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An open letter to those seeking rugby's top job

Women in Rugby Aotearoa wants to know what the two candidates to chair NZ Rugby intend to do to back the one part of the game experiencing a boom in numbers 

Why the future of women's sailing is looking Rosie

Rosie Chapman is succeeding in her mission to get more Kiwi girls sailing, she tells Suzanne McFadden, in the first of a series on female coaches and leaders making a difference in high performance sport.

Women don't need men stating the obvious

Comment: The Super Rugby clash at Eden Park was a critical and sporting success but still the undermining of women's sport persists, writes Ashley Stanley

How Charlisse Leger-Walker finds calm on centre stage

After just her freshman year, Kiwi basketball star Charlisse Leger-Walker has been ranked among the best college basketballers in the US. She tells Shontelle Montano how she stays zen amidst the din.

Why the bosses of our big sports events have teamed up

The women leading the four global sports spectacles in NZ over the next two years reveal how they've banded together for the benefit of their events.

It's something rarely done in sports - at least on this scale, anyway.

The leaders of the four global sporting events hitting New Zealand's shores over the next two years have been meeting regularly to share their knowledge and experiences with each other. 

The four women - Andrea Nelson, Michelle Hooper, Jane Patterson and Rachel Froggatt -  talk about their special collaboration in the final episode of LockerRoom's series, The Big Four. 

"I think for all of us, when we realised that the three women's World Cups and the IWG [Women in Sport] conference were coming to New Zealand, we all knew that we wanted it to be connected and we wanted something special with collaboration," says Nelson, the CEO of the ICC Cricket World Cup 2022. 

"We've been kind of working together in a way that doesn't normally happen for sports events in my experience. Normally you're very independent and if anything, you're kind of patch protective.

"We get together for a social catch-up every now and then when the diaries allow, and talk regularly. And I think it's made a big difference to our ability to plan for the events."

All four share a common goal, says Hooper, head of the 2022 Rugby World Cup: "To inspire people through sport."

* In the first four episodes of The Big Four series, LockerRoom speaks to each of the women at the head of their major sporting events.

You can watch the first video with Andrea Nelson, CEO of the ICC Cricket World Cup 2022, here; part two with Michelle Hooper, 2022 Rugby World Cup tournament director here;  part three with Jane Patterson, COO of the 2023 FIFA World Cup here, and the fourth episode with Rachel Froggatt, the secretary general of the IWG Women in Sport Conference 2022 here. 
 

The Silver Fern shooting star equally loved and feared

Funny, fierce, generous, tenacious and one of the best netballers New Zealand has produced. The tributes haven't stopped for Margaret Forsyth, who died aged 59 this week. 

Margaret Forsyth, the kind of netballer others tried and failed to beat with tricks, will be remembered as one of the greatest goal attacks in the game, even though her playing days were cut short.

Silver Fern #66, Forsyth played 64 tests for her country, starting aged 17, but her nine-year international career was ended prematurely by painful knee problems.

Some of those who played with and against Forsyth, who died this week after a short illness aged 59, say they’ve never seen the likes of her on a court since.

Defenders like Tracey Fear, who played alongside Forsyth for the Verdettes club, Waikato and the Silver Ferns.

“She was the hardest player I ever played against. Even though I played with her for so many years, I still couldn’t work her out,” Fear says.  

“And she would do it all with such bloody grace. I was in awe of her - even when she was doing it against you and made a dick out of you.”

But Forsyth was loved and respected for more than just her exceptional netball talent. She was a woman who gave back – as a successful coach, role model and mentor; a teacher, police officer and a city councillor.  She was a wonderful mother to her three sons, and a new grandmother.

Fear will also remember Forsyth for her commitment, her relentless competitiveness, and her humour in even the tensest of times.  And she’ll remember her friend as one of the fiercest, yet most graceful, netballers to ever come out of New Zealand.

“Marg is still the best goal attack I have ever seen. The edge she had over others was she was so clever and deceptive, a magician with the ball,” she says.

Margaret Forsyth (right) and Australia's Sally Ironmonger contest the ball at the 1987 world champs, with Marghie Matenga watching. Photo: Netball NZ archive.

Through much of the 1980s – a stellar era for New Zealand in world netball under the coaching of Dame Lois Muir - the Silver Ferns’ formidable shooting duo of Forsyth and Margharet Matenga were simply known as The Two Margs. “Their relationship was special - intuitive, telepathic and connected," says Fear. "They were so tricky to defend – I don’t think I’ve seen a combination like it since.”

Matenga is flying to New Zealand from her home in the Cook Islands for Forsyth’s funeral on Saturday.

World champion defender Julie Coney would practise for hours trying to manoeuvre around a chair in the hopes she’d one day be able to master shutting down Forsyth.

“I spent my netball career trying to get around her hold. Her stance was so difficult to get around,” says Coney, who was the goal defence at College Rifles and Auckland.

“She was very determined, stoic and serious on court. I can still see her in the air - she had such a distinctive jump with a very straight back.”

Despite their rivalry, Coney also counted Forsyth as one of her closest friends. They’d go on skiing holidays together and cross the Tasman to watch the Australian Open. It was a friendship forged from the moment Coney (then Townsend) first made the Silver Ferns in 1985.

“Marg was a senior player in the squad then, but she never set herself apart from the others in the team, especially if you were new. She was inclusive and friendly, and involved you in everything. She was a great team person,” Coney says.

“Even though she was younger than me, she took me under her wing.”

Magic coach Margaret Forsyth debriefs with two of her stars, Grace Kara (left) and Sam Winders, in the 2017 ANZ Premiership. Photo: Getty Images. 

That caring attitude continued through the rest of Forsyth’s life. As a coach – first at Verdettes, and later the Magic in the first two years of the ANZ Premiership, and assistant coach of the FAST5 Ferns and the NZA team – she nurtured many young talents, like rookie Silver Fern shooter Monica Falkner.

Forsyth was Jenny-May Clarkson’s first coach when the teenager moved from the small Waitomo town of Piopio to Hamilton. A coach who saw the potential in the future Silver Fern when Clarkson herself did not.

