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Black Ferns' Captain Calm poised for action

It’s been a tumultuous year for the Black Ferns with a new coach and reshuffled squad, but Ruahei Demant has emerged as the unlikely leader as New Zealand chase a sixth World Cup title. Jim Kayes reports.

Bright swimmer looks to mix medicine with water

Up-and-coming Kiwi freestyler Caitlin Deans has found her ideal role model in Olympian Dave Gerrard as she looks forward to two careers - as an international swimmer and a doctor. 

Caitlin Deans is just beginning to make her mark on the swimming world, but she’s already planning how she can give back to her sport.

The Otago distance swimmer is off to the world short course championships in Melbourne in December, to compete in the 1500m freestyle as the country’s top ranked distance swimmer at last month’s national trials.

Not only is the 22-year-old Deans getting FINA A times as a top swimmer, she’s also getting A grade results as a top University of Otago student and wants to become a doctor.

And she has the ideal role model in an Olympic swimmer and former professor of sports medicine.

Now in her final year studying a bachelor of science degree, majoring in physiology, Deans is doing two papers a semester, as well as teaching two papers.

"I put a lot of effort into my studies, I prioritise it quite highly; the study is what's going to help me post-swimming," Deans says.

She’d like to contribute back to her sport through her studies, inspired by Otago alumni and Emeritus Professor, Dr Dave Gerrard.

A two-time Commonwealth Games swimming medallist, Gerrard swam at the 1964 Tokyo Olympics and was chef de mission of the New Zealand team at the 1996 Atlanta Games. He was the University of Otago Professor of Sports Medicine until he retired six years ago, and until last year, president of Swimming New Zealand.

Caitlin Deans made her debut as an Aquablack at the world long course champs in Hungary this year. Photo: Getty Images. 

“I`d love to be a doctor. I’ve always liked the idea of what Dave Gerrard has done -how we can work with athletes and how we can still be part of the swimming world," Deans says.

“As athletes we have a different perspective. You can see things in a different way when you've done sport yourself, so having that understanding could be quite beneficial in working with athletes.”

Deans was a full-time student when she competed at her first pinnacle competition, the 2018 world short course championships in China, where she finished 13th in the 800m freestyle. She’s now dropped to part-time study to balance her increasing swimming abilities with her study workload.

She continues to prove she can do both. In July, she debuted as an Aquablack at the world long course championships in Hungary, where she was 13th in the 1500m freestyle. She also sat and passed two university exams while preparing for the championships at a training camp in Slovakia.   

Deans says she flourishes through the busyness of juggling her academic life with 20 hours hard training each week.

“It’s difficult, but I thrive off being busy; it keeps a balance in my life.  I get bored easily,” says Deans, one of only four swimmers to meet the world champs qualifying times at the national trials.

“University helps me switch off from swimming.  If training doesn’t go quite right in the morning, I've got to switch off the training mindset, as I have a full day of university before my next training."

Deans is pleased the December championships were relocated from Kazan, Russia, to Melbourne after the Russian invasion of Ukraine. “It means that more of family and friends can come over and watch, as it's so close,” she says.

Deans will also compete in the 200m freestyle and  4x200m freestyle relay in Melbourne. She has already had the experience of reaching a world championships relay final, placing seventh in Hungary, and swimming a personal best in her relay leg.

“Getting to race that final was an indescribable experience," Deans says.  

The NZ 4x200m relay team who were 7th at the 2022 world champs (from left) Erika Fairweather, Eve Thomas, Caitlin Deans and Laura Littlejohn

It has been a long journey for Deans to become an Aquablack. She’s been on the cusp of both junior and senior international team selections since her mid-teens. She missed qualifying for last year’s Tokyo Olympics despite dropping 23 seconds off her 1500m just months before the trials. 

  1. the Tokyo qualification was tough; when I dropped that 23 seconds, it became a possibility,” she says.

But she found it hard to believe she could get those qualifying standards to represent New Zealand at pinnacle competitions after frequently falling just short.  

“It’s something I've always struggled with - backing my training and knowing I’m capable of the times, and that I do deserve the spot on these teams knowing I’ve trained hard,” she says.

Otago coach Kurt Crosland will be poolside in Melbourne. Lars Humer, who’s coached Deans since 2018 and was Swimming New Zealand head coach at Tokyo, is unavailable.

Crosland and Humer are well aware they’re coaching an academically gifted swimmer in Deans, who has now started to hit her straps.

Deans was named Otago swimmer of the year this month for her international performances and two Otago Open records, with Crosland named coach of the year.
“She is very smart. I think her maturity and her mindset enables her focus on the right things,” Crosland says.

Otago has one of the top swimming programmes in the country after Humer returned home to Dunedin in 2018, and has five swimmers selected for Melbourne, including Olympic finalist Erika Fairweather.  

“The influence of Lars - having that influence and experience of a coach that performs at the top level – you can’t put a price on that,” Crosland said.

Deans says the Otago coaching programme of Humer and Crosland and the help of her athlete life adviser Nat Fraser have assisted in her getting top academic grades and swimming results.

“I have an incredible athlete life and mental skills coach. We work together on backing myself a lot more,” she says.

 Deans missed the tough qualifying standards for last year’s Commonwealth Games.  She would have finished in the top five at the Games on her 800m freestyle lifetime best, behind fourth-placed Kiwi Eve Thomas. 

"I didn’t even know I was in the top six - and I didn’t expect to be on the Commonwealth Games team after the [qualifying] times that they posted,” Deans says. “I wasn’t disheartened.  It kind of sucks a little bit, but at the end of the day that was their decision.”

She also missed qualifying for the 800m for the world short course champs. “I didn’t feel very good in the 800m at trials, and I got sick the day after,” Deans says. “I gave it my all, but the race didn’t reflect what I was capable of.”

Otago swimmers Ruby Heath, Caitlin Deans and Erika Fairweather all swam at the 2022 FINA world champs in Budapest

In recent years, New Zealand has not been short of creditable female distance swimmers: Lauren Boyle set a 1500m world record in Wellington in 2014, Emma Robinson was placed in the top 16 at the 2016 Rio Olympics, and Hayley McIntosh and Thomas both qualified for Tokyo.

Thomas and Fairweather are swimming the 800m freestyle in Melbourne, so it’s Deans’ opportunity to shine in the 1500m.

Before July’s championships, Deans gained further international experience competing at Mare Nostrum, a series of three European meets with many of the world’s top swimmers. She reached the medal podium in the 400m freestyle in a lifetime best, but also ended up in hospital with a concussion and a black eye after colliding with a swimmer during training.  

She now seeks a better build-up to Melbourne to secure her first personal best distance time in a pinnacle competition and lower her 16m 05.52m trials time.

“I think with more international racing experience, those personal bests will come,” she says. “I'm hoping I can give that 16-minute mark a crack.”

Then she’ll have to swim faster in a long course pool to meet her goal of qualifying for the 2024 Paris Olympics.  

Deans will have to drop 18 seconds to qualify for Paris in the 1500m and 12 seconds in the 800m – faster than all but the medallists at the 2022 Commonwealth Games. While she’s now under the 1500m Tokyo standard, the tough Paris standard is 23 seconds quicker, so she’ll have to almost repeat last year’s big drop on her time.  
 

"I’m on a good trajectory and training is going well,” Deans says. “If I can just keep moving that on, and back myself and my racing, I think I’ll be all right."

Kiwi Ironwoman finds joy in taking the longer road

A former triathlon world champ, a burnt-out Rebecca Clarke gave the sport away, only to return as a top Ironwoman. She tells Merryn Anderson why she's happy to put herself through the slog and heat of the world champs in Kona this week. 

Rebecca Clarke has finally found her happy place. And it's not where most of us would want to be. 

While the residents of Kona, Hawaii, wake up, go to work for eight hours and then settle down for the evening on Friday, New Zealander Clarke will still be racing on the island's roads. Yes, that whole time. 

Clarke will be competing in the Ironman world championships, swimming just under 4kms, biking 180kms and then running a full marathon (42kms), aiming for a total race time of around nine hours. It's a unique Ironman Kona this year, with women competing in their own event - on a different day to the men - for the first time.

And it will be a big challenge for someone who stepped away from representing New Zealand in Olympic-length triathlons after a string of nasty setbacks in 2016, but found a new joy in competing over longer distances. 

Clarke, a former world age-group tri champion, has found a new balance in life between her work and her sport, which she says is contributing to making her a better athlete. And she believes a happy athlete always performs better, so when she’s enjoying training and competing, then the results follow. 

“I’ve really enjoyed these last several months, being able to travel and race again,” the 33-year-old says. 

“There are times when I haven’t, and I think that shows if you’re mentally in a good place and having fun with it, then you’re a better athlete.” 

Rebecca Clarke (left) was one of the two fastest women in the water in a training swim earlier this week, her strongest leg of the Ironman race. Photo: Ironman/Donald Miralle

Clarke qualified for the world champs after finishing second in Ironman Australia in May, completing the Port Macquarie course in 9h 7m.

“I was happy with the training I'd done, then coming second there and getting the Kona slot was definitely quite a bit of a shift of ‘Wow I’ve actually qualified’,” says Clarke, who's the only Kiwi woman competing in these world champs. 

“It gave me a lot more confidence after that performance the year before that I could actually race Ironman well, if I prepared and did things right on race day.” 

In 2021, Clarke competed in Ironman Cairns, hoping for a Kona qualification spot, but struggled to be at her best. 

“I just stuffed up my nutrition and made a few mistakes and paid for it later in the race,” she says. “I think for a while, I was like ‘I’m not sure if I want to do another Ironman again’.” 

Clarke was a competitive swimmer throughout school, and stepped away when she went to university. Apart from a few triathlons during school, her first proper tri wasn’t until she was 22, competing in Auckland’s People Triathlon Series with her dad. 

In only her third Olympic distance triathlon, she qualified for the 2011 ITU world championship grand final in Beijing. 

