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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.”

Sky Sport's 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. 

Weak Sunshine series creates hotspots in Silver Ferns

With the end goal defending next year's Netball World Cup, what can the Silver Ferns take from the frustrating series against Jamaica? And who's put a hand up to play Australia? Merryn Anderson reports.

It wasn’t the intense, competitive series the Silver Ferns had wished for, but the two tests against a depleted Jamaica have increased competition inside the Ferns camp as they turn to their next challenge, Australia.

Silver Ferns coach Dame Noeline Taurua now has a dilemma on her hands, with players who didn’t make the line-up for last month’s Commonwealth Games coming out firing over the last two days. And they’re hungry to retain their place in the team for the Constellation Cup in less than three weeks’ time, and stay there for the Netball World Cup in 10 months' time.   

Players like Mila Reuelu-Buchanan, who made only her second appearance in the black dress on Wednesday, but earned a full match at wing attack in the second test of the Taini Jamison Trophy series last night. And Elle Temu, who made her debut and showed the start of a potential game-winning partnership with Kelly Jury in the defensive circle. 

The return of captain Ameliaranne Ekenasio was a welcome sight to Ferns fans and to Taurua; picking up where she left off 18 months ago, with all but one of her silky smooth long range shots hitting the target across two tests, and strengthening her links with Maia Wilson and making a new connection with Grace Nweke in the shooting circle.

Obviously, Taurua would have liked more of the vigorous competition they'd got six weeks ago from a Jamaican side who won Commonwealth Games silver - as the Silver Ferns dominated last night’s second test, 75-35, following on from their 70-45 victory the night before. 

Yes, the Ferns could have been more consistent, and been sharper with their finishing touches. But still Taurua was happy with what she got from the longer-than-expected training stint and the two tests, when it looked for a while as though there might not be any. 

It was a good stepping stone, she said, to the Ferns’ four tests against the newly-minted Commonwealth Games champions next month. “We’re ready to take Australia on," Taurua said. 

“For us to play against Australia, then we’ll really know what we’re made of and that’s exciting. It’s cool to be challenged in that way.”

So often the problem area for the Ferns, the shooters all had a fantastic series - shooting at 91 percent and 96 percent in the two games. In fact, they missed only three attempts at goal last night. Nweke stood out in the first test at goal shoot, but Wilson, who created a more mobile circle, was impressive with her 30 from 31 in the second half last night.

But that was without the immense pressure of Jamaica's Shamera Sterling, one of the world’s top defenders, who had the Ferns shooters shaken in Birmingham. 

Grace Nweke shot 25 from 26 in two quarters of the Ferns' 75-35 victory over Jamaica last night. Photo: Getty Images. 

A three-match series would have been the perfect preparation for the Silver Ferns at stage of their journey towards next year's Netball World Cup, but a string of seemingly never-ending issues for the Jamaicans made for an underwhelming series.

Without their stars like Sterling and Jhaniele Fowler, they arrived here with only seven players, who ended up playing back-to-back full games. By the second half last night, they were run ragged by the Silver Ferns, who made the most of their substitutions.

Taurua said after the first test had New Zealand been in that position, they wouldn’t have competed. “Player welfare is really important, not only for the seven that’s out there. Acknowledging as well the travel, so there’s always a fatigue element that comes into it,” she said. 

World Netball have announced they will undergo a full investigation of the series, and focus on why Jamaica couldn’t field a full team in New Zealand. “Those things need to be asked of Netball Jamaica, in protection of their players, but also I think for World Netball and the product we want to put out on court,” said Taurua. “That we are a legitimate sport and we are professional both on and off court.”

But the series was still a chance for the Ferns to build combinations, especially in the midcourt where they were without the seasoned Shannon Saunders and Gina Crampton. It was also the first time Temu, Reuelu-Buchanan and Maddy Gordon had encountered the unique Caribbean style of play. 

“Irrelevant of the [Jamaican] players out there, they still play that same way and that same flavour,” Taurua said, aware that it took the Ferns a long time to adjust to the Sunshine Girls’ style of play at the Commonwealth Games. 

With the 2023 Netball World Cup played across just 10 days, the Ferns needed to practise backing up their performances with a tight turnaround. 