“She was fierce and direct, but also soft and generous,” says Clarkson (nee Coffin). “She was a coach, mentor, counsellor, surrogate mum and my friend. I’m so grateful for her love, guidance and wisdom.”

Forsyth was also the inspiration for another future Silver Fern, Louisa Wall. Like Forsyth, Wall first made the New Zealand team when she was a 17-year-old high school student.

Wall had wanted to be a Silver Fern ever since she watched the New Zealand team win the 1987 world championship title in Glasgow - and one player stood out.

“I watched Margaret on television at those world championships, and she was so cool and calm - shooting goals and never getting flustered - and she glided across the court,” Wall, now a Labour MP, says. “That was an amazing team, but she was the biggest star of them all."

When she was first selected for the Ferns in 1989, Wall told a newspaper that Forsyth was her idol. "After Marg read the story, she sent me a beautiful note about how touched she was that she’d influenced me and wished me all the best. She took the time to make that human-to-human contact, which was so special to me.”

When Wall left home in Taupō to play netball in Hamilton, Forsyth was one of her new coaches. “I was living the dream. The only thing I missed out on was playing with her,” she says.  

“She contributed for so long at so many levels. She helped to shape Waikato netball and the Waikato community. A lot of people will really miss her.”

A teenage Margaret Forsyth playing for the Silver Ferns at the 1979 world champs in Trinidad & Tobago. Photo: Netball NZ archives

Forsyth, of Ngāti Kahungunu ki Wairoa descent, was a record-setter. As a seventh former at Hillcrest High School in Hamilton, she was chosen to play at the 1979 netball world tournament - the year New Zealand shared the world champions title with Australia and hosts Trinidad & Tobago.

She remains the youngest Silver Fern, at 17, to play at a Netball World Cup, and one of only three Silver Ferns to have won it twice.

And in a little-known fact, Forsyth has been the reigning New Zealand pentathlon champion for the past 40 years. The season she won the national title – 1980-81 – was the last before the five-discipline event was changed to seven and became the heptathlon.

“Everyone could see Marg’s pure athleticism, skill and grace,” says Fear. “But what I absolutely loved was her relentless competitiveness.

“No-one committed themselves to being the best player [more] than she did. She set the benchmark for work ethic and training. In both Waikato and New Zealand netball, she lifted up the players around her.

“She could jump higher, run faster and run further than me. To train and play against her on a daily basis helped my netball career so much.”

But Forsyth was also funny, bringing humour to lighten the most stressful moments in a team. “She always had a side-kick too – in the Silver Ferns it was Yvonne Willering, then Karen Henricksen and Joan Hodson,” Fear says.

The jubilant Silver Ferns after winning the 1985 Australia Games, with captain Leigh Gibbs (left), Tracey Fear, Dame Lois Muir and Margaret Forsyth. Photo: Netball NZ archives. 

Forsyth wasn’t one to look back on her glory days. In a story in Newsroom in 2017, she talked about one of the Magic players she was coaching finding a photo in a “dusty old netball book” of Forsyth in full flight.

“She posted it on our team Facebook page, and it was a great source of humour and enjoyment for the team. Yes, that’s what we used to wear back in those days!” Forsyth laughed. “But I think it’s important that we get on with our jobs, and don’t dwell in the past.”

Forsyth was never afraid to try something new. She worked as a primary school and PE teacher before serving five years as a front-line community police officer, where she volunteered to take  disadvantaged kids for a week at a youth camp.

She then put her hand up for local body politics and was in her third term as a Hamilton City Councillor.

“She was strong in her opinions and her beliefs and wasn’t afraid to get up and articulate that,” Louisa Wall says.

Her ‘big picture’ philosophy was reflected in the work she did to improve the city. She was involved in the creation of Hamilton’s Biking Plan and was a major driver behind the destination playground project, that’s introduced five new playgrounds throughout the city. She was chairing the council’s environment committee before she went on sick leave last month.

Margaret Forsyth receiving her ONZM from Governor General Dame Patsy Reddy in July last year. Photo: Government House. 

In last year’s Queen’s Birthday Honours, Forsyth was made an Officer of the New Zealand Order of Merit for her services to netball and the community - receiving her honour on the same day Silver Ferns coach Noeline Taurua became a dame. She was nominated by her brother and sons.

Forsyth’s husband, Hamilton lawyer Brian Nabbs, passed away from cancer in January last year. She was diagnosed with cancer that same year.  

She leaves behind three adult sons – Thomas, Jonathan and Lucien – and her first grandchild, Rosie-Rae, whom she adored.

“A lot of people know Margaret the brilliant player,” says Fear. “But some of us knew the amazing person, too, and have had their lives blessed by knowing her.”

Virtual victory gives Kiwi Ironwoman a crack at Kona

After recovering from burn-out, Kiwi triathlete Vanessa Murray is returning for a second shot at the giant of Ironman events in Kona.

Vanessa Murray’s first full-distance Ironman was at the biggest event of them all, the Ironman world championships in Kona, Hawaii, eight years ago.  

It was a surreal, and nervy, experience for the Kiwi triathlete. "It was easy to feel a little overwhelmed being around the best in the world at that distance, but I just focused on my race and plan and it worked out well.” She placed third in her 25-29 age group. 

Now, after a three-year break from full distance events, Murray is back training for her second attempt at the ultimate Ironman challenge. To give you an idea of the status of the Hawaiian event, there are hundreds of Ironman competitions in more than 55 countries around the world but the 226.3km race in Kona is the pinnacle event. 

And this time round, Murray qualified from the New Zealand Ironman last year, but secured a spot on a tri-team through a virtual cycling competition. Yes, that’s right, an online test where she made the cut from more than 130,000 others. 

In 2013, she qualified for Kona the first time by winning her age group at the Ironman Asia Pacific 70.3, a half-Ironman championship, in Auckland. 

Her progression through the sport might not be a common route, but Murray’s path has given her an edge she says she can use in her favour.