“I went there for experience, for fun, and came away winning the 20-24 age group," says Clarke, who was first out of the water by a full minute. "So that kind of sparked me carrying on and being like ‘Oh I could be potentially quite good at this’."

Her triathlon journey took her across the world, competing in the ITU world series between 2014 and 2016. 

Then in 2016, Clarke suffered a foot injury, and increased her cycling and swimming training to rest her foot from long runs.  

Rebecca Clarke on her way to 3rd at the 2018 Ironman 70.3 Taupo. Photo: Tim Bardsley-Smith. 

One day training on the road, Clarke hit a speed bump on her bike flying down a hill and came off, landing heavily and injuring her face. 

She spent two days in hospital after an hour-and-a-half in surgery to stitch up lacerations to her face. Five weeks after the crash, she was back to cycling and swimming, but was still dealing with her foot injury. 

She missed the final selection race for the 2016 Rio Olympics, and decided to step away from racing triathlons. 

“At that time, I wasn’t really feeling that happy in doing triathlon,” Clarke says. 

“Elite sport is quite a cut-throat environment and when you’re not performing, there’s even more pressure to. And I think I was a little bit burnt out, not 100 percent healthy.

“It was a wake-up point that I needed to take better care of myself and decided I was going to finish with triathlon for a little bit.”

Her break lasted about six months, Clarke laughs, before giving the longer distance a go. 

“The mindset was just about having a bit more balance, not having 100 percent focus on triathlon,” she says. 

“I liked having other things outside of triathlon and some work, so it kind of took the pressure off having to perform every single race.” 

Clarke also works as a triathlon coach, under Foot Traffic Endurance Sport Coaching, a company run by her own coach, Rob Dallimore. She also does admin work for physio business Sports Lab.

“It takes focus off myself and puts it onto others and uses my experience over a few years involving triathlon,” she explains. 

A 2016 bike crash gave Clarke a new outlook on competing, and a balance to her life. Photo: Sportograf

For the first time in the history of the Ironman world championships, the men and women will compete on different days, with an increase in competitors due to many athletes deferring their entries over the last two years because of Covid restrictions. 

“It allows us to have a lot more coverage, which is good for sponsors and friends and family watching,” Clarke says. 

And for such a strong swimmer, Clakre won’t have to worry about catching any of the men on the swim leg. 

When racing for nine hours, it’s a long time to think - both about the race and for a mind to wander. 

“You’re always thinking, especially in the long distance, about your nutrition - do I need to take a drink, do I need to take another gel now? And that helps you keep on task,” Clarke says. 

“Going through the aid stations, you’re just focusing in that moment on grabbing bottles and things like that. And super important for the heat in Kona is to be staying on top of hydration.” 

When she’s not focusing on the technical aspects of the race, Clarke will play a song in her head or do some mental maths, to distract from the daunting task of running a marathon to finish. 

“I find my best races are where I just stay more in the moment; you don’t want to be thinking too much about what’s to come,” she says. 

Clarke also makes sure the voice in her head keeps her going. “Self-talks, trying to keep that as positive as possible, just little cues,” she explains. 

“Simple things like ‘You’re doing well’, or ‘Relax’.

“If something happens, you run through a few scenarios. In a recent event, I had a bottle fly out so I was trying to keep myself calm about losing that bottle. Thinking as soon as you get to the next aid station, you’re going to have to take on some extra water, extra electrolytes, so we’re always running through scenarios.”

*The Ironman world championships will be streamed on Facebook on the IRONMAN now page, as well as YouTube and Twitch. The women’s race is on Friday 7 at 5.25am (NZT). 

Sparkplug Kendra ignites Black Ferns

After years of knock-backs and disappointment, Kendra Reynolds has powered her way into the Black Ferns to defend the Rugby World Cup. And the resilient No.7, whose job off the field was to ignite a fire for rugby in women and girls, is now leading by example. 

The Black Ferns call them the 'sparkplugs' – the players warming the bench ready to ignite the game the moment they take the field.

Kendra Reynolds has become possibly the most spirited of the Ferns’ sparkplugs. The No.7 immediately makes her presence felt whenever she’s injected into the starting line-up. Whether it’s a powerful run with the ball in hand, or a bruising tackle stopping the opposition in their tracks.

“She’s a great starting player, but when she comes off the bench, she makes such an impact,” her Black Ferns co-captain, and good mate, Kennedy Simon, says. “She catches your attention straight away.”

And Reynolds has come to understand and accept being a reserve has its own importance. “It’s really special being a sparkplug - you sit on the bench, getting hot, reading the game so you can do the right thing as soon as you get on,” she says. “You can really influence the game with your energy.”

And with Simon nursing a calf injury, Reynolds could even make the starting XV for the Black Ferns' opening Rugby World Cup match against the Wallaroos at Auckland's Eden Park on Saturday. 

Off the field, Reynolds has a laugh that brightens a room. She’s exuberant and funny – Alana Bremner, her Matatū captain, calls her the “fizzer” of the team - but she’s also big-hearted, selfless and insightful.

Her passion for rugby extends well beyond the playing field. Her former colleagues at Bay of Plenty Rugby say Reynolds has “ignited a fire for rugby in hundreds, if not thousands, of girls and young women.”

She'd like to do that again by simply playing her dynamic game during the Rugby World Cup, hoping to inspire a new generation of female rugby players.

But she hasn’t always been this fervent about the game - there have been plenty of times over the last seven years the 29-year-old has considered quitting, frustrated when she couldn’t break her way into the Black Ferns squad.

A switch from flanker to hooker – when she wasn’t sure if she was playing in the right position – led to a spinal injury and almost extinguished her love for the game.

Fortunately for the Black Ferns, Reynolds got her opportunity to prove herself on last year’s Northern Tour, and she hasn’t looked back since.

“It’s been a journey of resilience and perseverance for me,” she says. “But whether it’s black jersey or battling in the Bay colours, I just love the game. And right now, I’m a Black Fern, this is me, and I’m loving it.”

Black Ferns flanker Kendra Reynolds crashes over for a try against Australia at Adelaide Oval in August. Photo: Getty Images. 

Black Fern #220, Reynolds made her debut in the black jersey at Stade Pierre-Fabre against the French women last November. She came off the bench for 10 minutes, in the fourth loss on a harsh end-of-season tour – one that led to major changes in the Black Ferns environment and a significant shift in the team’s culture.

“That first game was a special moment for me, and for a lot of the girls who’ve been on the journey with me too,” says Reynolds, who can’t bring herself to watch the unforgettable video of her screaming and crying when she was named in the team.

“Sometimes when we just look at results, we can forget about moments like that.”

But she says she didn’t truly feel like a Black Fern until this season.

“It wasn’t when I played my first test match, or did my first haka. It was this year when I felt confident to speak in front of the group,” Reynolds says.

“At home, I’m a big loud voice. It was funny - people would see me in my Bay of Plenty environment, and I’d come into Black Ferns and be a different person because I wasn’t confident enough to be who I am.

“But this year the whole team has been on a journey in embracing who you are and having the confidence to be that.”

Reynolds grew up immersed in women’s rugby. Her cousin, Kellie Kiwi, was a Black Fern halfback, who starred in their 1998 Rugby World Cup victory and was pivotal in growing the sevens game in New Zealand.

Kiwi lived in Papamoa then, where Reynolds grew up, and brought some of her Black Ferns team-mates to Papamoa Primary.  

“There were a lot of girls who didn’t know about women’s rugby, but I knew it,” Reynolds, who’s Ngāti Ranginui, says.

“I remember watching a few of Kellie’s games but coverage of the game was poor back then, so it was more stories about her on the marae. Last month, we were on the marae together – Kellie’s moved home from Australia now – and we got to talking about rugby.

“She’s a big supporter of me and the Black Ferns. We have a very special connection.”

Kendra Reynolds goes back to her old school, Te Puke Intermediate, to talk about being a Black Fern

Despite that whānau bond with the game, Reynolds didn’t play it as a kid. In fact, she didn’t engage with sport much at all.

“I tended to stay home and watch cartoons and hang out with my mum. I wasn’t the most athletic kid,” she says. “But when I was 13 at Te Puke High School, my friends and I said: ‘Okay how do we get out of class?’

“We signed up to rugby, and from my very first game – against a visiting Canadian school team – I loved it. I was at prop, but there’d be a scrum and I’d be out on the wing.

“I fell in love with everything about the game. I was a Year 9 kid who suddenly had a bunch of Year 13s looking after me around the school, and at parties on the weekend. It was something I wanted to be part of for the rest of my life – from that first game, I wanted to be a Black Fern. It just took a little while to get there.”

A self-confessed “nutcase”, she found her calling as a loose forward: “I didn’t like being trapped in a scrum for too long.”

Because Reynolds didn’t have a broad background in the game, entering the women’s grades came as a reality check. She realised her limited skillset was holding her back.

“I had strong ball carries, and I could tackle anything. But in terms of vision, decision, catch, pass, I wasn’t the greatest to start with,” she says. “And I didn’t have a lot of the mental skills required to perform at the top level consistently.”

So she and a few other players drove to Hamilton three times a week to play for the Waikato University club side, where she learned from the Black Ferns in her team – Honey Hireme, Teresa Te Tamaki, Crystal Kaua, Victoria Grant and Carla Hohepa.

“A lot of the senior players played my position, so I spent the next few years learning how to come off the bench and the role to play,” Reynolds says.

Her first Black Ferns camp was in 2015, and she played “probably the worst game of rugby I’ve played”, she admits. “I’m a competitor, but suddenly in a trial I couldn’t handle the pressure, my confidence was rock bottom. I didn’t express what I had to offer.”

It was four years until she got another phone call from New Zealand Rugby. A frustrating time where she struggled with injuries and missed selections.

“There were lots of times when I wanted to stop playing,” she says. “I thought I was ready, but the powers that be weren’t picking me. I was lucky I had a lot of great people beside me.”