The good

A definite highlight was seeing Temu make her debut in the first test and play a full 60 minutes at goal defence. The tears streaming down her face during the national anthem were proof of how much the moment meant to the 24-year-old, who finished the game with two intercepts and two gains, while also providing support in the midcourt. 

She continued to build her reputation, getting the start in the second test, and playing another 30 minutes with Jury. 

Ekenasio made a stellar return to international netball after having her second child - and her body stood up well to the pressure, she said. She shot at 100 percent from her seven attempts in the first game, and 16 from 17 over three quarters in the second. 

Her new combination with the young Nweke was strong, and she fell back into rhythm with Wilson. 

“With Grace being such a weapon behind there, and Meels [Ekenasio] being a weapon in regards to her shooting and her volume, it’s still finding its feet. The combination is growing,” coach Taurua said. “Even having the change-ups is really good - with Maia [Wilson] going out there, it provides us with a moving circle and we can get a bit more speed.” 

Maddy Gordon, playing at wing attack in game one, showed she had the confidence to let the ball go to the target of Nweke at the back; a confidence Reulu-Buchanan carried into the second game. 

Reulu-Buchanan finished a full game with the most centre pass receives, feeds and goal assists last night. She’ll be fierce competition for Crampton in the battle for the wing attack bib next year, but she still needs international experience against testing opposition under her belt.

The not-so-good

In the first test, the Ferns had an 11-goal lead at the first quarter break, but couldn’t repeat that margin in the other quarters - only winning the final stanza by four, their momentum slowing as they adjusted to the changes. Some of that could be attributed to the Jamaicans improving, too, finding their connections as the game went on. 

Taurua wasn't as happy with their start in the second test, with moments of lapses, she said. But she felt they showed signs of hitting their form building on their 36-22 halftime score.

The New Zealanders also lost their first centre pass in every quarter in the first test, which raised an alarm with Taurua, too. But it wasn’t an issue in the second.

With Kate Heffernan a last-minute absence from the series with a toe infection, the Silver Ferns struggled to find the perfect wing defence. Phoenix Karaka slotted in, but didn’t make much of an impact, immediately finding her groove when moved to the in-circle defence. Kayla Johnson was unconvincing in her time there, as Heffernan’s speed and grit on defence was sorely missed. 

“Playing wing d is a whole new position for me…but to be up there has really opened my vision,” said Karaka, who felt she went looking for more ball when she went back to goal defence. 

What lies ahead

The Silver Ferns kick off the Constellation Cup on October 12 in Auckland - the first of two home games, followed by two away games.

New Zealand and Australia didn't meet at the Commonwealth Games - for the first time in their history. But back in 2021, it was New Zealand who came out victorious for only the second time in the Constellation Cup’s 11-year history. 

There may be a Quad Series in the Northern Hemisphere in January, but with nothing confirmed, this could have been the only time the Kiwis face the Sunshine Girls before the World Cup in Cape Town next July. 

The Ferns will look to have a few experienced heads back for the pinnacle event. 

Jane Watson is raring to return after having her first baby, and Gina Crampton will return from her sabbatical. Karin Burger also won’t let anything stop her from playing a World Cup in her country of birth, after foot surgery ruled her out of the Commonwealth Games. 

Two more of the winning 2019 team are unlikely but possible inclusions - expecting mum Shannon Saunders and second-time mum Katrina Rore, who’s unsigned to any ANZ Premiership teams in 2023.

For the team who pulled off a miracle turnaround to win the 2019 World Cup, it seems like a much easier journey to the top this time.

There’s still a way to go, but for now at least, the Ferns are ready for the Diamonds. 

Life's a beach for busy Black Fin

Industrious and talented, Olivia Corrin has represented NZ in multiple sports, but found her true calling in surf lifesaving. Merryn Anderson speaks to the Black Fin and Ironwoman ahead of the world champs.

We all have the same 24 hours in a day, but somehow Olivia Corrin manages to fit a week’s worth of work into one day.  

The 21-year-old begins her day with a swim, then goes to the gym or for a run, and returns home to study for around four hours. She trains some more in the afternoon, then heads to work as a waitress at her local surf lifesaving club in the evenings.  

But the gruelling schedule is all worth it for the multi-talented, Gisborne-born surf lifesaver, who was 10th in the Nutri-Grain IronWoman competition this summer and is now in Italy, back in the Black Fins, for next week’s lifesaving world championships.  