“I think not a lot of people do Hawaii as their first Ironman,” says Murray, who's now 35. “At the time I was so nervous because I was like ‘How can I do my first Ironman at the world champs?’ 

“But I think it was almost to my advantage to be a little naive and to play everything a little bit safe. This time going back, I know what I’m in for, which I’m not sure is a good or a bad thing. But I also feel like I can push myself a bit harder now.”

Growing up in Christchurch, Murray tried many different sports as a child, like dancing, athletics and running, but triathlon was the one she’s stuck with the longest. She picked up the sport over 10 years ago as a hobby because her husband competed too, and she was instantly “hooked.”  

Vanessa Murray with husband, Shaun, at one of her favourite places to ride - the lookout point on top of Mount Buffalo in Regional Victoria. Photo: supplied.

“What I love about triathlon is you just see the gains, the more you put into it, the more you get out of it. But also it’s a lifestyle choice,” says Murray, who used to swim competitively. “I’ve got lots of friends in the sport, I just love the camaraderie.”

But it hasn’t all been smooth sailing. Murray stepped away from full distance Ironman races for three years when she wasn’t getting the life balance quite right. 

“It's really important in this sport...you put a lot in and I think it's really important to still enjoy life,” she says. “I’ve got the balance right this time and I didn't necessarily have it right before.”

One of the ways people can succeed in the sport and stay for a long period of time is to get that balance sorted, says Murray.

“That also comes with surrounding yourself with the right people because I think as important as training is, I also think it's important that you see your friends and family.” 

In between triathlon stints, Murray coached athletes full-time for a year. But she’s cut down on the coaching side now and is working for the Victorian government after moving to Melbourne five years ago. 

Working with three to four women on top of her own training is really enjoyable, says Murray. “One of them is actually doing Kona this year as well,” she says. “I get a lot out of it and I guess I just like to share a little bit of my experience with others.”

Murray will be competing as part of this year’s Zwift Academy tri-team. She made the cut for the six-member crew from 134,000 people who applied for a chance to get on board the online global fitness platform’s team.

She went through 10 workouts, two bike and run races and passed a number of tests to get selected. Unlike some of her teammates, Murray had already qualified for Kona after finishing first in her 35-39 age group in the Ironman NZ event early last year.

“We did that race the weekend before pretty much the world went into lockdown so we were really lucky to get that race in,” Murray says. 

It was a relief in another sense that the win came off the back of her three-year hiatus. “I sort of came back to full-distance Ironman with the goal of wanting to get back to Kona so it was really great to seal the deal there,” says Murray.

“I took a break because I kind of burned out a little bit. And coaching sort of reignited my love of the sport. Obviously when you return to something you haven't done in a few years there's always going to be a bit of self-doubt but just to work hard and seal the deal and achieve my goal, I guess stands out to me as a key highlight.” 

Putting herself in the best possible position to be a top contender at Kona in October this year is what Murray is now focusing on. “I have this burning desire to do well there,” she says. “I really would like to go there with the intention of winning, so I guess that’s what my eyes are set on.”

The uncertainty around the globe with the Covid-19 pandemic has not dissuaded Murray from continuing to train - self improvement is the key driver regardless. It’s the kind of mentality she encourages through coaching and is one of the main reasons why she stays involved in the sport.

“I guess there's still a lot of doubt in people's mind as to how the rest of this year is going to go in terms of travel, so I think I just made the decision that you can't control the uncontrollable,” she says. “So I'll push hard, train well and do the races that I can do because I'm quite self-motivated.

“I've probably learnt that through lockdown as well. I don’t necessarily need a race to want to train and want to better myself. I get a lot of satisfaction just out of my own self-improvement.” 

She’s booked in for Ironman Cairns in June and will relish the opportunity to get back on the start-line after a disrupted year with Covid-19. Two years ago, Murray was the first female to finish Ironman Cairns 70.3 and earlier this year she competed in Ironman Geelong 70.3, coming first in her age group and the fifth woman to cross overall. 

Vanessa Murray on the run at Ironman 70.3 Geelong in March. Photo: Ally Duffy.

Being able to train indoors with Zwift has also helped even though the conditions are different to the real thing. “You get a great workout on the indoor bike because there's just no reprieve,” says Murray.

“The trainer is a godsend, not only in bad weather but also during lockdown. I guess once upon a time no-one had trainers and now I don’t know how you would survive in this sport without one.” 

Trying to prepare for the champion of all Ironman events with teammates online is proving difficult, but Murray is up for the challenge.

The rest of her team are based around the world and, like Murray, hold down day jobs in a variety of industries. There’s a psychology professor from Oregon in the United States, a former competitive hockey player from the United Kingdom now a full-time pharmacist, and a computer programmer and network engineer in South Korea.

As part of their selection, all  will receive support in the form of bikes, equipment, apparel, and access to mentors from previous Zwift academy tri-teams. 

“Even just trying to tee up a time to talk to everyone is pretty challenging with all the different time zones,” Murray says.

“But I guess it's kind of cool though because there are a lot of challenges so it's going to be a testament to how we work together and get around those.”

Zoe McBride: tears and shame now wiped away

World champion rower Zoe McBride tells Sarah Cowley Ross she now wants to help young female athletes, having ended her career after a battle with RED-S. 

Zoe McBride would often call her parents in Dunedin in tears, “desperate and low.”

“But in the past few weeks, I’ve been calling them just wanting to know how they are, and it’s like they’re waiting for me to start crying,” she says.

But things are different now, six weeks after McBride made the difficult call to end her elite rowing career, and give up a shot at an Olympic medal. Happier and healthier, she's relishing catching up with friends and family and just generally having more energy and zest for life.

She’s reflecting on how structured her life had been from an early age immersed in the Rowing New Zealand elite squad, knowing her week was planned meticulously around training.

And she’s remembering the feeling of being “hangry [hungry and angry] all the time”, and the guilt of eating in social situations.

“I thought rowing and going to the Olympic Games was going to make me happy. Like if I cracked the Olympics, I would be happy,” says McBride, the current world champion in the lightweight double sculls.

