Don’t let this boom turn to dust

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The Wallaroos at their farewell in Sydney on Tuesday ahead of their World Cup in Ireland.

AUSTRALIAN rugby needs to create more women’s competitions — at junior and senior levels — or risk losing a Rio-inspired generation to rival codes.

That’s the view of former Wallaroos captain Nickie Wickert, who presented the Australian squad with their jerseys in Sydney on Tuesday prior to their departure to the World Cup in Ireland.

Captained by Olympic sevens champion Shannon Parry, the Wallaroos are embracing an “underdog” tag for the tournament, which starts when they play hosts Ireland next Tuesday.

The squad, who were farewelled at a harbourside function by dignitaries and media, say they have had their best ever World Cup preparation.

But Wickert — who led the Wallaroos at the first World Cup in 1998 — said the fact a majority of the current Aussie team are taking unpaid leave to play showed further progress can still be made.

“With regards to how far it has come since my time, this is fabulous but when I look at women’s cricket and women’s soccer, I don’t we have come as far as we should have,” Wickert said.

The Wallaroos at their farewell in Sydney on Tuesday ahead of their World Cup in Ireland.

The Wallaroos at their farewell in Sydney on Tuesday ahead of their World Cup in Ireland.Source:AAP

“Girls had to take time off their work then, and it’s the same now. They need to address that.”

The past few years has seen the popularity of women’s sport explode, with cricket, women’s AFL and rugby league taking big strides.

Rugby has enjoyed its own boom; arguably the biggest, even. Women’s sevens numbers have grown 33 per cent since Australia won an Olympic gold medal in Rio almost a year ago, and off a much smaller base, women’s 15s rugby has also grown by 24 per cent.

But with the increased interest — much of it among young girls — Wickert said rugby had to respond to significantly bolster the number of opportunities it provides for them to play; particularly in the 15s game.

“The ARU have been awesome to women’s rugby in the past but — and this is even with the men’s game — they have to start doing more at the grassroots,” Wickert said.

“Being a schoolteacher, I have AFL wanting to come out and do development, even rugby league and soccer. They all seem to be organised in hitting the juniors whereas I think that’s where rugby could pick up. Something has to happen in that space. My schoolgirls are always asking where can we go and play. They’re so interested after the sevens.

“The girls want to play. But they’re getting taken by AFL and soccer.”

Nickie Wickert pictured in 1999.

Nickie Wickert pictured in 1999.Source:News Limited

The ARU is pushing sevens hard to kids through non-contact Viva7s and primary school tryout programs, and girls can play any type of club rugby with boys until the age of 12.

An increasing numbers of schools and a handful of new clubs now have sevens teams up and running for teenage girls.

But outside of a few clubs like Narrabeen Tigers, there is nowhere for teenage girls to play 15s until they can play seniors.

Wickert said rugby’s selling point is as a game for all shapes and sizes, and not every girl will suit sevens.

“You have to have competitions for all these girls to play in,” she said. “And a real push to recruit players … or they are going to lose all the good athletes to other sports.”

The ARU lost Buildcorp as a sponsor earlier this year over the lack of action in creating a womens NRC competition. Wickert believes a senior women’s competition and more investment would undoubtedly see the Wallaroos reach the same heights as the Aussie womens sevens team.

“We have the athletes, we just need to train them properly,” Wickert said.

Parry said sacrifices made by the Wallaroos showed their “strong passion” for representing Australia.

“They have to take leave without pay and not many people would do that in the economy we are in. So for these girls, this jersey means a lot and for them to do that, to give up money to be able to represent their country, they might only get one jersey,” she said.

“They want to represent this sporting nation and do their country proud.”

Originally published as Don’t let this boom turn to dust

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