Corrin has been used to full-on agendas since she was a kid. She’s represented New Zealand in three sports – trampolining, swimming and surf lifesaving - and at 14, was identified as a potential New Zealand triathlon star. 

But it was lifesaving that won out – a sport she started when she was just five.  

Corrin now lives on the Gold Coast, moving there after graduating from Gisborne Girls’ High School to pursue her childhood dream of competing at an IronWoman series in Australia.  

Last year she was forced to withdraw from the professional series after three rounds with a labral tear in her shoulder. But this summer, everything came together.  

“Finally everything clicked for me and I had a really good routine going - training, study and working - it just all seemed to line up,” Corrin says.  

Corrin competing in the 2018 lifesaving world champs in Australia where she won the ocean women's relay. Photo: Surf Lifesaving NZ/Alana McIsaac

Being accustomed to demanding routines has set Corrin up perfectly for the latest lifesaving world championships in Riccione, where she'll be busy.

The world champs are finally taking place after a two-year delay due to Covid, and there are 47 events spread across pool rescue, ocean and beach disciplines. 

Corrin’s specialities are the beach and ocean racing, and she was a world champion in 2018 in the ocean women’s relay. But as a crossover athlete, she’ll be competing in all three disciplines across six days.  

She hasn’t competed in surf lifesaving for New Zealand for a few years, due to Covid restrictions, but remained in touch with the Black Fins team, who were eager to have her back.

“Everyone seems to have got together and connected really well again, so it’s getting very exciting to head away and race,” she says.  

Corrin was just 10 years old when she saw an IronWoman race on TV, and knew she wanted to be there one day.  

“That was my dream, watching them run around the course and racing in all that surf against the best of the best, I really wanted to do that,” she says.  

She learned to swim before she learned to read and write - put in swimming lessons at a young age in order to be safe at the beach.  

Her family were at the Midway Surf Life Saving Club one weekend, and Rocky Hall (a legend of the club, says Corrin) approached them to suggest little Olivia try out nippers, the under-11 programme.  

“When I was five, I went down on a Sunday morning and haven’t stopped since,” Corrin says.  

Corrin is looking forward to donning the black cap again, after Covid disruptions. Photo: Surf Lifesaving NZ/Alana McIsaac

Corrin’s trips to Australia started as a teenager, a competitive swimmer through school, spending two weeks across the ditch during holidays for surf lifesaving training.  

There weren’t many older girls for Corrin to look up to back home at Midway. “There were a lot more boys doing the sport, that’s for sure,” she says.  

“As I got older, a lot of the girls seemed to drop out, whether they were going to uni or just weren’t interested in the sport anymore.”  

Corrin is studying a Bachelor of Arts remotely through Massey University, majoring in education and minoring in psychology, to go into teaching at a primary school.  

“I actually really enjoy doing it distance so I can get into my own routine and I don’t have to leave my house,” she jokes.  

The tough move away from family was necessary for Corrin however, to keep her at the top of her game and in a high performance environment.  

“I definitely can see the difference between the amount of girls who do it back home compared to here,” she says from her new home on the Gold Coast.  

“It is kind of sad, at nationals when there’s only one or two heats and then a final, or even a straight final sometimes, it just kind of takes away that prestigious title to it.”  

Last summer’s Nutri-Grain IronMan and IronWoman series was broadcast on Sky Sport back in New Zealand - a move Corrin hopes furthers the reach of surf lifesaving, and inspires girls like Corrin was a decade ago.  

“I’m hoping all those young girls looking up to us want to follow in our footsteps and put their foot on the line,” she says. 

Thanks to her 10th place finish this year, she automatically qualifies for next year’s IronWoman, and hopes to further the reach of the sport, especially to girls.  

Her advice to anyone interested in competing in surf lifesaving or an IronWoman series is simply to enjoy it - advice she’s taken to make herself a better athlete.  

“If you’re not enjoying it and you don’t love it, there’s kind of no point,” Corrin says.  

“When I was growing up, I set such high expectations for myself. But I kind of didn’t really enjoy racing every time it came to a competition, because I’d get so nervous.  

“But now I’ve learnt to deal with that and my emotions. So definitely learn to have fun and don’t put pressure on yourself.”  