“But I know that wouldn’t have been the case.”

After years of under-fuelling and over-training, McBride admits the pressure of making weight was too much - citing her own wellbeing as the major factor in her decision to retire.

For years she’s weighed herself religiously with the hope she stands on the scales and sees 57kg.

That’s the critical number McBride needed to ‘make weight’ to row with her partner Jackie Kiddle in the lightweight double.

When 25 year-old McBride stood on the scales a few months ago and was 7kg over the required weight for the boat, she knew her torment couldn’t continue any longer.

Zoe McBride and Jackie Kiddle win the lightweight double sculls at the 2019 Rowing World Cup in Lucerne. Photo: Getty Images. 

Knowing the dark places she would have to put herself through, McBride decided her only option was out.

“It was a moment when I could really see myself – how good I was feeling mentally - and I realised that in order to get down to weight to go to Tokyo, it was going to be way too much of an ask,” she says.

“In the past I did it, but this time I knew I wasn’t okay with doing it.”

The fine line of high performance sport

The toll on McBride’s health from what she describes as anorexic eating behaviours affected her menstrual cycle, bone density and her mental health.

Making weight, says McBride, is part of being a lightweight rower and to do so McBride would diet and do extra training. “It never started off too badly. Over the years it got more and more,” she says.

“As I got older it got harder - because I’d dieted the year before and so each year you have to go harder.”

The prolonged consequence of McBride’s under-fuelling really hit home last year in lockdown when she went jogging as part of training from home and developed a stress fracture in her femur after a handful of runs.

The severity of lack of nutrition combined with extra training on top of her normal training week had finally caught up with her. McBride was diagnosed with RED-S - or Relative Energy Deficiency in Sport - a syndrome affecting athletes, in particular females, around the world.

RED-S is essentially where the energy put out through training load overrides the energy restored to the body through nutrition.

“I hid a lot of how much I was struggling. I didn’t want people to know because I didn’t want to raise a red flag,” McBride admits.

Zoe McBride collapses after winning the NZ women's U20 single sculls in 2013. Photo: Getty Images. 

One of the symptoms of RED-S is amenorrhea – having no periods - something McBride thought was normal for an athlete training hard.

“When I was younger, I thought missing my period was a sign that I was working hard and was totally normal for a female athlete,” she says. “It’s not and it has totally affected my hormonal balance.”

Her mental health has taken a battering over the years too, and McBride was diagnosed with depression last year. She thinks a lot of her headspace issue was to do with a lack of energy totally ruling her life.

Finding a way out

Realising how deep the hole she was in, McBride started seeing a psychologist last year, which she says has been a huge help in getting a really clear understanding of who she was.

“I’d lost a little bit of myself and what my values are. So much of my identity was wrapped up being a rower,” she says.

With the support of her doctor, psychologist, coach, family and friends - and Rowing New Zealand – McBride’s decision to retire has brought a huge realisation that she is more than a rower.

“I realised everyone around me just loves me for me – they just want me to be happy,” she says.

Telling her longtime rowing partner Kiddle was “really hard”, McBride admits, and she’s felt guilty about ‘abandoning ship’.

“Jackie's been really supportive and we were a partnership on a mission to do something special in Tokyo,” she says. “At the end of the day, she didn’t want me to race unhealthy.”

Since McBride’s retirement announcement, Kiddle has had to withdraw from the Tokyo Olympics because Rowing NZ couldn’t find a suitable replacement for McBride. But she wants to keep rowing towards the 2024 Paris Olympics. 

But for Tokyo 2021, the hopes of a medal boat in the lightweight double – the last lightweight class in the Olympic Games - has come crashing down.

A new healthy new chapter

A healthy Zoe is something McBride is still figuring out.

For so long, food has been a massive trigger for her health and a huge control on her life. But she’s now enjoying the opportunity to not feel shame and guilt in social eating situations.

“The fear of being in social situations eating food and feeling like everyone’s judging what I’m eating was awful,” she says.

“Exercise will always be a big part of my life – except I won’t be exercising for food.”

McBride feels a weight has been lifted off her shoulders with her decision and also in sharing her story.

When asked if she should have just been an open-weight rower, McBride says that for so much of her life, she has been a lightweight rower and during her career, which included three world championship titles, she couldn’t get her mind around anything else.

“I definitely think I could have done it now,” she says.

“I’ve always been very strongminded, but I didn’t know how to give myself a break and I never could tell myself ‘It’s okay it you don’t do it.’ I just saw myself as a failure.”

She’s been touched by the number of athletes reaching out who are also dealing with similar issues navigating the fine line of elite sport.

McBride says she’s keen to use her experiences to share her story so others don’t have to go through want she has.

“I’m passionate about women’s health and mindset. I definitely see myself progressing down that path,” she says.

McBride holds a Bachelor of Business and is in the process of completing a nutrition diploma and her yoga teaching certification.

For now, though, she knows that sport will always be a big part of her life.

“I have loved so much of it,” she says. “All the success has been great, but the people and the places I’ve been to are incredible.”

A Semple shooting solution for netball's Magic

Never expecting to get a shot in New Zealand's top netball league, Chiara Semple is home from five years in England and is a surprise weapon in the Magic's arsenal this season.

She remembers crying her heart out all the way from Auckland to Heathrow.

It was 2016, and Chiara Semple, a green 19-year-old from west Auckland, was flying to England to play netball for Team Northumbria in the Superleague. But it wasn’t what she wanted.

A stand-out shooter through the New Zealand schools and age-group sides, Semple’s dream was to play for her country at the 2017 World Youth Cup. But she’d just been dropped from the U21 squad, and trying to balance university and sport, she considered quitting netball all together. 

Then her old school coach, former Silver Fern shooter Te Aroha Keenan, offered Semple a life-line – a place in the Northumbria team she was coaching.

“She rang my dad first and asked if I could get an English passport,” recalls Semple, whose father, Craig, was born in England. “My parents were like ‘Yeah, she’ll be really keen, it’s a great experience, we want her to go’.