Reynolds admits she doesn’t fit the typical mould of a flanker. “If you look at me you think hooker,” she says. “So I’ve always had pressure when I haven’t made it to change position.

“I’ve tried to transition to hooker - but the pressure of throwing the ball in was actually too much for me, and it took away my love of the game.”

Kendra Reynolds at Black Ferns training for their opening RWC2021 match v Australia at Eden Park on Saturday. Photo: NZ Rugby.

She remembers the turning point - sitting in a car with Reuben Samuel, who worked for Waikato developing women's rugby before becoming an assistant Black Ferns coach in 2015. “I was really unhappy with rugby, and he asked ‘Why do you play?’ I just loved the sport. At that moment, I decided I’m going to play seven because that’s where I love playing.

“Reuben pulled me back from the brink of leaving the sport.”

Reynolds then went on a tour to Fiji with the Black Ferns Development XV in 2019, but still couldn’t push her way into the Black Ferns squad.

She had one more shot playing hooker in a game for her Rangiuru club, but the scrum kept collapsing and she found herself sidelined for four months with bulging discs in her spine. “My body was telling me it’s not for me,” she laughs.

Returning home to turn out for the Bay of Plenty Volcanix, Reynolds became a crucial, consistent player, who’s now played over 60 Farah Palmer Cup games.

She’s forged a special relationship with Bay of Plenty Rugby, working there for the past five years – much of that time as women’s development manager. She resigned earlier this year when she became a fully-contracted Black Fern.

“It’s a no brainer that she’s gone on to bigger and better things, because she’s just that type of high performing person,” says Bay of Plenty Rugby’s general manager of community rugby, Pat Rae. Reynolds got 1000 more kids in the Bay to play Rippa rugby, before having the same effect on women and girls.

She says she’ll continue to help the union as a volunteer. “Now I’ll be able to have a more localised effect on my club and community. I have a group of girls I’ve worked with for the last 10 years; I want to see them flourish …I’m looking forward to being a big sis again.”

Kendra Reynolds receives her Black Ferns jersey for RWC2021 with whānau, including her parents, Trish and Andy.

Since being selected for the World Cup, Reynolds has been inundated with messages from girls she’s helped introduce to the game, and their parents. “The girls text: ‘Oh Kendra, I can’t wait till this is me’,” she says proudly.

The Bay of Plenty union asked Reynolds if she’d wait until the Black Ferns contracts come up for renewal early next year before finishing up her role.  

“But I decided to be brave and use this as an opportunity, because something great is going to happen, and I don’t know what it’s going to be. But I hope me putting myself out into the world, something good will come back.”

She wants to continue working in sport, creating spaces for females to succeed.  

“Anything that empowers women to chase leadership positions or fight the good fight, that’s the space I want to be in. Whether that’s community or high performance – or something I haven’t even thought about yet,” she says.

Reynolds has always wanted to help other women achieve more, even when it’s left her on the sideline.

On last year’s Northern Tour, she was happy to help make two of her best mates, Kennedy Simon and former Black Ferns captain Les Elder, be “the best sevens in the world”.

“She’s an incredible individual,” says Simon, “She’s definitely helped me become a better player. We work so well together, because we’re polar opposites: I’m quiet and reserved, she’s loud and out there, with so much energy.”

Elder and Reynolds trained together in Tauranga, dubbed “the Harry Hard-outs”, Reynolds says. But they realised they had become “too comfortable” with each other – Reynolds happy to move to No.6 for Elder.

“But the reality was, we are both specialist sevens,” Reynolds says.

When the Super Rugby Aupiki teams were being chosen earlier this year, Reynolds sat down with Elder, the Chiefs captain, and together they decided it was better for Reynolds to move to Matatū so she could play at No.7.

It ended up being one of the best decisions of her career. Although Reynolds won a spot in the World Cup squad ahead of Elder, she knows her old team-mate is “bloody happy” for her.

“I’ll be 30 in January and I feel it’s come a little bit later for me than others, but I feel like everything is changing and all the crap I’ve been through has led to this. There have been relationships lost, there have been some tough times,” she says. “But I’ve made it to the World Cup so whatever happens now it’s about helping the Black Ferns win.”

* Ticket sales for the RWC2021 opening day this Sunday have now reached 35,000 - easily making it the largest crowd for a women's international rugby match. The Black Ferns will also play in front of a full house at Waitākere Stadium on October 16 when they meet Wales. So far 75,000 tickets have sold for the tournament - the organisers' target is 120,000. 

Women thrashing men with global rugby contest

While the men are squabbling, Jim Kayes says, women's rugby has made a huge leap ahead starting an annual global competition, WXV, in 2023 - which should make the Rugby World Cup even stronger. 

Women’s rugby has thrashed the men. Embarrassed them really.

While the blokes have been arguing for decades about a global calendar and an annual, or bi-annual competition - and still are - the women set one up in just a year.

Well, it was actually a few days because, though it took a year from when the WXV was first raised in 2018 to when it was confirmed in 2019, it took just two days - with everyone locked in a room in Hong Kong - to work out the details.

Egos were set aside, personal perspectives were ignored and the good of the game took centrestage.

The tournament would have kicked off by now if not for the Covid-19 pandemic. But it will start next year, featuring 18 teams in three divisions of six, played at two or three venues which will be revealed in a few weeks. World Rugby has committed almost $13 million to the tournament over the first two years.

Sponsors and broadcasters are yet to be found, but organisers are confident the financial future of the tournament will be secure.

Alison Hughes, World Rugby’s head of women’s competitions who's in New Zealand as the director of the Rugby World Cup, says WXV will be paused in 2025 so it can be reevaluated.

But she's confident it's here to stay and smiles without commenting when it’s noted the men’s game is still squabbling over how they can have a common calendar and more global competition.

Italy's Michela Sillari dots down against Spain at the RWC21 Euro qualifier. Photo: Alessandro Sabattini/World Rugby

Women are rugby’s success story with the growth in their game accelerating around the world - and propping up the numbers here in New Zealand.

Women play rugby in about 50 countries, with roughly half that number regularly involved in competitive games.

Twelve countries will compete in the World Cup in New Zealand this month, with 16 set to take the field in 2025.

“If WXV goes well we will be playing with 20 teams at the World Cup sooner rather than later,” Hughes says.

England has a women’s premiership competition and France have been quietly professional longer than anyone else. Those two, along with New Zealand, are the best three in the world and are likely to contest the final in Auckland.

Behind them Six Nations teams Wales, Ireland and Scotland are rapidly improving and in the last eight months have contracted some of their squads.

Australia (superb in sevens but still finding their feet in XVs), South Africa, Canada and the USA are improving.

Colombia win a line-out in their win over Kazakhstan at the RWC21 final qualifier. Photo: Christopher Pike/World Rugby

The real growth though, could come from unlikely countries like Kazakhstan, who have competed in six women’s Rugby World Cups and were on track to come to New Zealand for this month’s tournament till they lost, late in qualifying, to Colombia - who were in turn beaten by Scotland.

The Celts play their opening match against Wales on Sunday and the Black Ferns later in the month.

“Women’s rugby is growing rapidly,” says Hughes, noting that five tests were played in the November international window in 2016, and 22 in the same month just two years later.

Last year, despite Covid still having an impact, 16 tests were played in November, including four by the Black Ferns.

“There is a lot of enthusiasm but it needs everyone to come to the table and say what they need [from World Rugby],” says Hughes.

That’s because those needs vary so greatly when the game is growing so quickly.

Investment is needed at the grassroots, especially in the developing countries, with a focus on developing skills and retaining players.

But Hughes says there needs to be a top-down approach as well. “You can’t build the game without that because you have to give the players something to aspire to. Competition is really important," she says. 

In Europe, as an example, rugby is popular in Sweden and Germany but they need more games.

It's the same around the world. Hughes rattles off countries where women love the game, and notes that for some they have invested heavily in sevens which has been the shining light for women’s rugby.

Spain celebrate upsetting Ireland 8-7 at the RWC21 Euro qualifier. Photo: Giorgio Perottino/World Rugby

Brazil focused on their sevens programme leading up to the 2016 Rio Olympics and are now shifting that focus to XVs.

The game is popular in Columbia where Hughes says there is an old-school look to their national team - a side that reflects all shapes and sizes.

Fiji will compete at the World Cup for the first time this month and Samoa were looking good too, but their country’s strict Covid travel restrictions meant they couldn’t compete in the final qualifying matches earlier this year.

To date, the growth in the game from a playing numbers perspective hasn’t been reflected in bums on seats at grounds, or a stampede of sponsors, but that's changing too.

A record crowd in excess of 30,000 will be at Eden Park for the triple-header opening day of the Rugby World Cup this Saturday.

And Hughes says the money is out there. “We have only recently begun unpacking the women’s game from the men’s [so it can be sold separately] and there is enthusiasm from our sponsors and broadcasters," she says. 

“Those stakeholders want something more than a World Cup every four years and that’s what WXV will deliver. I think it will be very saleable.”

If it is, if it does kick on and become a permanent fixture, the women will be chuckling all the way to the bank.

The blokes, they’re likely to still be squabbling.

Kiwi rugby player makes Wright choice for Scotland

Kiwi-born Molly Wright has returned home to play for Scotland against the Black Ferns in the Rugby World Cup. She tells Kristy Havill of her long, winding road from Reefton to Edinburgh, and back.   

West Coaster Molly Wright’s rugby career has been a stop-start affair. 

Born in the old gold mining town of Reefton, the 31-year-old Wright has lived and played on three different continents, before eventually settling in Edinburgh - where her travels have culminated in wearing the Scottish thistle on her chest. 

As Scotland women’s rugby enters an historic new era of professionalism, Wright has a front row seat to it all. Quite literally, playing hooker. 