Ferns caught in double Caribbean confusion

In a week where both the Silver Ferns and White Ferns seek revenge over their Caribbean rivals, their encounters on opposite sides of the globe just become more and more curious. 

If you’re a sportswoman wearing the silver fern and facing a team from the Caribbean right now, it pays to be prepared for the unexpected. The improbable. And the just plain bizarre.

Take the Silver Ferns. It wasn’t until yesterday afternoon they could confidently say they’d be playing the Commonwealth Games silver medallists, Jamaica, tonight - after a chain reaction of troubles for the Sunshine Girls.

Netball New Zealand has been determined this Taini Jamison Trophy series – albeit an abbreviated one – goes ahead, as an important step in the Silver Ferns’ long-game plan to defend the World Cup next year.  

They would never go as far as handing over top-level Kiwi players to help fill the Jamaican bench, after the visitors arrived in Auckland with the bare minimum seven athletes on Monday. Illegibility rules would have turned the two tests into friendlies.

But Netball NZ say they’ve been “incredibly supportive” in helping Jamaica to cast a net as far as Australia to find Jamaican netballers to come to their rescue.

Now there will be 10 players lining up to sing ‘Jamaica, Land We Love’ in front of a sold-out Eventfinda Stadium in the first of two tests tonight.

The first to answer the call was Adelaide nurse Carla Borrego, on a hospital shift when she got the invitation. Borrego is not just any fill-in. The prolific shooter starred for Jamaica at the 2003 World Cup and helped the Adelaide Thunderbirds to two ANZ Championship titles before retiring in 2016.

And then on the morning of the first test, former Jamaican shooting sensation Romelda Aiken-George (who's just had her first child) was named in the squad, alongside Jamaican coach Connie Francis – another of the legendary Sunshine Girls – who's put herself on the bench as player/coach.

Carla Borrego (left) shoots for Adelaide Thunderbirds up against Anna Galvan of the Tactix in the 2012 ANZ Championship. Photo: Getty Images. 

And then you take the White Ferns.

The first ODI against the West Indies in Antigua yesterday had an almost farcical ending when the two umpires whipped off the bails – with New Zealand still seeking 10 runs off the final 12 balls for the win.

At the crease ready to face the next over, White Ferns star allrounder Melie Kerr was as bewildered as anyone on and off the field when the game was concluded prematurely – and it wasn't certain who’d won.

“There was a little bit of confusion; the umpires kind of just said ‘time’ because of the light and I wasn’t really too sure what was going on,” Kerr, three runs short of a half century, said afterwards.

But White Ferns captain Sophie Devine strode out into the middle clutching a sheet of paper to show West Indies captain Hayley Matthews that New Zealand had been declared victors by five runs – thanks to the Duckworth-Lewis-Stern mathematical formulation.  

It’s been an interesting tour so far for the New Zealanders, after the first match on Saturday was postponed by Tropical Storm Fiona, which dumped heavy rain on Antigua – then turned into a hurricane causing devastation in Puerto Rico.

The start of yesterday’s game was delayed – despite clear blue skies – as match officials decided the Sir Vivian Richards Stadium pitch was too soggy.

White Ferns wicketkeeper Izzy Gaze celebrates with bowler Jess Kerr after taking one of two West Indies wickets in Antigua. Photo: NZ Cricket. 

Nevertheless, the White Ferns – looking for revenge after losing to the Windies at the World Cup opener in Tauranga back in March - came out one-up in the eight-match tour, with the second ODI (of three) on Friday.

Now it’s up to the Silver Ferns to do the same in Auckland tonight.

Had all gone to plan, and the full Jamaican squad who slammed the Ferns by 16 goals at the Commonwealth Games six weeks ago arrived in New Zealand – and on time – it may have been a tougher challenge.

The last time they played here, in 2018, Jamaica shocked the Ferns with back-to-back victories, taking out the Taini Jamison Trophy. And this time, the Silver Ferns are without some of their most experienced players - Gina Crampton, Shannon Saunders, Karin Burger and Jane Watson. 

But since the plan has seriously unravelled over the past week, the Silver Ferns are now the favourites in this truncated test series.