“But as soon as my dad rang me, I said, ‘No I’m not going over there’. They didn’t have any of their games televised over here, so I was definitely not going over there for eight months away from my family.

“Then I decided I was going for one season, to get the experience and then come back.  I was crying the whole flight over there. Oh my goodness, so dramatic.”

Yet Semple ended up staying for five Superleague seasons. And she got to that World Youth Cup – but playing for England. Winning a bronze medal but snapping the ligaments in an ankle.

Kiwi Chiara Semple played three seasons for Team Northumbria in England's Superleague, and two for London Pulse. Photo: Getty Images. 

Covid-19 brought her back home for what she thought was a brief stay till netball in England fired up again.  

But now she says she’s home for good, finding her place in the Waikato Bay of Plenty Magic and beginning to stamp her mark on the ANZ Premiership.

“Who would have thought a pandemic would do this for my career?” she says.

When she made her Magic debut in the opening game of the season, at home in west Auckland against the Mystics, goal attack Semple shocked the crowd by scoring Magic’s first six goals of the match – when all eyes were on her goal shoot, Australian captain Caitlin Bassett.

“It was great; no one knew who I was,” Semple says. They went on to win 64-60.

“I haven’t gone down the basic route that people travel to the ANZ Premiership. A lot of them go straight from school, so I thought I would never get to play - that my time had been and gone at 24. But I’m so grateful I went over to England and got all that experience.”

She's glad she listened to Mum and Dad. 

Semple grew up in Massey, following her mum Rachael, who’s of Māori and Samoan descent, into softball and netball.

When she hit high school, she was lured to Mt Albert Grammar by the school’s netball coaches, Keenan and former English international Paula Smith.

“They wanted me in the prems, but I didn’t think I was even coordinated then. I was just really tall,” Semple says.

She became part of the MAGS netball dynasty – the school dominating the national school scene for eight years. Her partner in the goal circle during her victorious time there was Maia Wilson, now the Stars and Silver Ferns frontline goal shoot. They were both part of the New Zealand side that won the International Schoolgirls Challenge in Adelaide in 2014.

Semple also played for New Zealand Secondary Schools alongside Sam Winders, now her captain at Magic. “It’s surreal to be in a team with Sammie again,” she says.

When she left school, Semple couldn’t break into any of the national league franchises and slipped out of the NZ U21 squad. That’s when Keenan came calling.

Chiara Semple pulls in the ball for London Pulse against the Wasps in the 2019 Superleague. Photo: Getty Images. 

After that tear-filled flight to England, Semple was hit by a “massive culture shock… It was cold and a bit scary to start with.”

Although she battled with homesickness for the first few months, she began to love her new life playing at a higher level of netball in the Superleague.  

“I definitely think it made me a different player, a better player,” she says. “I was 19 and some of the people I played against were women. At MAGS, I was young, fit and fast and I thought that’s how you had to always play.

“But playing against women, you realise you have to use your body and your brains. I played with different shooters – shorter, taller, some who couldn’t jump – and it made me step up.”

You can see it now in her deceptive feints, her subtle placement of the ball into the circle and her quick change of angle. She’s not afraid to put up the long shots, either.

“And the whole experience made me an independent person too,” she says. “I was used to going home to a cooked dinner, and suddenly I had to do that myself. I was growing up.”

Semple still wanted to play at the World Youth Cup in Botswana, but for New Zealand. When she couldn’t make any inroads there, she was invited to trial for the England U21s under coach Tamsin Greenway.

“The girls didn’t really like me at the start. They were like ‘Who’s this girl from New Zealand pretending she’s from over here?’,” Semple says. “But then everyone started to realise my play was different.”

It wasn’t exactly the World Cup experience Semple had hoped for. A stomach bug wiped out most of the English Roses team early in the tournament, then two minutes into the quarterfinal against Jamaica, Semple suffered a freak injury, rupturing the ligaments in her ankle. With her leg in a moonboot, she watched the Roses beat Fiji to capture bronze. New Zealand won gold.

Semple came back home for her five months of rehabilitation, and was taken back for a third season with Team Northumbria. But at the end of that 2018 season, when Northumbria withdrew from the Superleague because of cost cutting, Semple tried in vain to break into New Zealand’s premier competition. But she was now considered an import having played for England at a World Cup.

So she returned to England, picked up by the new team, the London Pulse, where she played for what amounted to 1.2 seasons.

“The first season was quite disheartening – we only won two games,” she says. “But in 2020, we got a new coach, a new team, and we shocked everyone by winning the first two games of the league. And then Covid happened.”

Chiara Semple has received special exemption to play for the Magic in the ANZP, after playing for England in the World Youth Cup. Photo: Michael Bradley Photography. 

Worried she wouldn’t be able to return home, Semple booked her flights back to Auckland the day after the Superleague was suspended. She arrived the day before New Zealand went into Level 4 lockdown.

With little to do but train at home, Semple made a video highlights reel from her English career. “But I never thought I’d be sending it to a netball team,” she says.

“I sent it to Te Aroha who said she could send it to the franchise coaches who might be looking for a training partner.”

Magic coach Amigene Metcalfe called Semple the day after watching the video.

“I was really straight up with her and said ‘I’ve been training but I’m not at my fittest, I’m not at my prime right now. I’ve been enjoying life back at home’,” Semple says. “But Amigene said she knew I had the goods.”

She also got a call from Pulse coach Gail Parata, who’d coached Scotland’s Strathclyde Sirens in the Superleague.  “She was interested too but I was really keen on the Magic, because it wasn’t as far from home,” Semple says.

“And I liked what Amigene had to offer. The Magic didn’t have a good year last year, but they have a really big legacy. And she wants to restart that.”

Metcalfe says ‘Chi’ (Semple’s nickname) has brought a lot of positive energy to the Magic.

“And she has a great sense of humour. She’s a really smart netball player with a sweet shot and that’s what was obvious from her highlights reel,” she says. “We knew her skillset would complement the rest of our playing roster.”