But she’s never forgotten her roots, and now she’s returned home – playing for Scotland in the Rugby World Cup kicking off in New Zealand in just a week's time. And she has the Black Ferns firmly in the crosshairs as she hopes to line up against them in their pool match on October 22 in Whangārei. 

All 12 nations in this World Cup have now arrived in New Zealand, and are preparing for the first weekend of games, starting with a triple-header at Eden Park next Saturday (over 30,000 tickets have already sold, making it a world record crowd for a women's World Cup match). Scotland will head to Whangārei for their first clash, against Wales, Sunday week. 

As far as stories go of how she got into rugby, Wright’s is not an uncommon one. 

At the age of four, she picked up the oval ball and started to make the two-hour round trip on Saturday mornings to Westport. Her father was coach of the team, and Wright was one of only a couple of girls playing boys’ rugby. 

It was a routine that continued throughout Wright’s childhood - her passion for the game blossoming as she and her male counterparts moved through the age groups together.  

But at 14, Wright was no longer permitted to play with the boys, and it wasn’t feasible for her family to travel to Nelson or Christchurch every weekend so she could play in girls’ grades. 

Her only other sporting option was netball – which she’d tried when she was younger and hadn’t enjoyed. But this time she had no choice. It wasn’t until a high school exchange to Canada in her final year she laced up a pair of boots again.  

“I was going to live in Canada having not played rugby for ages, so thought I’d try something new and play soccer,” Wright says. 

“But the school rugby coach said ‘You’re from New Zealand you’ll come and play rugby for us’.” 

Thanks to her coach’s foresight Wright was back where she belonged, and for the first time in her life playing in an all-girls’ rugby team. 

Molly Wright playing against Italy in the Rugby World Cup 2021 Europe Qualifying tournament. Photo: Getty Images

When she returned to New Zealand, she shifted to Dunedin to study a bachelor of physiotherapy at the University of Otago. Wright played for her hall of residence, Arana College, in her first year, and got her first taste of women’s rugby for the University team. 

She also made a positional switch from the midfield to hooker.  

“One of the coaches at University said I’d have a better shot in the front row,” Wright explains. “At the time it was a big technical change, and the mindset you have in the game is very different.” 

Higher honours soon beckoned - for Otago and then Canterbury in the women’s provincial championship, known today as the Farah Palmer Cup. 

Like many Kiwis in their 20s, Wright moved to London, courtesy of her Irish passport, and enjoyed travel and meeting new friends. 

But when her friends on two-year visas returned home, Wright shifted north to Scotland, in January 2017. 

An international career, though, nearly didn’t happen - Wright had to be pushed out the door of her flat to join a local rugby club.  

“Adult friends are hard to make, so I got a kick up the backside from one of my flatmates to go out and get back into rugby to meet some people,” she says. 

It turned out to be a fairly handy club who acquired her services, and Wright made an immediate impact as Watsonians reached the final of the Sarah Beaney Cup in 2018 – scoring one of her team’s two tries, albeit in a losing cause. 

Wright and Watsonians went one better in 2019, clinching the title at the famed Murrayfield Stadium; the Kiwi named player of the match. 

“Scotland is my home, but New Zealand is where I grew up and still a huge part of who I am."

After attending national training camps and serving the three-year residency period for eligibility, the call to play for Scotland finally came in January 2020, and Wright boarded a plane to Spain.  

“It was very surreal,” Wright recalls. “It was sunny and hot, the stadium was full with Spanish fans, who are class. It was Spain who knocked us out of our last World Cup qualification attempt, so that was always in the back of our minds.” 

Scotland ran in six tries and won, “and I managed to get a driving maul try, so it was a pretty epic experience.” 

Her debut in the Women’s Six Nations soon followed, coming off the bench against Ireland and England - before the Covid pandemic halted international sport. 

As a practising physiotherapist, Wright soon found a bigger purpose than rugby to see her through the uncertain times. She worked on the frontline for the NHS, aiding patients in their rehabilitation from the disease. 

Wright on her new home as part of the Scotland team. 

Rugby resumed for Scotland in October 2020, with a thrilling 13-13 draw against France in the Six Nations. However, the remaining two fixtures against Wales and Italy were cancelled as the pandemic flared up again. 

After two false starts, it wasn’t exactly a fairytale outing for Wright when the Six Nations started a new edition in April 2021. 

Wright came off the pine as Scotland lost 52-10 to their English counterparts, but she quickly found herself back on the sideline in the naughty chair after a high shot on England player Vickii Cornborough in the 64th minute. 

“You just get absolutely rinsed by your teammates, and at my first training back afterwards it was ‘Right Molly, you’re up first for tackle technique’,” she says. 

It took six months for Wright to serve her three-match ban – a downside to the irregularity of women’s rugby schedules. But she’d finally served her sentence when the team travelled to the Rugby World Cup 2021 Europe qualifier tournament in Italy, where they met Italy, Spain and Ireland.  

The winner progressed directly to RWC 2021, while the runner-up needed to contest the Final Qualification tournament at the beginning of 2022. 

After losing to Italy 13-38 in the opening match, and clung on in the last few minutes against Spain for a 27-22 win, to keep their hopes alive against the women from the Emerald Isle. 

“Had Ireland beaten us and got the bonus point for tries they would have gone through ahead of Italy,” Wright remembers. “We think maybe where they stumbled was looking for tries and not to win the game, and we stole it from them in the 81st minute.” 

Italy went through to RWC21, and Scotland went straight to the final of the Final Qualification tournament up against Colombia in Dubai in February.  

“They were a much lower ranked team than us, but that didn’t mean we didn’t take the match seriously,” Wright shares. “We had 80 minutes to empty the tank, but it was a very different level of stress to the tournament in Italy.” 

Their 59-3 shellacking ensured Scotland’s ticket to New Zealand – their first pinnacle event in 12 years. And 2022 was about to get even better for Scotland Women, a watershed year in their entire history.  

“For them to see a woman who’s going out and being successful in sport and that’s her job, is something totally different from the experience I had growing up.” 

In June, the national governing body announced its four-year strategy for women and girls rugby, including 36 players receiving financial support to train fulltime for 11 weeks in the run-up to RWC 2021. 

As the total investment by the Scottish Rugby Union climbs from £1.6m to £4.1m over the next 12 months, it includes the creation of 30 professional contracts, which Wright says is nothing short of life-changing. 

“Physio for me is a hugely emotionally draining job,” Wright reveals. “People come in and are in pain and want you to do something about it. So they offload their mental stuff on you while you’re trying to help them physically. 

“The emotional energy you have to put into somebody to help them get better is huge. I now don’t have to give that emotional energy to my patients, so I can put it into rugby or recovery or spending time with friends”. 

It’s one thing to receive the investment and professional contracts, but the willingness and desire by players to prove every penny is well spent will be a rippling undercurrent through the entire team. 

“Even without the funding it’s a privilege to come in and play sport at an international level, and it’s not something we take for granted because we’re only able to do it for a small window of our lives,” Wright says. 

“But to able to make that our job and push for us to be the best is going to be special. It feels like we have this opportunity, and we want to make the most of it so that you can see what investment will do for the game. If we can put in the performances off the back of that investment, that shows what it can do for subsequent years.” 

So how does it feel for an expat Kiwi to return to her homeland to represent a different country?  

“Scotland is my home, but New Zealand is where I grew up and still a huge part of who I am. So I’m excited to go back and play rugby there,” Wright says. “It’s the first time my parents will be able to come and watch me play a test match.” 

As well as the Black Ferns, Scotland are grouped with Wales and Australia, in what will be the first time many players will come up against opposition from the Southern Hemisphere.  

And rest assured the women in blue won’t be there to make up numbers. 

“At minimum we’re looking to make the quarter-finals, which means winning at least two games,” Wright reveals. 

“If we can win those first two games [Wales and Australia], anything can happen in the third and then in finals footy. 

“We’re a team that gets better as tournaments go on, so we need to be successful early to give ourselves that platform. We’d like to come in and ruffle some feathers because I don’t think much is expected of us.” 

It’s not just women and girls back in Scotland Wright is hoping to inspire with her and her team’s on field exploits over the coming months and years. 

The girl from Reefton remembers all too well what it was like to come from a small town and have access to fewer opportunities, or to look around and not see many other individuals from small towns succeeding globally. 

“As a player for Scotland, I’d like to leave the jersey in a better place than when I found it,” Wright states. “But coming from a small town there’s not a lot of opportunity you can see. 

“The fact that what we’re doing is becoming more visible will hopefully mean young girls and boys from those places can look to try and achieve big things. 

“For them to see a woman who’s going out and being successful in sport and that’s her job, is something totally different from the experience I had growing up.” 

Maia's courageous comeback to Wheel Blacks

The lone woman in the Wheel Blacks, Maia Marshall-Amai has returned to the court after major amputation surgery to play at the wheelchair rugby world champs - determined to reach her ultimate goal of the Paris Paralympics.

After spending six months in Auckland Hospital, after the amputation of half of her pelvis and one leg, Maia Marshall-Amai was asked by hospital staff what was the first thing she wanted to do when she finally returned home.

She replied with one word: Train.

“They’re like ‘What? You’re crazy! Of all the things you could do when you get out, you want to go and train?’” Marshall-Amai recalls. “And I said: ‘Yep that’s what I want to do’. I wanted to play again.”

For years, Marshall-Amai was revered as the world’s best female player in wheelchair rugby. She was the lone woman in the New Zealand team, the Wheel Blacks, and regarded globally as a trailblazer for women in the sport.

But she stopped playing altogether back in 2019; the decision forced by a deterioration of her health, even though she was on the cusp of achieving her dream – to play at a Paralympic Games.

A severe infection in her pelvis then led to a hemipelvectomy - complex surgery to remove half of her pelvis and all of her right leg. She’d spend a challenging six months in hospital, getting to know everyone well, “from the nurses and orderlies to the cleaners and cooks”.