It’s been a frustrating week which will hurt Netball New Zealand financially - forced to cancel two almost sold-old tests at Hamilton's Globox Arena last weekend and find another venue in Auckland (the second test is at Bruce Pulman Arena in Papakura on Thursday).

But if you’re trying to put a positive spin on it, no one enjoys a twist in the tail as much as Silver Ferns coach Dame Noeline Taurua. She prepares for all scenarios, it seems, and that’s why it was so important this series went ahead.

Netball NZ CEO, Jennie Wyllie, explains. “We know Noels always has a bigger plan, and that was evident at the conclusion of the Commonwealth Games,” she says, referring to the play-off for bronze, when the Ferns found their rhythm and beat defending champions England.

“Every part of the programme is engineered within an inch of its life for the value it will add. And that’s why maintaining the momentum we have from the Commonwealth Games is so important. We have to take these opportunities to test ourselves against them.”

Netball NZ CEO Jennie Wyllie with the Netball World Cup trophy, back on the line next year in South Africa. Photo: Getty Images.

When the Jamaicans last week named an almost unrecognisable team – missing all but three of those who’d just put up a valiant fight against the champion Australians in the Games final in Birmingham – it looked disappointing.

Things only got worse from there - with Jamaican passports stuck in Washington DC, visas held up, ongoing logistical nightmares to get the team here, and then only seven players actually arriving on Monday.

But again, Wyllie looks at the bright side.

“None of [what’s happened] is ideal - but we really want to play this team,” she says. “They have a style we need to play before we meet them at the Netball World Cup. And there’s still a bit of hurt from the Commonwealth Games.

“Sport is a fickle thing - anyone is just one injury away from not being in the team. So we need to have a good look at this new up-and-coming roster of Jamaican players, who could be at the World Cup next year.”

The last four years – from the review into the Silver Ferns’ dire performance in 2018, and the havoc the global pandemic wreaked on the sport – have helped Netball NZ to deal with the dilemmas of the past week.

“We have around us a group who’ve learned to be agile, flexible, think differently and problem solve,” Wyllie says. “We’ve been able to reach this point through really focused problem solving because we’ve been here before. We’ve done this continuously over the last few years.

“When we signed the contract with Jamaica back in June, we never anticipated the level of challenges that we’ve faced. But you can only control the things you can control, and that’s what we’ve done.”

Jamaica’s assistant coach on this tour, Annette Daley, told NZME the team’s visa delays and failure to get five more players out of Jamaica had been out of their control, but they were trying not to get anxious over it. They’ve also trained for these kind of “what if” scenarios.

"It is how you manage those situations that are important and those are areas that we are working on with the ladies," she said.

Back in Antigua, the White Ferns didn’t get too apprehensive waiting another three-and-a-half hours for their series – 3 ODIs, 5 T20s – to finally get underway. Despite clear skies, a wet pitch reduced yesterday’s game to 35 overs a piece.

“It was a weird finish, and it’s been a bit of a weird day as well, waiting around while it’s sunny. But I guess that’s cricket,” Kerr said afterwards.

When they were out in the middle, it was a tight battle especially when the White Ferns’ required run rate hovered around a run a ball towards the end of their innings.

New Zealand’s bowling attack had limited the West Indies to 168 for 7, with Jess Kerr and Fran Jonas taking two wickets each.

The White Ferns then came out strongly - Devine and Suzie Bates setting the team up well, with Bates departing for a well-made 51 - her 29th ODI half-century.

After a couple of Kiwi wickets falling cheaply, Melie Kerr (47* off 67 balls) and Brooke Halliday were conferring on how to play the final two overs, with conditions getting dark quickly and the White Ferns needing 10 off the final 12 deliveries.

Then the umpires called the game off. “Brooke seemed to know that we had won the game… I wasn’t quite sure, the West Indies thought they’d won,” Kerr says.

“I think we set up the game nicely and it wasn’t the easiest wicket to play on, but with 10 runs to get off 12 balls, you back yourself to do that…  We won’t know what would have happened, but I guess if we were out there, we would have backed ourselves to.”

Putting women's rugby on the world stage

New Zealand has produced some brilliant female rugby players in recent times and the game is gaining traction - but it still lags a long way behind the men's game. Hopes are high that next month's Rugby World Cup will bring the level of attention required to speed up the progress of women's rugby.