Magic goal attack Chiara Semple shoots, while goal shoot Caitlin Bassett blocks Stars defender Anna Harrison in the ANZP. Photo: Michael Bradley Photography

Semple has loved playing alongside Bassett, one of the legends of the game who’s also making her first appearance in the New Zealand competition.

“Even though she’s so experienced, and won all these championships, she’s still willing to learn off us, the younger ones,” she says of herself and Khiarna Williams. “I can really tell why she’s been so successful. Even off the court she’s a really cool person, really down-to-earth and funny.”

It was teenager Williams and Semple who anchored the shooting circle in Magic’s comeback in Sunday’s clash with the Stars, getting within two in the final spell before losing 55-51.

Semple wants to “stay home for good” now. She wants to settle down with her partner and “continue for years with the Magic if I can - stamp my mark on New Zealand netball.”

“That’s not me looking forward and saying: ‘I want to be a Silver Fern’. That’s me taking it one step at a time.”

* In other games in Round 3, a fast-closing Pulse couldn't catch the Steel, 56-52, and also losing their Silver Ferns midcourter Maddy Gordon with an ankle injury. And back from her ankle injury, Tactix shooter Te Paea Selby-Rickit almost pulled off the comeback of the competition, helping turn a six-goal deficit into a tied game with the Mystics with 13s left, but a long bomb from Peta Toeava was turned into a match-clinching goal from Grace Nweke, the Northerners winning 53-52.

Chiefs and Blues set the scene for a Super future

When the crowd was finally allowed in to witness an historic Blues-Chiefs clash, they were rewarded with a spectacle that brought women's Super Rugby much closer to reality. 

The warmth of the sun stretched across Eden Park on Saturday afternoon, the commentary team bustled on the sidelines and both the Blues and Chiefs women’s sides ran up and down the field finessing their set pieces for the final time.

It felt like the start of something big.

But just 20 minutes out from the first whistle of the inaugural Super Rugby women’s match between the two franchises, the seats remained eerily empty.

Feelings of disappointment began to creep in, of perhaps a missed opportunity despite the healthy media coverage in the lead-up to the historic clash. 

But then like the rays of sunshine, people started to stream in from all sides of the stadium when the gates were opened at 4.15pm, just in the nick of time for the 4.35pm kick-off.

Groups of people waving their flags in the concourse area quickly trying to find seats. There were adults and children wearing face paint and supporter jerseys, some new and others with original versions. Men with senior gold passes hanging around their necks, families with babies decked out in merchandise onesies and custom-made signage with their loved ones faces and messages of support.

It was a perfect day to make history, on a ground renowned around the world for hosting historic events.

And the entertaining contest that ended up a 39-12 victory to the Chiefs was the first step towards a future Super Rugby competition for women, which could be played as early as the end of next summer.

Andrew Hore, CEO at the Blues, says they wanted to add a women’s team to the organisation after looking at their identity.

“A big piece for our board is how do we continue to build 'Blue pride'...people matter, connections matter and winning matters are the three pillars that make that up,” he says. Hore was at the New South Wales Waratahs when they introduced a women's side into the inaugural Super W competition in 2018.

“We felt [a women's team] fit our values around the trailblazing piece and inclusivity. So it was an absolute no-brainer that a women’s team was included.”

Hore also understands things are changing. His son plays rippa rugby in a mixed team of young girls and boys. “The world is going to be such a better place for our next generation. So we've got a responsibility to drive and push what we want society to look like tomorrow,” he says.

More than 22,000 tickets were sold for the double-header with the men's Super Rugby clash, and around 8000 filed through the gates for the women’s game. As the clock ticked closer to kick-off, a line of young girls in club jerseys and waving team flags emerged on the side of the south-west stand and made their way around the outside of the field, like a guard of honour.

Once in their spots, a karakia (prayer) called the wāhine onto the pitch. The Chiefs players ran out to cheers from the decent crowd building in the stands, forming a huddle in the middle of the field.

Blues captain and Black Ferns lock, Eloise Blackwell, accompanied by a young ball girl, led her team onto Eden Park to rapturous applause, with flames shooting up around them.

The all-women referee and TMO team took their positions in history too.

Fans turned out for Blues flanker Lisa Molia. Photo: Suzanne McFadden 

Then there was a quick moment of reflection on how enormous the occasion is. To the players, their families, the young ones coming through the grades and those who had once played with only seagulls watching on. Chiefs playmaker Hazel Tubic signalled the chance of new opportunities and growth in the women’s game as head referee Maggie Cogger-Orr's starting whistle blew.

And with that acknowledgement, Blues prop Krystal Murray tucked the ball under her arm and charged the Chiefs' line for the first hit-up.

Within a minute of play, Black Ferns lock Kelsie Wills was penalised for a high tackle on Mount Albert Grammar student and Blues centre, Sylvia Brunt.

But it was the Chiefs who opened the scoring after Black Ferns prop Aleisha Pearl-Nelson was penalised for not rolling away after tackling Black Fern team-mate Luka Connor. Tubic converted her first penalty of the day - the first of six out of seven that she successfully slotted.

But a lapse in judgment from the restart saw Tubic step over the sideline with the ball, and the Blues' young playmaker Patricia Maliepo made the most of it. A good feed from halfback Luisa Togotogorua meant Maliepo was able to put a small grubber in behind the defence, before regathering and scoring near the posts.

After celebrating her 18th birthday in March, Maliepo will go down in the history books as the first try-scorer for a Super Women’s rugby match. She converted her own try to make the score 7-3 to the Blues in the first 10 minutes.

It was a move both captains acknowledged in the press conference after the game.

The Blues celebrate Sylvia Brunt's try in the first half of their historic clash with the Chiefs. Photo: Getty Images. 

Blackwell said the intensity and excitement levels were through the roof and the pace of the game was a lot faster than the Farah Palmer Cup or club rugby.

“Trying to transition this big rig around the field was quite difficult," she laughed. "But it was awesome for us to have little Patricia [Maliepo] go over for our first try followed up by Sylvia [Brunt].

“Two of our teenage girls who are competing against women and some almost twice their age. So for them to rise to the occasion and feel confident that they can do that, it’s just awesome.”

