Bay City Radio in Napier with hosts Kev Loughlin organising a team for the former and Barry Corbett and John McBeth for the latter.

The match was played as one of two curtain raisers to the NPC men’s match between the two provinces.

The trio put out advertising to recruit a team and for Dickins, it was an opportunity she didn’t want to pass up.

“There were a few of us in the Manawatu Hockey team and were going to be playing Horowhenua, but we decided to trial for the rugby and we got in a bit of trouble.”

At the time there was no club rugby for women and most of the team were trialling the sport for the first time.

But while the game was built by radio stations and played with questionable team nicknames, Loughlin’s Lovelies and Bazza’s Beauties, Dickins said the game itself was tough.

“We had two or three trial games,” she said. “They took it pretty seriously, we had a backs coach and a forwards coach and a couple of trainings.”

Dickins, who was 18 at the time, packed down at lock at the match and said they had a great time.

“To be allowed to play at the oval was pretty special,” she said.

A crowd of 10,000 was recorded on the day, but Dickins said that there was only a small gathering who assemebled for their curtain raiser match.

On first sight, the Manawatū side were intimidated by the size of the opposition, but that all went away when they ran onto the field.

Considering the match was her first, and only, experience in rugby, packing down in the second row of the scrum was daunting.

“The first scrum I felt like I had been squashed in half, I just about couldn’t breath,” she said.

Manawatū’s women started the day on a high-note with an 11-0 win, with McCall crossing for one of the tries.

Sadly it took a long time for the momentum of women’s rugby to catch on in Manawatū.

The next time a Manawatū women’s representative side was selected was 1990 and not one of the inaugural squad were on deck for the second match.

But Dickins’ rugby pedigree was passed down to her children, not that stories of her sole representative rugby match was something that the hockey specialist shared with her three daughters.

Two of her daughters have also gone on to play for rugby for Manawatū with Nicole captaining the Manawatū Cyclonesplaying 50 games for the province between 2011 and 2018.

Lydia played three games for Manawatū in 2012.

Her youngest daughter Steph has played 24 games for the Black Sticks.