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Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 15 December 2018

Countdown to Dubai Rugby Sevens: The New Zealand 'sevens sisters' doing it for themselves

It only took four World Series wins, a World Cup and a silver medal at the Olympics for the world to sit up and take notice of the Black Ferns sevens team.

Perhaps it is because many of them have to juggle day jobs, or life as university students and mothers. Perhaps it is because their games are not broadcast live as often. Perhaps it is because they are paid less. Or perhaps it is because they are not men.

Then again, it is not easy hailing from a country where your male counterparts are the All Blacks.

The New Zealand women's sevens team arrived on UAE soil last week, two weeks before the Emirates Airline Dubai Rugby Sevens is due to begin - and it is a luxury not lost on them. This is, after all, the first time the group - affectionately known as the 'sevens sisters' - has arrived for a major tournament more than five days before kick off.

But leave it to the Antipodean community of the UAE to pull it off. Between the Abu Dhabi Sports Council, Abu Dhabi Cricket, Middle East Touch - and a few Kiwis and the odd Aussie in between - enough people with enough sway banded together to make it happen.

The women left behind jobs, studies and young children. Some brought the kids along with them. The retainers for women's rugby in New Zealand mean many of the players have several things to juggle.

Portia Woodman, Kelly Brazier, Ruby Tui and Michaela Blyde left for Monaco at 2am on Saturday morning for the World Rugby Awards. Woodman on Sunday was named World Rugby's Women’s Player of the Year, Blyde the best seven's player and the Black Ferns made history as the first women's side to win Team of the Year.

It is an interesting predicament for what could arguably be one of New Zealand's most successful sporting teams - some argue more so than the all-conquering All Blacks themselves.

The team have claimed four of the five Women’s Sevens Series titles since its inception in 2012. But after dominating the sport in the lead up to the 2016 Rio Olympics, the women had to settle for second place after a gut-wrenching loss to Australia in the final.

At the stroke of full time, as Woodman crossed the line for her 10th try of the tournament and sank to her knees in tears as the final whistle blew, the rest of the country cried with her.

This is a team who have captured the hearts of a nation - a team whose predecessors formed unofficial teams in the absence of an official women’s sevens team.

It is not easy fighting for the spotlight when you have one of the most successful sporting teams of all time lapping up not only most of the public adoration, but also public funding and broadcasting spots. Female sevens players' top retainers are 50 per cent less than the men's top rate.

In the last round of High Performance Sport funding in December 2016, the Black Ferns programme received NZ$1.1 million (Dh2.78m), with individual performance enhancement grants of $30,000 per annum. All Blacks captain Kieran Read’s salary reportedly tops $1m alone.

Perhaps no-one knows this disparity more than Black Ferns sevens star Niall Williams, who just so happens to be the sister of New Zealand rugby legend Sonny Bill Williams.

So does the disparity in the siblings' pay packets frustrate Niall?

“If you say effort-wise, yes it does because we put in just as much effort, and we train just as hard. It's our job, too. We work a 9 to 5 and we do all the extras as well,” she tells The National after a training session at Zayed Cricket Stadium in Abu Dhabi.

“When you talk about it on the global stage, the All Blacks are, I guess, a lot bigger and more renown around the world. So in that aspect they do deserve what they earn. But in saying that I do think our pay cheques could get a little bit of a boost because these girls are amazing.”

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But Williams is not the only woman in the team with first-hand knowledge of the inequality in rugby. The All Blacks’ blood runs through much of the team. Kayla McAlister’s brother is former All Black and 2011 World Cup winner Luke McAlister and 2015 World Rugby Women’s Sevens Player of the Year Woodman’s father and uncle were both All Blacks too.

But do they think they are gaining ground on their male counterparts, in terms of being treated as equals?

“It's slowly getting there. Obviously the Olympics was a big thing for us and being able to play on TV. The more that our games have been broadcast live in New Zealand has helped that growth of people actually watching us,” captain Sarah Goss said.

“Not putting it bluntly, but the way that we are performing compared to the men has shown that we are getting a little bit more recognition, which is cool."

It has not been an easy road.

Goss said her parents thought she was “a little bit crazy” when she told them she wanted to become a professional rugby player, a role that did not even exist at that time.

“To be able to wear a black jersey in rugby is really, really special and until you actually wear it you don't actually know the feeling. It gives me goosebumps now talking about it.

“There's so many kids out there who recognise you, and it's pretty special knowing that you're being role models for the next generation of not just young rugby players, but sportspeople in New Zealand.

"We're trying to get families to showcase that to their young girls, that rugby is actually a way that you can have a career now - and a good career.”

For Williams, the sense of accomplishment is simple: “Now that we’re fully professional I get to write down on my little card when I leave the airport that I'm a professional rugby player as my occupation, which is pretty cool.”

The Black Ferns are in a pool containing South Africa, France and the United States when the action gets under way at The Sevens on Friday.

“I always say Dubai is my favourite tournament because it's so extravagant," Williams said. "I don't usually get to stay in buildings where the bathrooms are head to floor in marble! And the people are just so friendly over here they just go out of their way to make you feel at home.”

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Goss said there were still "points to prove".

“Dubai's the first tournament [of the season] for us and we want to make a statement right from the get-go.”

But coach Allan Bunting, who took up the role after the Rio Olympics, is more subdued in his pursuit of glory. Bunting, who took up the role after the Rio Olympics, believes his team needs to leave it all on the field.

“If we just keep performing and keep showing them that women can play just as well as the men, that speaks louder than anything.”