Chiefs captain Les Elder echoed Blackwell’s comments. “Petu [Maliepo], the try she scored, that little chip... that’s a confidence play in a big moment," she said. "So it just shows the calibre we've got coming through with those young girls.”

The first 20 minutes saw a see-saw exchange in the lead, with Langi Veainu and Kendra Reynolds scoring for the Chiefs and Brunt’s footwork and fending getting her through the defence for the Blues to go into the halftime break 18-12 down.

When the second half started, the substitutes began rolling within the first 10 minutes and Connor scored from a driving maul. Tubic's conversion pushed the lead out to 25-12.

And from there, the visiting side took control for the rest of the game. The intensity of the encounter, and possibly the limited preparation time, started to show with stoppages for several players with injuries and cramping.

Chiefs wing Langi Veainu eludes her Blues opposite Princess Elliott on her way to scoring a try. Photo: Getty Images. 

During an on-field break, the Chiefs men’s side came out to support their women, with the backdrop of the sun setting in the distance.

It was a special moment as the sky was tinged with pink and purple - the colours of the Chief’s women’s jerseys that connected them to the training strips worn by both the men and the women - which men's captain Sam Cane revealed represented the preparation and work both sides put in. 

Elder proved age is nothing but a number when the 34-year-old - who had her first child a year ago - crossed the tryline in the 65th minute; Tubic made it a 20-point difference with less than 15 minutes on the clock.

Chiefs centre and New Zealand rugby league representative, Ngatokotoru Arakua, hadn't finished, scoring with five minutes to go. Tubic’s kick from the sideline went over again, ending in an emphatic Chiefs win 39-12. When the whistle called time, the Chiefs bench jumped up and ran on to the field, celebrating the momentous occasion.

Elder summarised the game as “pretty special.”

“Obviously it’s something us girls who have been around a long time have been wanting and pushing for, so to see that happen today is pretty cool,” she said. “To come out with the win, I guess we made a goal where we didn’t just want to be in history, we wanted to create it.”

Chiefs captain Les Elder lifts the winners' trophy, the Waipuea Women's Rugby Taonga, for taking out the clash with the Blues. Photo: Getty Images. 

And that’s what they did. It was an emotional week for all involved, especially at the jersey presentations with close friends and family.

“It was a bit of a worry,” said Elder. “Does the emotion get in our heads? Does it affect our game? But we actually channelled that emotion really well today. I think we took the mana of our families onto the field with us.”

Despite the loss, Blackwell says the game was a win for women’s rugby. “There's a lot of growth in our game and people are really getting behind us so it was an awesome opportunity to showcase our abilities - and put a stake in the ground and say that we are worthy of investing in and that we can produce good rugby,” she said.

Both captains agreed the teams could handle a full Super Rugby competition, but also want decision-makers to consider a different pathway to the men’s game. “For our girls to put on a game like that, off three trainings and a couple of club games, just shows what we could create if we were resourced,” says Elder.

“But we don’t want to just rush into a competition like this and have it affect FPC as well. It is something that needs to be tabled properly and talked about and all scenarios laid out on the table.

“What we don’t want to see is that a product like this dismantles FPC, where we get a larger group of girls playing the game, so it needs to be done properly.”

Saturday May 1, 2021 will go down in history for a number of reasons. But let’s make sure the ball keeps moving in the women's space.

Chiefs 39 (Langi Vaeinu, Kendra Reynolds, Luka Connor, Les Elder, Ngatokotoru Arakua tries; Hazel Tubic 4 cons, 2 pens) Blues 12 (Patricia Maliepo, Sylvia Brunt tries; Maliepo con). Halftime: 18-12

Rachel Froggatt, sports myth buster

Rachel Froggatt, the CEO of Women in Sport Aotearoa, talks to Suzanne McFadden in part four of LockerRoom’s video series, The Big Four, with the women leading the four global sporting events here over the next two years - three World Cups and the IWG Women and Sport conference.

Running the world's largest conference on gender equality in sport in Auckland a year from now, it's one of Rachel Froggatt's missions to bust myths.

Among the ideas challenged by Froggatt, secretary general of the 2022 IWG Women and Sport Conference, is that good things can't happen for women's sport until there's a big audience for it.

"You know, the idea that the audience is going to arrive just under its own steam with no support is a myth in itself," she says in episode four of The Big Four series. "Then when you start to actually bring audiences in, you start to see this explosion of popularity.

"If you look at the FIFA Women's World Cup, over a billion people watched that, because FIFA invested in a broadcast strategy all around the world to bring it into people's living rooms. And I think that we are starting to mature globally around this idea that actually things will not happen for women's sport unless we make them happen."

Next Friday, Froggatt will host the Captain's Lunch at Eden Park, celebrating women with the focus on bringing sport and business communities together. 

You can watch part three of The Big Four with Jane Patterson, COO of the 2023 FIFA World Cup here, part two with Michelle Hooper, 2022 Rugby World Cup tournament director here, and the first video with Andrea Nelson, CEO of the ICC Cricket World Cup 2022, here. 

Next week: The four women behind the Big Four discuss how they're working together to run the best sports events for New Zealand. 

Here's the news: Kiwi sportswomen still lag behind

While the latest news isn't all bad for women's sports coverage in NZ, there's still a marathon ahead to reach equality, reports Suzanne McFadden.  

The reporting of women’s sport may have grown in New Zealand in the past decade, but it’s still nowhere near good enough.

Women’s sport accounts for 15 percent of coverage in our nation's media, a new study released by Sport New Zealand shows. That’s increased from 11 percent in a 2011 study here.

While that may put New Zealand among the leaders in the world, it still isn’t a lot to crow about.

What it shows is that, globally, there’s still a massive skew towards male sport in the media. In the United States, women’s sport is given just five percent of the coverage; Australia, seven percent.

Female journalists account for a pinch over 20 percent of the bylines on New Zealand sports stories – which also shows women are still underrepresented in newsrooms.

Raelene Castle, the CEO of Sport NZ, says the data from the study will be the “new bottom line of what’s acceptable” in media coverage here.