Marshall-Amai is no stranger to long stints in hospital. She was just 18 months old when a car fire left her with serious burns across most of her body. From then on, there were complications - a spinal infection left her paralysed and she also lost her left leg.

When she was discharged from her latest stay early last year, she had one goal – to get back into the Wheel Blacks, hopefully in time to play at the Paralympic Games in Tokyo in August.

“I was trying to be well enough to go to the Paralympics, but that wasn’t happening,” Marshall-Amai, 35, says.

Instead, she watched every match of those Games on TV at her home in east Auckland. “It was hard to watch when I was thinking, ‘Man, that was supposed to be me – I should be there’. I had all sorts of emotions going on watching them,” she says.

So Marshall-Amai switched her focus, to make a return to the Wheel Blacks for the wheelchair rugby world championships in Denmark next month.  A goal she’s proudly achieved, through hard work – to regain strength and balance with the major changes to her body – pain and determination.

Maia Marshall-Amai hopes she'll play against more women at the world champs in a fortnight. Photo: Getty Images.

The 2024 Paralympics in Paris are next on her list. “The Paralympic Games have always been my goal; they’re the pinnacle,” she says.

Her Wheel Blacks team-mates are thrilled, on a number of counts, to have her back. “Maia is incredibly resilient," says the team's co-coach Rob Hewitt. "The Wheel Blacks squad gets a huge lift knowing that she's healthy and back in the team ready to mix it with the best teams in the world.

"Maia has a reputation as one of the premier players in New Zealand and can go toe-to-toe with anyone on her day. Having Maia back gives the Wheel Blacks a huge boost and some real X-factor heading into the world championships."

Marshall-Amai admits it’s been difficult getting used to her "new body”.

“Having only half a pelvis and one hip, it’s hard trying to balance and do all the things that were usually quite easy for me,” she says.

“I’m probably lighter doing pull-ups now – that’s the only advantage I have.”

She’s been training every day, sometimes twice a day, to reclaim her fitness and strength. “But it’s been all good, I love all the training,” she says. “I missed it so much when I was in hospital for so long.”

Marshall-Amai is in her own words “a very shy person” and has a small circle of close friends and family who’ve helped her get back to this point. There’s also been her neurological physio, Harriet Otley, at Rope Neuro Rehabilitation, and her crossfit coaches, Michael Hynard (Marshall-Amai knows him as ‘Hashtag’) and Jodie Loveday, from Functional Adaptative Movement. She’s grateful to them all.

Maia Marshall-Amai (right) during a break in play at the NZ wheelchair rugby champs. Photo: Chelsea Corney. 

But when she went to her first Wheel Blacks training camp back in April, Marshall-Amai was a little anxious.

“It was a bit scary because it had been a long time, and I wanted to be amazing straight away,” she says. “It was tough, but it was good to be back with the boys. I missed them all.”

It didn’t take her long to return to the skills that made her one of the best in the world. At the national championships last month, Marshall-Amai was named best 2.5 (her impairment classification) at the tournament and won the New Zealand title with the Auckland Rhinos.

She hopes her classification will be lowered at the world tournament, after a functional skills test in front of classifiers. She already gives the Wheel Blacks a half-point advantage as a female player.

(The four players on court can’t exceed a total of eight points; for each female player on court, a team is allowed an extra 0.5 points over that total).

Marshall-Amai is “stoked” to be back with most of her old Wheel Blacks team-mates, returning to Denmark where she played in her first world championships back in 2014.

“It was pretty hard, I was pretty fresh then,” she remembers. This tournament, played in the city of Vejle, will be her third worlds.

Throughout her international career, Marshall-Amai was the only woman in the New Zealand team; a fact that remains the same. But she’s expecting to come up against more female opponents in the international sides the Wheel Blacks meet when the tournament starts on October 10.

“Since I’ve been missing from the game, there are a lot more females playing now. Not heaps, but more than when I was last playing,” she says.

Wheel Black Maia Marshall-Amai scores a try at the 2015 World Wheelchair Rugby Challenge in London. Photo: Getty Images

She hopes to return to Paris next March to take part in the Women’s Cup, a conference exclusively for female wheelchair rugby players. She first went in 2017, training and competing alongside other women players. It will of course depend on whether she can find the funding to go.

But that’s one thing that has changed since Marshall-Amai last played. Her trip to the world championships is covered by New Zealand Wheelchair Rugby (which self-funds all aspects of the sport). “It’s the first time I’ve been away with a New Zealand team and I haven’t had to pay a cent," she says. 

She’s had to get a new $15,000 rugby chair – agile but robust enough to take the impacts, in the sport once known as murderball.

“I’m lucky this will only be the third chair in my career,” Marshall-Amai says. “For the first two, I did give-a-little and fundraised, but this one was covered by ACC because of my new injury.”

Finally, the ball is bouncing in her favour.

She’s desperate to compete internationally again: “It’s been so long… I’ve played against all the boys a lot. You get a bit bored of it. It’s at another level when you’re playing other countries.”

The Wheel Blacks, eighth at the Paralympics in 2021, last won a world championship medal – silver – in 2006.  They were 11th in 2018.

Success in Denmark, Marshall-Amai says, would be “beating the teams we should beat” and on a more personal level “playing the best that I can, and making sure I do what I need to do to help out the team.”

She will have one eye on another rugby world championship half a world away. Marshall-Amai is a proud ambassador for the women’s Rugby World Cup being played in New Zealand at the same time (she should be home in time to watch the final at Eden Park on November 12).

In spite of her shyness, Marshall-Amai has appeared in a promo video of a powerful spoken word poem and in magazines endorsing the tournament.

“They’re not my usual things I like to do; I’m a bit out of my comfort zone,” she says. “But anything to promote women’s rugby – I’m all about that.”

Kiwi schoolgirl cricketer taking on the world

As teenage cricketer Aniela Apperley begins making her mark on the game, she could be in line for two World Cups in three months - starting with next month's indoor cricket worlds. Aiden McLaughlin reports.  

In her final year at high school, talented Hawke’s Bay cricketer Aniela Apperley was denied the chance to debut for the Central Hinds women last summer, by persistent rain.

But now she gets to represent New Zealand where rain can’t affect play - at the Indoor Cricket World Cup in Melbourne next month.

And it may not be long until she’s representing her country at an outdoor world tournament – identified as one of New Zealand’s most promising young female cricketers ahead of next year’s inaugural U19 T20 World Cup.

Having just turned 18, the Napier Girls' High School student will be only the third woman from Hawke's Bay to represent New Zealand in indoor cricket since the early 1980s.  

Apperley is the sole female among the six Hawke’s Bay cricketers selected for the World Cup, which starts on October 8.

Although she’s been in national age-group development teams in the outdoor version of the game, it’s only her second season playing indoor, after taking up cricket at primary school.

“I wanted to keep going [with cricket] in the winter, so when the opportunity came up, I thought I’d have a try,” Apperley says. “It went a lot better than I thought. It’s a lot quicker and more high intensity and I really enjoy it.”

There are four competitions at the World Cup: open women and men, and U22 women and men.

Apperley’s U22 team is captained by Wellington Blaze bowler Xara Jetly, while the open men’s line-up includes former Black Cap and Hawke’s Bay player Jesse Ryder, who’s playing in his second Indoor Cricket World Cup.

Competing teams have eight players each and the format is 16 overs a side, with each player bowling two overs. The games take around an hour and 10 minutes.

Aniela Apperley would love to play at the first U19 T20 World Cup in South Africa this summer. Photo: Margot Butcher. 

Unlike the outdoor game, indoor cricket is a fully self-funded sport, even at international level. The players have to pay for everything - including their team playing kit.

So the Hawke’s Bay indoor cricket club in Napier are trying to raise over $30,000 to enable Apperley and their five male players to travel to Australia. Fundraising events have included a quiz night and auction, which raised over $14,000, and regular Lotto Bonus Ball fundraisers. But with less than a month to go, they’re still short of their fundraising total.

A successful middle-distance and cross country runner growing up, Apperley is still involved in athletics, but now it’s mainly to help her keep a high level of fitness for her primary love, cricket.

She’s been supported throughout her cricket journey by her mother, Zosia, and father, Craig. The family live in Hastings, along with Apperley’s older brother, Matthew.

Zosia’s parents were born in Poland, which is where the name Aniela comes from.

Cricket has become a family affair, with her grandparents and friends taking her to games over the years to ensure she can play as often as possible. Apperley also singles out Craig Ross, the women’s coach for Hawke’s Bay cricket, as important to her development so far.

Apperley first picked up a bat in Year Four at Parkvale School in Hastings. She was the only girl in her team that year, playing games with a plastic ball. In Year Six, she played in her first team with a hard ball.

“It was quite scary. But the team were really inviting and all the boys were really nice to me so it kind of helped my love for the game,” she says.

Apperley continued her cricket through Havelock North Intermediate and Napier Girls’ High. She made her debut for Hawke’s Bay as a 14-year-old in the Shrimpton Trophy, the inter-provincial one-day women’s cricket competition in upper Central Districts.

She’s also been involved in the Central Districts U19 team over the last couple of years and was a key player in their victory at the NZ U19 championships this year.

Then she was called into the Central Hinds squad, and came incredibly close to making her debut.

“We had the White Ferns away during the Cricket World Cup and then a couple of injuries as well, so she would have got the opportunity to make her debut,” says Central Hinds coach Jamie Watkins.

“Unfortunately, the last four games [of the season] were totally rained out. It probably would have been a little bit earlier than expected for her and for us, but we were in a situation where we were confident that she would have been able to certainly hold her own there.”

A right-arm medium pace bowler, who’s also capable of scoring important runs, Apperley was identified by Central Districts through their age-group system. She’s made national development squads, too.

With White Ferns bowlers Hannah Rowe, Rosemary Mair and Claudia Green at the Hinds, Apperley is looking to learn from their experience.

As well as the prospect of playing for the Hinds, there are further opportunities for higher honours with the inaugural Women’s U19 T20 World Cup in South Africa early next year.