If last week's launch of the women's Rugby World Cup is anything to go by it is going to be an exciting event - unpredictable, entertaining, a groundbreaker on and off the field. 

And that's exactly what the organisers want me to say. Job done.

The launch function on the spaceship-like rooftop of the Auckland Museum - overlooking the city as the sun went down - was a who's who of women's rugby. 

There must have been some, but I didn't see any recognisable faces from New Zealand Rugby (NZR) management. Sir Brian Williams, All Black legend and life member of NZR said he was delighted to be there and told me that his Ponsonby club was a kind of pioneer of women's rugby with teams as far back as the 1980s.

I sat at the table with Black Fern Ruby Tui and a former men's Sevens star. He'd been to plenty of events like this for the men's game but says you can't compare. For a start, former Black Fern Vania Wolfgramm was at the event with her baby, who was being passed around and kissed and cuddled by his "aunties".

The ex-player commented that the equivalent men's functions would be stiff, controlled and controlling.

It was also the auspicious day marking the 50th anniversary of the Māori language petition and te reo Māori was being spoken almost as much as te reo Pākehā. 

Newsroom's LockerRoom editor Suzanne McFadden talks to The Detail about the state of women's rugby and the big dreams for the Covid-delayed World Cup 2021, starting on October 8.

"There's a lot hanging on it. It's about everybody working together on this one, the media doing a good job informing people who then want to go to the games, who take their children, who see new role models in women rugby players, that New Zealand Rugby responds and makes rugby a better sport for young women to play. I think we all should feel responsible for this," she says.

"This is a major world tournament with incredible athletes."

At the launch event, called For Our Sisters, guests were repeatedly urged to spread the word about the World Cup and support the Black Ferns and the wahine toa of the other 11 nations competing. 

McFadden says the support is crucial for a game that even at international level is lucky to get a few thousand turning up to watch. She says the Black Ferns are not used to the spotlight and are "almost grateful" for the media attention.

"You're never quite sure what they're going to say or talk about when you sit down with them and I love them for that."

She tells The Detail about some of the incredible stories of the 32-member squad, such as Renee Wickliffe and Portia Woodman, who are engaged to be married. Both have suffered a spate of cruel injuries but together have worked and supported each other to get back on the playing field and be selected for the Ferns.

LockerRoom's Suzanne McFadden (left) with track and field athlete Sarah Cowley Ross during the Rugby World Cup Dinner Event at Auckland Museum. Photo: Fiona Goodall/Getty Images for New Zealand Rugby

Many have got to the top with little financial support from the sport but the World Cup is their chance to show that women’s rugby is just as skilled and exciting as the men's game, she says.

One of the goals of the tournament is to attract record numbers to the opening day at Eden Park on October 8 when fans will be able to watch three matches - six international teams - and be entertained by singer Rita Ora with tickets as cheap as $5 for children and $10 for adults.

But don't expect the same fanfare England's Lionnesses received when they won the European football championship last month in front of a crowd of 90,000.

"Women's rugby is a little way behind that but it's the dream that New Zealanders will turn out in big numbers to watch these games," she says.

There are also high hopes that the World Cup will make a difference at grassroots rugby where female players still do not have access to the same facilities as men at clubs. 

"I think we'll see a surge in the numbers of girls and women playing the game and that's a natural reaction that you get after a big event like this but that is where New Zealand Rugby has to capitalise on this and make it easy for girls to play," McFadden says.

"We're still seeing stories about clubrooms around the country with no changing rooms for women, no training fields set aside for women."

She says it is ironic that in the week the squad was named and the celebration was held, New Zealand Rugby was penalised $280,000 by Sport NZ in its funding allocation for failing its gender quota of 40 percent women on its governing board.

"If you start at the very top of New Zealand Rugby there still aren't enough women on its board, there still aren't enough women leaders, there still aren't enough women coaches.

"New Zealand Rugby still has a lot of work to do."

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Wayne Smith: Avalanche uncovers gold mine

Rugby's professor Wayne Smith tells Jim Kayes where he's worried for the Black Ferns in their Rugby World Cup defence and why coaching them is one of the best things he's done.

Wayne Smith says the Black Ferns will play with passion and pace, but he's worried about the size and power of the English and French packs at the Rugby World Cup next month.