“It’s an improvement on where we were, but we still have a long way to go,” she says.

“[The 15 percent] also tells us if you really put your mind to something and focus on it, you can make a difference. If you raise people’s awareness, take away their unconscious bias, have some champions who are repeating the message, you can make some strong gains.

“We need to make that the norm, rather than people championing the conversation.”

Could 15 percent be a breakthrough?

University of Auckland professor Toni Bruce has been researching sports media for more than 25 years. Her study in 2008 covered a year of women's sports coverage in the NZ Herald and Waikato Times, which averaged 12 percent – “above the 10 percent we’d been hitting in New Zealand for a while”.

She was then part of an international study of 22 countries in 2011, where the New Zealand average was 11 percent.

She believes 15 percent is an important figure in the drive for more women’s sports news.

“Research in psychology shows once you hit the 15 percent mark of any particular group or organisation, then it’s no longer tokenism,” says Bruce. “So we’re reaching a point of women in sport becoming normalised in every-day news coverage.”

How does NZ compare with the rest of the world?

Sport NZ says we are world-leading in this area. But how do the numbers stack up?

A 2018 UNESCO report found globally four percent of sports coverage was devoted to women.

In a study carried out by the European Union that same year to measure the visibility of women’s sport in the media, Malta and Greece both fell under two percent for female sport in their nations’ total coverage. In Sweden, it was 3-6 percent, and the United Kingdom 4-10 percent.

The closest comparison to New Zealand is Romania, where it’s 14 percent. But their statistics are driven heavily by former world No.1 tennis champion Simona Halep, who enjoys celebrity status in her home nation.

In Europe, it was noted both broadcast and live audiences for major women’s competitions had grown considerably over the past few years, reflecting an expanding fanbase for women’s sport.

Romanian tennis player Simona Halep wins the women's singles at Wimbledon in 2019. Photo: Getty Images.

So is it job done?

Women in Sport Aotearoa CEO Rachel Froggatt has her concerns. While there’s been an “incremental improvement” in volume in stories about sportswomen, she says there’s a risk it may be seen as ‘job done’.

"The results show New Zealand is the best of a bad bunch," she says. “This shouldn’t be our end position. We have to accept it as a challenge to set the agenda and pull everyone else in the world up with us as we keep increasing and increasing. ”

Why have a study?

The Sport NZ-Isentia study covered 14 months and 40,000 news items – around a third of all sports coverage for the period. It started in July 2019, but skipped four months from March 2020 because of the Covid-19 lockdowns and the absence of sport.

It’s part of the 'value and visibility' commitment made in the Government’s women and girls in sport and active recreation strategy released in late 2018.

LockerRoom’s daily coverage of women’s sport was included in the survey of 'independent' media organisations (and our stories also contributed to Stuff.co.nz 's figures).

Which sports get most?

Netball may be the leading women’s sport in New Zealand with one of the highest number of players across all sports, but it only ranked sixth in coverage given to each sport, the study found. It accounts for 4.3 percent of all sports coverage (this would no doubt be higher measured throughout a World Cup year).

The five sports ahead of netball – rugby, cricket, football, league and tennis – snared three-quarters of the coverage across broadcast, print, internet and magazines in New Zealand. But the female side of those sports gets on average just 6.6 percent of the headlines.

Five sports have more female coverage than male coverage: netball, hockey, canoe sprint, snow sports and gymnastics.

How are our sportswomen portrayed?

A 2016 study of New Zealand’s media coverage from the Rio Olympics showed an imbalance in the portrayal of women’s and men’s athletes. It found women were nine times more likely to be pictured with their partner – that’s now dropped to 1.5 times more likely.

The language used to describe female athletes has also changed.

A Cambridge University study from Rio found words like ‘married, pregnant, older, strive, participate’ describing sportswomen dominated stories. But the latest Sport NZ survey showed the most-often used words for females were ‘strong, super, able, great’ – similar to those depicting men.

“One of the things that’s really struck me is the mindful shift by the media in how they portray women since the NZOC study in 2016,” says Froggatt.

“Females are now presented as athletes, spoken to as athletes, coaches aren’t speaking for them now and they’re not referred to as the partner of a male athlete. That’s part of a long-term legacy piece for us - women and girls coming through need to aspire to role models they can be proud of.”

But females are still three times more likely to have their appearance commented on.

Former Black Fern and Kiwi Fern Honey Hireme-Smiler commentating on Super Rugby Aotearoa in 2020. Photo: Getty Images. 

Where are all the female sports journos?

Castle says the media organisations she’s spoken to are aware there aren’t enough females in their sports newsrooms, with only 21 percent of stories by women. Questions need to be asked why there aren’t more roles for women, and why women don’t see sports reporting as a valid career choice.   

“TV have done a good job of putting more female faces on panels. Someone like [Sky rugby and league presenter] Honey Hireme-Smiler is outstanding,” Castle says. “She adds professionalism, real value in her commentary and diversity. And she’s there first and foremost for her expertise, not because she’s a female.”

So what happens next with the data?

Sport NZ is talking to media organisations and sports about the findings and how changes might be made to keep the coverage of women’s sport on the rise.

“We want them to understand what the new baseline is and the areas where they’re performing well and the areas where they need to improve, and that will help with the strategies and focus points they put in place,” Castle says.

The three women’s World Cups being played in New Zealand over the next two years would “provide a massive opportunity to drive further change”.

Castle may have only been back in the country for six months, but she’s already noticed a difference.

“It may be subtle, but when the Super Smash cricket was on, the sports news on TV led with the women and followed up with the men. That wouldn’t have happened previously,” she says.

She gave LockerRoom credit for making a difference to the sports reporting scene since it began in Newsroom in March 2018. “It goes beyond the 500-word stories and has the luxury of building relationships with readers and builds up the characters and authenticity in women’s sport,” she says.

“LockerRoom is an amazing role model for what’s possible," Bruce adds. "You’ve proven there is an audience for women’s sport.”

* You can read the full Sport NZ report here 

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