Originally scheduled to be held in 2021, before being delayed twice by Covid, it’s a 16-team tournament played immediately before the Women’s T20 World Cup in South Africa.

She impressed with the ball in the New Zealand U19 women’s development matches at Lincoln, in March, playing for the Devine XII. White Ferns wicketkeeper Izzy Gaze was on her team.

Sophie Devine, batting during the CWC22, is one of the players Aniela Apperley looks up to. Photo: ICC Media. 

With school exams in the next few months, Apperley is not rushing into a decision about what she wants to do next season and beyond.

But with the latest agreement between New Zealand Cricket and the NZ Cricket Players Association making more money available to female players through match fees, it opens a new window of opportunity to young players like Apperley.  

“It’s important that we understand when progressing players into the system, they’ve still got a lot going on with school and their own development as teenagers,” Watkins says. “So it’s pretty crucial we get that balance right.

“There are a lot of opportunities, there but we don’t want to rush that process either.”

When asked which players she looks up to, Apperley names two White Ferns - Mair, who’s also from Hawke’s Bay, and New Zealand captain Sophie Devine.

“I love how she’s such an attacking batter,” Apperley says of Devine. “We rely on her to come through with the bat and she usually does.”

With Devine still performing well, who knows - maybe Apperley will get the opportunity to pull on the White Ferns shirt and stand alongside her one day?

But in her immediate future, she’ll hopefully be wearing the silver fern across the Tasman to try to make her country - and everyone she knows - proud.

The volleyballer smashing taboo around periods

After an impressive US college volleyball career, Agatha Gibbons is doing world-first research in Hamilton to help Pacific female athletes understand menstruation and avoid RED-S - to open our series on Pacific sportswomen giving back. 

It wasn’t until Agatha Gibbons began to study the effects of RED-S that she realised she’d actually been a victim of the cruel medical syndrome.

Gibbons had been playing volleyball at a US college in New Mexico, which she quickly discovered was a far cry from her Fijian homeland.

She was shocked when girls on her team spoke openly about their periods and shared concerns about their menstrual cycle with their coaches, some of them male.

She’d had no idea that she wasn’t eating enough – or the right food – to refuel for all the energy she was expending as an athlete. And that her diet had been a factor in the ACL tear she suffered in her sophomore year, which kept her sidelined for nine months.  

But when Gibbons was studying for her Master of science in health and physical education, and writing a paper on the female athlete triad, she put two and two together.

“I realised I trained so hard, but my nutrition was so bad, I missed some [periods]. And it also contributed to me getting hurt,” she says.

“I realised wow, that whole time, I didn’t have much knowledge about all of that. If I’d learned about it at high school, I would have had a much better idea how to eat properly.”

Agatha Gibbons (left) became one of the best middle blockers in the Lone Star Conference for NCAA volleyball. Photo: supplied

Now Gibbons wants to help young Pacific female athletes understand the importance of good nutrition from an early age. She’s doing her PhD at the University of Waikato, researching Pacific sportswomen’s experiences and knowledge of menstruation – the first time this area has been explored.

It’s a topic that’s been silenced for decades – through cultural and religious beliefs, and a lack of knowledge. And Gibbons wants to hear more about why.

What happened along the way?

Gibbons is conducting a survey on women both in New Zealand and in the Pacific Islands to better understand how Pacific sportswomen navigate through issues of female athlete health. So far, she’s heard from more than 170 athletes, and interviewed 11 in Fiji, while waiting for the New Zealand borders to reopen.

The survey asks about women their menstrual health and how it effects their athletic performance, the history of their periods, and taboos surrounding menstruation.

“I found out some of the sportswomen were so ashamed and embarrassed to talk about their period when they got it for the first time. One hid it from her mother because she was so scared,” Gibbons says.  

“In Fiji, mothers and aunties don’t encourage girls to use tampons, which is another cultural thing. So, everyone uses sanitary pads. And that goes for me too, I wasn’t encouraged to use tampons until I went to the US.”

Another Fijian athlete Gibbons interviewed said her grandparents had told her a girl’s first menstrual cycle had been “a celebration” back in their day.  

“But they don’t know what happened along the way,” Gibbons says. “You’d think Westernisation would make it a topic easier to talk about. But instead, it became a taboo topic.”

Professor Holly Thorpe, who’s chief supervisor of Gibbons’ PhD research, calls the work a world first.

“Over recent years we've seen a boom in sport science research focused on female athlete health, particularly menstrual health. While it’s great to see, most of this research has been conducted by white women using all white samples of athletes, but then the findings are being generalised for all sportswomen,” she says.  

“Agatha's research is ground-breaking in that she’s prioritising Pacific women's knowledge about menstruation in sport. She’s bringing sport science together with Pacific methodologies to work at this critical intersection."

Thorpe hopes Gibbon’s research will pave a pathway for more indigenous and Pacific sport science researchers to “navigate space for cultural ways of knowing” in the otherwise very Western and scientised fields of sports science and sport medicine.

“With this knowledge, sports organisations can find new strategies to support their Pacific sportswomen in ways that align with their cultures, rather than expecting them to leave culture at the door when they enter the elite sport environment,” Thorpe says.

Breaking taboo

Gibbons grew up in Suva, where she went to primary and high school and played a lot of sport. In her senior year, she took up the offer of a full ride volleyball scholarship in the US.

“It was a complete culture shock,” she says. “I’d never left the country, never left my parents, and I went to live in the New Mexico Military Institute in Roswell, famous for aliens. I went from living by the ocean to living in a desert.”

But it didn’t put her off her game. Her 1.85m height and strength made her an excellent middle blocker. She won female athlete of the year at NMMI and made All-Conference teams both there and when she transferred to NCAA college Eastern New Mexico, where she made over 100 blocks.  

Agatha Gibbons (No.4) hopes to finally play for the Fijian national volleyball side. Photo: supplied. 

For seven years playing and coaching in the collegiate system, Gibbons worked hard to be the best – but it would come at a cost.

“As a kid in the islands, you play sport for fun and no-one takes it too seriously, until you reach a certain level and then they talk about diet. But they don’t talk about women’s health, or the effects of your nutrition,” she says.

“There’s nothing in the school curriculum about it in Fiji. When I found out about female athlete triad, I’d never heard about it in my life.”

In 1992, the American College of Sports Medicine created the term ‘female athlete triad’ for the interrelationship between bone mineral loss, disordered eating and loss of menstruation in women athletes. In 2014, the International Olympic Committee renamed it RED-S – or Relative Energy Deficiency in Sport.

It’s a syndrome that, worryingly, is affecting more and more female athletes.  

Once she was at college, Gibbons was amazed the topic of menstruation was talked about openly. “When my team-mates would have a discussion about it, it was so weird to me. They’d say: ‘I think I’m late’, and they’d discuss it with the head coach and she might refer them to a doctor,” she says.

“I realised back at home we don’t have those kinds of discussions; we never talk about menstrual health - especially with male coaches.  In the US, athletes go from high school to college, they eat healthy and train hard and do everything by the book. But we don’t have that.

“So I started to learn about it slowly.”

While she was undergoing rehab following her knee surgery, the athletic trainer pushed the importance of nutrition on Gibbons. “It was my second year and I was still trying to figure myself out. So I said I would eat healthier," she says. 

But it wasn’t always simple. “On summer breaks we’d be given nutrition plans, but I never followed them, because when I went home, I couldn’t get the foods they had in those plans... We don’t have broccoli in Fiji.”

Taking the lessons back home

Gibbons did her bachelor’s degree in criminal justice, and wanted to become a detective. But then she switched to sports health for her Masters, and came across the paper on the female athlete triad, or RED-S.

“I wanted to find data for my paper but I discovered there wasn’t much research about Pacific sportswomen. I was shocked and so frustrated. I had to take research from other parts of the world,” she says. “I also realised how a lot of the articles didn’t take culture into consideration.”

Now onto her doctorate, Gibbons' three-year research project is co-funded by the University of Waikato and Orreco, a Silicon Valley sports science and research company, which has a focus on female athlete research. There’s also support from High Performance Sport NZ.

“When I’m done, I want to go back home, and go back to grassroots, running workshops for coaches and athletes on the importance of female athlete health,” Gibbons says. “I’d like it to be taught in Pacific Island schools, so girls can understand the importance of nutrition and menstrual health.”

Professor Holly Thorpe can't wait to see what results from Gibbons' research. Photo: supplied. 

Thorpe, who’s recognised as a world leader in female athlete health, says Gibbons has a strong team of sports scientists and Pacific research experts supporting her, including Professor Keakaokawai Verner Hemi, Assistant Vice Chancellor Pacific at the University of Waikato, and HSPNZ director of performance health, Dr Bruce Hamilton.

“This collaboration of sports science and cultural knowledge is the cutting edge of sports research, and it’s so important for this project to be led by a Pacific athlete and researcher, with and for Pacific sportswomen,” Thorpe says. “I can't think of a better person to be leading this project, and I know Agatha is going to do amazing things with this research.”

Gibbons, meanwhile, is on the mend following a car accident, putting on hold her plans to get back onto the volleyball court this summer.

She’s hoping to finally get the chance to play for Fiji Kulawai, the national volleyball team. She’s always had to turn down invitations because of her college career.

“The Pacific Games are coming up in the Solomons next year, and I’d like to give it a go,” she says. “I could go and interview sportswomen there too. All the sporting organisations I contacted in different island nations agreed it was a really good topic and they’d never had researchers reach out to them before. It’s exciting.”

Is Portia on the verge of GOAT status?

Try-scoring missile Portia Woodman is already one of the great Black Ferns - but this Rugby World Cup could elevate her to the top. And then she still has more to give, Jim Kayes reports. 

Portia Woodman is already one of the greatest Black Ferns of all time - and may yet be crowned the best ever, says two-time world champion Melodie Robinson.

