Opinion: Black Fern-less Farah Palmer Cup sells women's rugby showpiece short

OPINION: Three months ago, a media colleague lost his job for expressing an opinion perceived as demeaning to women's rugby in New Zealand.

At the very least, his column was certainly condescending, describing investment into the "girls" as "hush money" better spent on retaining our men from offshore contracts.

Yet three months later, we're contemplating a Farah Palmer Cup premiership final without our 34 best players, as the Black Ferns prepare to leave on their European tour next week.

Is this how we should value our women's showpiece instead?

While Canterbury seek an incredible fifth straight title, they are obliged to do so without six of their stars, including one of New Zealand's top rugby players - men or women - Kendra Cocksedge.

She was a guest on Newshub's Big Wraps last month, when she lamented her team had drawn a bye in their first week out of Alert Level 3 lockdown. At that point, she must have realised she would not get another chance to play for her beloved red-and-blacks this season

Waikato were desperately unlucky to lose last year, but must front up this time without nine of their frontline performers, who were also missing when the Mooloo women overcame Wellington in last week's semi-final eliminator.

They've barely escaped Hamilton's lockdown this week to contest this final at all.

Without wanting to belittle the qualities of those taking the field in Christchurch tomorrow, they are essentially Canterbury B v Waikato B in the biggest women's rugby game in New Zealand this year.

You could argue the one-off Blues v Chiefs Super Rugby clash was more important, because it has shown a pathway to the next level of (hopefully) professional rugby for our female stars. 

But for now, Farah Palmer Cup - bearing the name of a Black Ferns legend, who has gone on to become NZ Rugby's first female board member - is still the pinnacle competition in women's rugby.

Sure, COVID-19 has wreaked havoc on provincial rugby this season, with teams from Auckland, Counties-Manukau and North Harbour forced out of both men's and women's formats under Level 3 lockdown.

The year before Canterbury began their FPC run, Counties beat Auckland for the title and the red-and-blacks have had to defeat one of those two teams in three of the four finals they've won.

If the southerners can capture their fifth consecutive crown, it must already come with an asterisk against it. Now, with Black Ferns unavailable, this championship deserves another asterisk - and that's tragic.

If you close one eye, tilt your head a little and stick your tongue firmly in your cheek, you could argue their absence actually puts the women's competition on the same standing as its male equivalent, since the All Blacks almost never contest the National Provincial Championship these days.

Except women's rugby in New Zealand doesn't possess the same depth of talent as the men's game yet.

How do we know this? When Super Rugby Aupiki was launched earlier this week, NZ Rugby couldn't justify fielding a second South Island team to align directly with the men's competition.  

Women's sport in New Zealand has made great strides in recent years and rugby - with its success in World Cup, Commonwealth Games and Olympic sevens, and World Cup 15s - has been a huge part of that groundswell.

Super Rugby Aupiki is a step in the right direction towards providing women with professional opportunities in the game, even if it is just a small step down that path, with obvious improvements required.

Admittedly, COVID has delayed the FPC competition a month - the final was originally scheduled for mid-September, well clear of the national camp - but this could still have been handled better.

Newshub will have live updates of the Farah Palmer Cup premiership final, because that's what the occasion deserves. Maybe the Black Ferns players can follow their teams' progress online from afar.

Grant Chapman is Newshub's online sports lead. Join us at 2pm Saturday for live updates of the Farah Palmer Cup premiership final between Canterbury and Waikato