‘Come together as one’: Black Ferns’ World Cup triumph unites nation

After an extraordinary Rugby World Cup final, Ruby Tui from New Zealand’s winning Black Ferns team began to belt out a waiata (song) known to every New Zealander.

Under the bright lights of the sold-out Eden Park stadium in Auckland, with ribbons glittering gold behind her, a beaming Tui sang Tūtira mai ngā iwi (Come Together as One) to the crowd, and more than 40,000 adoring voices responded: – ‘tātou tātou e!’ the stadium roared: ‘all of us, all of us!’.

It was a moving and fitting end to a tournament that has sparked a new, and overdue, fever for women’s rugby. Record-breaking crowds and TV viewership, wall-to-wall media coverage, and packed bars – the fandom for the women’s tournament was unprecedented.

“If you like sport, take away the gender,” Tui said, urging people to ask themselves what’s entertaining them. “Because I guarantee you, that semi and that final – that was entertainment, baby. That’s what sport is.”

Lily, a fan who flew from Wellington to attend the match at Auckland’s Eden Park with her whānau [family] said she had never experienced a sports game quite like it, “where the crowd is so, so invested at every step of the game, right from the outset…it felt like so much more was on the line”.

“The collective tension was unbelievable,” she said. “People were on the edge of their seats minute after minute – there was absolute euphoria at Eden Park.”

The connectedness to te ao Māori [the Māori world] was palpable, she added, noting that she had never seen so much use of Māori language songs, the Māori flag waving and tens of thousands of fans swinging poi in support.

“The haka brought tears to people’s eyes and through every high and every low the crowd was there – it was electric and proud.”

At a packed out sports bar in Wellington, a pair of friends – one Māori, one British – took turns celebrating and despairing as their respective teams advanced and retreated throughout the match towards the final hair-raising minute.

As the 80th minute ticked over and New Zealand’s win was assured, long time rugby fan, Marnie (of Ngā Puhi descent), leapt out of her chair. “I’m overwhelmed, I want to cry,” she said.

“I’m feeling fucking amazing, I am so proud. The women have worked so hard – they are mana wāhine toa [strong women] – as a Māori woman, I am so proud.”

Marni paid respects to the English team: “The kiwis felt the pressure, they played us hard to the end – but, hey, kiwis love rugby, it’s in our blood.”

Marni’s friend, Charlie – a former rugby player – believed she was the only Brit in the bar but that she “loved watching the New Zealanders go hard”. Charlie, who lives in New Zealand, felt torn over who to root for in the final but said “both teams gave such an amazing performance.”

Prime minister Jacinda Ardern, who was flying to Cambodia during the match, congratulated the Black Ferns on social media.

“When we boarded the NZDF plane to head to the East Asia Summit this afternoon, I asked the crew whether they were expecting any updates on the Black Ferns game while we were mid air,” she wrote.

“Not only did they update us on the score, we got a run down on injuries. We landed with enough time to catch the closing 20mins…and I’m so glad we did. There are no words for that game, just like there’s almost no words for the Black Ferns. But for now, I’m going to go with ‘legends.’”

It is a sentiment echoed by fans – young and old – around the country, and a tournament sure to inspire a new generation of fans and players alike. As the cameras panned the Eden Park crowd a young girl held up a sign: “They’re not girls, they’re legends”.

“Women’s rugby was just as good as I always told you it was”, rugby super-fan and commentator Alice Soper posted on twitter, followed with a plea to New Zealand Rugby: “[Now] bloody invest in these champions and all the ones you just inspired today.”