“She is definitely the best wing the Black Ferns have had,” says Robinson, “and that’s ahead of Vanessa Cootes and Louisa Wall, so that’s saying something.”

Robinson, who played 18 tests before forging a successful career in broadcasting and rugby commentary, rates Woodman as the fourth greatest Black Fern behind Anna Richards, Farah Palmer and Fi’aoo Fa’amausili.

“They are legends, but Portia is still playing so imagine what she can still achieve,” Robinson says.

Woodman certainly captured attention on Saturday when she returned to the national XVs side after a heavy diet of sevens and barely missed a step, scoring seven tries in the 95-12 thrashing of Japan at Eden Park.

“I didn’t see that performance coming,” Black Ferns coach Wayne Smith says of Woodman’s Eden Park haul.

“She was new back in the team and before the Japan game she was struggling with all the new systems. I thought I would have to be patient. I thought, ‘She’s a world class athlete and she will come right eventually’ - but she came right really quickly.”

Black Ferns wing Portia Woodman on her way to one of her seven tries against Japan ahead of the Rugby World Cup. Photo: Getty Images.

Her seven tries last Saturday was the third best try-scoring performance by a Black Fern in a test, sitting behind her eight against Hong Kong at the last World Cup and Cootes’ nine tries in 1996.

Woodman has 31 tries in 20 tests, a tally easily the equal of All Blacks Doug Howlett, Christian Cullen, Joe Rokocoko and Julian Savea, who also had ‘soft’ tests to bolster their numbers.

She doesn’t yet have the international fame that Jonah Lomu got at the 1995 World Cup in South Africa, but next month’s tournament in New Zealand - starting on October 8 at Eden Park - could propel Woodman into a rarefied air in the women’s game.

“She is a superstar,” Smith concedes, but he’s quick to qualify that. “She is one of many superstars. I don’t like to single players out especially because we have a few in this team who are exceptional - and she is one of them.”

The daughter of an All Black, Woodman was a talented sprinter, then a netballer who played for the Northern Mystics, and now a rugby player. She's overcome adversity and injury, is an Olympic champion and an engaging person to chat with.

She's also a terrific rugby player.

Sir John Kirwan rated her (before she ruptured her Achilles in October 2018) as the best wing in the game - male or female.

Smith, who is also new to the Black Ferns, admits he doesn’t know Woodman that well: “I probably know her dad better because I played with Kawhena.”

But from what he’s seen, he’s impressed - especially with her honesty and self-reliance.

Woodman is just as classy off the field as she is on it. She is incredibly popular on the sevens circuit where her friendly persona has won over fans, players and officials.

It’s not hard to see why. When she fronted the media in Auckland last week, she talked with humility but also passion about her career, representing her country, and playing at home.

Footage of Portia Woodman's sixth try during the Black Ferns' rout of Japan at Eden Park last weekend. 

Getting to play for the Black Ferns in Whangārei would be especially special for the 31-year-old, who was schooled at Mt Albert Grammar in Auckland, and lives in Mt Maunganui but hails from Kaikohe.

Of Ngāpuhi descent, Woodman’s father, Kawhena, and uncle Fred, played for Northland, just as she does.

“The potential to play in Whangārei is one of the biggest highlights of my career. To represent my country at Okara Park would be pretty cool,” Woodman says.

She also talked about the challenge of returning to XVs, the support of her teammates and being able to lean on them and her wife, Renee Wickcliffe, the 44-test capped wing who’s also in the World Cup squad.

When quizzed on whether sevens stars will continue to be able to play XVs too, Woodman gave a heartfelt response.

“I’d like to say yes, but in all honesty both programmes are getting a bit more professional,” says the woman crowned world sevens player of the last decade. “The XVs are getting more games every year and to have a new girl, from sevens, transition to XVs, it would be quite hard.

“I’ve been around for a bit and even then, there are so many new systems it’s been a bit of a struggle. So I would like to say yes, but who knows.”

A two-part doco, The Black Ferns - Wāhine Toa, premieres on Thursday 8.30pm on Prime.

As for her own career, Woodman realises the horizon is getting closer, but she isn’t finished yet. She has won a XVs World Cup, collected Olympic silver in Rio and gold in Tokyo, and Commonwealth Games bronze in Birmingham this year.

Just a few weeks ago, she was in the sevens side who finished second to Australia at the World Cup in Cape Town.

It would seem the Paris Olympics in 2024 are a reasonable goal, but another XVs World Cup is perhaps a bridge too far even for someone as talented as Woodman.

“I’m not going to say that because I missed out on two years with injury and two years with Covid,” she says, “so surely, I’ve banked a few years I can tack on to the end. We will see how this [Rugby World Cup] goes.”

Rugby World Cup champ gone to the dogs

The star of the Black Ferns side who won the 2002 Rugby World Cup, Monique Hirovanaa now defends our borders as a dog handler. The explosive halfback tells Adam Julian how much the game has changed ahead of this World Cup. 

Monique Hirovanaa was so good at rugby in her day, she was invited by the Buller men’s team to play for the battling province.

A Black Fern for the best part of a decade, she won the World Cup twice, in 1998 and 2002 - officially named player of the tournament in 2002 as the Black Ferns foiled England 19-9 in a tense final at the Olympic Stadium in Barcelona.

Today the champion halfback is a detector dog handler for the Ministry of Primary Industries at Auckland Airport, a position she’s held since 2015. What’s the difference between managing dogs and forwards?

“Never work with animals or children,” Hirovanaa laughs.

“You’ve got to use your voice, remain composed and educate people as opposed to lecturing them.

“In rugby, a halfback is only as good as their forward pack. It’s similar at work: an officer is only as good as their dog. Nimbus is a new dog. He was born in 2019 and named by the public. He likes to find meat items, especially chicken where he goes a little crazy - so I have to get other officers to handle that.”

Monique Hirovanaa at work with her detector dog, Nimbus. Photo: supplied.

Hirovanaa started playing rugby in 1991, having represented Auckland in basketball, netball and touch.

Initially she was hard to handle as a fullback. The first officially sanctioned New Zealand women’s rugby tour was of Australia in 1994. Hirovanaa was a devastating debutant from fullback.

She scored four tries in the opening fixture against the ACT, and was imperious in the 37-0 blanking of the Wallaroos, scoring a try and setting up three others.

Hirovanaa converted to halfback in 1995. The Black Ferns walloped Australia, 64-0, in their only test of that season in Waitematā. Hirovanaa was so dynamic and dazzling, the following year the incumbent halfback and World Rugby Hall of Fame inductee, Anna Richards, was shifted to first-five.

Between 1996 and 2002, Hirovanaa and Richards partnered each other 22 times in tests and enjoyed 21 wins - by an average score of 57-5. On nine occasions the Black Ferns held their opponents scoreless.

“I was an explosive player, a bit of an all-rounder. I don’t mean to blow my own trumpet, but I could kick, pass and run. I think my time as fullback helped me develop a high skill level,” Hirovanaa says.

“Anna was really good at everything. She read the game so well and it became a case of ‘why have one good player on the pitch when you can have two’?”

Kendra Cocksedge, the most capped Black Fern of all time, is the most dominant player of the present generation. Hirovanaa believes her approach is quite different from the Canterbury halfback.

“I had my own style which was more intuitive, whereas [Cocksedge] has come through with Fiao'o Fa'amausili and grown into a great tactician and leader.

“I take a small interest in the game today. It’s changed so much from when I was playing. They get paid now so they have to be accountable for the way they perform. They still play for the love of the game but when you're in the limelight you can get entitled at the top. You can’t go anywhere without your club and roots.

“I don’t want to be too negative, but it was really hard watching the tour last year. I think they are heading in a much better direction now.”

Hirovanaa couldn’t be described as entitled. She trained six days a week, and often with men.

“Towards finals time at Marist, we used to play against the under 85kgs. We would live scrimmage with them and run backline moves. Men are quicker and stronger than women so instead of beating them physically, you have to adapt and find another way to succeed.”

Monique Hirovanaa (left) receives her 2003 World Women's Rugby Player of the Year from Gill Burns. Photo: Getty Images.

Hirovanaa won the Auckland senior club title with Marist seven times. So in 1999, the Buller men’s rep team lost all eight matches in Division III of the NPC. Coach Bernie Miller lobbied New Zealand Rugby to try and include Hirovanaa in the squad.

“If allowed, I would've played,” Hirovanaa laughs.

“Women playing against men wasn’t about women beating men. It was about challenging yourself and avoiding complacency, which playing women all the time doesn’t allow.”

The hard work paid off in 2002 for Hirovanaa. The Black Ferns sacrificed bacon, eggs, coffee, chocolate, alcohol and abided by strict curfews to defend the World Cup. They beat England, 19-9, in the final, flipping a shock defeat the year earlier.

Rugby News reported: “Hirovanaa pulled all the strings in a star performance, scoring one slick try when she scampered 25 metres down the sideline from a ruck, and then set up another for Cheryl Waaka after slicing through on a 20m run from a lineout. Hirovanaa also kept England pinned on defence with clever, well-placed high kicks, and she directed the forwards in several stinging, lengthy rolling mauls.”

Hirovanaa remembers the pressure put on her to perform in that game.

“I was told I was lucky to get the game. The coaches felt I wasn’t at my best, but I knew it was my last game, so I was just going to go out there and play,” she says.

“I don’t remember a lot of my games, because I was in the moment. But I remember the pass to Cheryl and the relief at the end. But to be honest, a lot of it is a blur.”

Hirovanaa has to keep a clear head in her shift work at the airport. Pre-covid, Auckland Airport operated 140 international flights from 45 destinations a day. During the height of the pandemic, she worked on border security and assisted with logistics.

She will be at the Black Ferns opening World Cup game against Australia at Eden Park on October 8. She played 24 tests and scored 13 tries, but those numbers do little to illustrate her impact.

In 1997, England arrived in Christchurch as reigning world champions and winners of 35 of 37 tests. In a legendary display, New Zealand beat England, 67-0, in a one-off test - with Hirovanaa scoring three tries.

Sometime later, Black Ferns selector and coach Vicky Dombroski met the late Queen Elizabeth II where she couldn’t remove that result from her head.

"I was invited to a function at Government House, wasn’t a dignitary, but somehow I ended up meeting the Governor-General and the Queen,” Dombroski recalls. “The Queen asked what I did, and I told her I was the New Zealand women’s rugby coach. She further queried, ‘Does England have a team?’ Without even thinking I responded, ‘Yeah we kicked your arse.'”

Where is she now? Pat Barwick

In his final story, written for LockerRoom, the late David Leggat spoke to former Black Sticks captain and coach Pat Barwick, who continues to give back to every part of hockey, even in her 'retirement'.

Pat Barwick has one claim to New Zealand sporting fame that few, if any, captains in any code in this country can match.

From her very first hockey international in 1971, Barwick was the New Zealand captain, and she retained the job until her last handful of games - before retiring after the Moscow Olympics were boycotted nine years later.

It would be nice to be able to detail exactly how many internationals Barwick played. Sadly, Hockey New Zealand have no detailed records beyond the last 25 years. However, Barwick suspects she racked up caps into the mid-nineties in international appearances, “but then we didn’t really count the build-up games,” she says. “Honestly, I’m not a stats person.”

It’s highly unusual to captain a national team on debut. Barwick, awarded an MNZM in 2013 and this year the prestigious Pakistan Trophy for outstanding service to hockey, has two theories on how and why she got the skipper’s job from the outset.

“I was 24 and I’d had no captaincy experience other than once with the New Zealand Universities team. I played centre half, or a bit of right half, and personally I think it’s almost positional,” she says.

“You’re in the middle of the pitch and you have the chance to talk to everyone. Maybe I did show some leadership skills – or maybe I was just bossy.” Barwick laughs.

But perhaps there’s another factor worth putting into the mix.

Pat Barwick receives her Member of the NZ Order of Merit medal from then Governor-General, Sir Jerry Mateparae. Photo: Government House. 

Barwick was born and raised on the family farm in Brunswick, 11km north-west of Whanganui. She was one of six siblings and as she tells it, the kids were all expected to pitch in and, to a degree, be self-sufficient.

You suspect also it was a ‘pull the sleeves up and get on with it’ kind of lifestyle; no faffing about.

“Because you were expected to do jobs on the farm, our parents would let us get on with it and they trusted us to be responsible,” Barwick says.

“I liked people, enjoyed working with people, and once I began teaching phys ed, I was pretty used to running round with people in a sporting environment.

“Maybe I was lucky that I had a personality that fitted in with lots of different people. I think I worked happily with people from all walks of life, so maybe it was natural for me.’’

There were 32 kids at Brunswick School, where Barwick initially learned to play tennis and netball.

“I’d never seen hockey until I went to watch the Indians play at Cooks Gardens in Wanganui with Dad,” she says. The Indian Wanderers beat Wanganui, 12-2, on that day in 1955.

“We were lucky to be athletic kids, and we had lots of phys ed games and activities which helped develop the body, your agility, balance and coordination. I rode my pony to school, did gymnastics on the lawn.  There was no interschool or club competition - we played another country school for just one winter and summer sports day.”

One of the few grainy photos Pat Barwick, running out to defend a penalty corner, has from her playing days. Photo: supplied. 

Barwick played competition netball in her first year at Wanganui Girls’ College, but had friends who were playing hockey. She tried it out in an end-of-season game, but being left-handed, she found it a challenge at first.

“I had no idea where I was going, but I ran all over the place and when I got home, apparently my comment was that it was much more fun because you can run anywhere.’’

Progress was rapid and Barwick was in the Wanganui senior rep team by Form Six (Year 12). Then it was off to Otago for three years doing a university diploma in physical education (when she made the NZ Universities team).

From there it was to Hawkes Bay and her first teaching job at William Colenso College – and also a significant step forward in her hockey.

She came across hockey legend Tom Turbitt, who was the Hawkes Bay coach. Turbitt, who sounds something of an innovator, was the first coach Barwick had who brought in aerobic training.

“He was the first to have fitness as a key aspect of women’s hockey in New Zealand. He taught me a lot from the beginning, I think the first time I was fit to play,” she says.

After four years in Hawkes Bay, it was off to Christchurch in 1971, where she’s remained ever since. “I’ve become a one-eyed red and black,” she laughs.

That was her first year in the New Zealand team.

Pat Barwick (2nd right) with the NZ team on their way to the IFWHA World Cup in Amsterdam in 1973. Photo: TheNZTeam.com

Those were the days of lengthy overseas tours and New Zealand were a worthy top-flight international side. It’s strange to reflect now but Barwick never lost until her final year... to either the Netherlands or Australia - now among the powerhouses of the women’s game.

That says something about the strength of the New Zealand game back then. “We were in the top three for most of the decade,” Barwick says.

She’s in no doubt about the playing highlight of her career – a 1-0 victory over England in 1977, before more than 60,000 fans at Wembley.

The goalscorer was her good friend Jenny McDonald, still the only individual hockey player in the New Zealand Sports Hall of Fame, alongside the men’s Olympic champions of 1976.

“The best player I played with,’’ Barwick reflects on McDonald, who took on the New Zealand captaincy after her. “Fantastic, very skilful, and an absolute instinct for goalscoring. She seemed to always know where the goal was. She could have played any decade and would have been superb.’’

The lowest point of Barwick’s career was just round the corner. The uniforms were in the cupboard, plans were in place to head off in three weeks and prepare for the Moscow Olympics in 1980… and then came the Western boycott led by the United States over Russia’s invasion of Afghanistan.

“It was a pretty disappointing time. It was looking likely to happen and five or six of us had been in the team most of that decade and were getting on a bit. It was to be the inaugural women’s Olympic tournament,’’ she says. “We had a very good team.”

A reunion of the NZ women's hockey team who did not get to play at the boycotted 1980 Moscow Olympics. Photo: NZOC/Getty

Barwick is long over the experience now, although a reunion organised by the New Zealand Olympic Committee a few years ago was revealing.

“You can’t be bitter about it forever and I certainly haven’t been – but I know some who have. I thought you can’t live with that all your life,” she says.

So Barwick retired and stepped straight into coaching Canterbury - leading the province to five straight national titles and two Top Six championship wins.

She helped Wayne Boyd as the national coaching assistant – guiding the New Zealand team to fourth at the 1986 World Cup - before taking over as head coach in 1987, a role she held for five years.

The transition from New Zealand player and captain to coach was easier than she may have anticipated. Boyd’s guidance helped, plus Barwick reflects “my background experiences and PE teaching made me feel confident to be a coach at that level’’.  

Barwick went through another Olympic disappointment when the FIH didn’t invite New Zealand to the 1988 Seoul Olympics: “They didn’t think we had a team capable.”

She took the New Zealand team to the 1990 World Cup, where they finished seventh, and then the 1992 Olympics in Barcelona. The Black Sticks had high hopes – having finished second in the Olympic qualifying tournament at home in Auckland – that a medal in Barcelona could be on the cards.

But the New Zealand team were short on preparation, and while the rest of the world played many lead-up matches, the Kiwis had slipped behind. “When we got to Europe, we realised we hadn’t had enough preparation,” Barwick says. They didn’t win a game, finishing eighth of eight.

“It was really hot – a nightmare. We couldn’t cope with the heat and just got more and more worn out.” 

Black Sticks coach Pat Barwick on the cover of a 1992 coaching magazine. Photo: TheNZTeam.com

Barwick stood down after Barcelona. “It was a huge commitment and I’d had to leave teaching at Papanui High to do it,” she says.

At the start of her New Zealand stint, she’d held down two fulltime jobs (and was only paid for one, of course) and travelled almost every weekend to stay in touch with players. “I loved it, but it was a very different world then.”

Hockey – and coaching - never released their grip on her. She’s now recognised as one of the leading coaching experts in the country, across all codes.

When she was awarded the prestigious Pakistan Trophy this year, her citation read: “Her achievements and contribution have been magnificent for many years, none more so than the past 12 months.”

Barwick continues to work with Canterbury, Hockey NZ and her club, Carlton Redcliffs, to bring through more young coaches, and therefore players.  She’s loved working with Sport NZ to develop a new approach to coaching coaches, through the Coach Developer programme. 

“It’s about mentoring and helping people become better at being themselves. I like to see people grow as coaches – not about you being a clone of me,” Barwick says. “And that’s right across the board of sporting codes. Mentoring in the Coaching for Impact programme has also been great.

“It’s a passion of mine – the whole realm of coaching people and the psychology of interaction and leadership.”

Three Hawkes Bay women who played for and coached the Black Sticks: (from left) Pat Barwick, Shirley Eddy and Margaret Hiha. Photo: NZME.

After being the only female head coach in the entire New Zealand Olympic team in 1992, Barwick has been a strong advocate for growing women coaches, supporting Hockey NZ’s Women in Coaching programme, and helping create their national community coaching programme too. 

“I love being able to help. I’m sort of retired – but I call it realigned,” Barwick, now 75, says. She enjoys spending the odd day in her garden too. “I’ll keep doing as much as I can or want to, but I can say ‘no’.”

When she looks back at what’s been most satisfying in her career, it’s meeting up with the people she’s played with and coached, who talk about the fun they had in her teams.

“They say they had a good time as well as a hard, competitive, challenging time. And that it’s always been fun, which underlines for me what sport should be about,” she says. “That’s the joy for me.”

* Esteemed sports journalist David Leggat had almost completed this story, when he died suddenly in Italy last month. With the help of his exceptional note-taking, transcribing and bullet points - and the assistance of Pat Barwick - we were able to finish the story for him. LockerRoom is grateful to the Leggat family for their help in making sure his final piece was published. 

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