“We will go well, I reckon, we will play with heart,” the storied former All Blacks coach says.  “Whether we can catch up with these big, professional teams from Europe, I don’t know. But we will give it a good crack."

Smith, now director of coaching for the New Zealand women, watched England’s pack roll over the top of the Black Ferns on their Northern Tour last November. The Roses and France each won consecutive tests in a historic four-test run of losses for New Zealand.

Smith says professionalism has tilted the balance of power away from the women’s game here.

“You just have to go on YouTube and see the English players training in the gym," he says. "They are three years down the track in terms of professionalism; their premiership’s professional. France are similar, they have a professional competition.

“Until three or four years ago, women’s rugby [professionally] was an even playing field so things like talent and upbringing clearly advantaged us in New Zealand.

“We had young women coming through who had played backyard rugby with their brothers and had played junior rugby, and had fantastic skills and ability and talent.

“What’s happened is that professionalism has created, not a chasm, but certainly a difference between them and us.”

Wayne Smith and the Black Ferns are all smiles after winning the Laurie O'Reilly Cup in August. Photo: Getty Images

Smith has brought in some heavyweights to help bridge the gap with Mike Cron, the scrum guru who had 16 years with the All Blacks, helping with the forwards and All Blacks legend Dan Carter has worked with the kickers.

But Smith remains wary.

“We are catching up but I am still nervous about giving penalties away, about balls being kicked into the corners and those big packs rumbling through for tries," he says.

“So we have to be smart about how we play.  We can match them for speed and skill and passion, we just have to be really smart about how we attack them.

“The game that I have always coached is not over-instructed.  I understand the need for a good set piece strike and a couple of phases that are sequenced, but after that the game is unstructured.

“The biggest challenge for me has been freeing the women up to play that unstructured game because that’s 60 percent of the game - or even 70 percent."

And the Black Ferns, who went into camp for the Rugby World Cup yesterday, are rising to the challenge. 

"We are not perfect, that’s for sure, but there is a real desire to play attacking rugby," he says. 

When asked the difference between coaching men and women, Smith looks off the field for the answer.  “It’s that whole struggle, nothing has been easy for them.  The All Blacks are the pinnacle, the jersey is revered and you’ve got a lot of young men who have prepared for it through school and academies for most of their life," he says.

“But you want to see a Black Ferns jersey presentation - you’ve never seen anything like it.  You talk about cherishing a jersey…”.

Smith points to Lucy Anderson, who debuted against the USA in June, as evidence of the desire that courses through the women who pull on the black shirt.

“She’d been trying for 12 years to get into the Black Ferns.  She started as a 12, migrated to No.8 and finally got in the Black Ferns as a tighthead prop.  Imagine that - 12 years and three different positions and you finally got the jersey.

“It’s a hell of an emotional ride for a lot of these ladies and it’s just fantastic seeing how much it means to them.”

The Black Ferns coaching staff - Whitney Hansen, Wes Clarke and Wayne Smith deep in discussion. Photo: NZ Rugby

Smith was reluctant to take over the Black Ferns head coaching role after the messy departure of World Cup-winning head coach Glenn Moore following a review earlier this year into the team’s culture.

“I didn’t know the players,” Smith explains.  “I’d watched a few games with interest on tour but nothing more than that. I hadn’t analysed anything and I felt really unprepared.”

It was an uncomfortable feeling for a man used to being the driving force behind the All Blacks rugby smarts, the coach Sir Graham Henry reckons is the best New Zealand has ever produced.

“I felt like I had been caught up in an avalanche,” Smith said. “I realise now I was in an avalanche, but I have landed on a gold mine. It’s one of the best things I’ve done.”

Part of that is because the Black Ferns are a team Smith can easily identify with.  A product of the amateur era, who coached at an elite level in the professional era, Smith adores the commitment and dedication of his new team.

“I love the attitude within the team.  The struggle these girls have had really resonates with me because it’s what we had to do back in my day - you had to work or study, fit in your rugby early in the morning, lunchtime, train at night," he says.

“We have got teachers, lawyers, students, engineers, it is a hell of a bright team with a huge social conscience.  It’s a hell of a privilege to be involved with them and I’m so glad I got talked into the role.”

After the World Cup, Smith, now 65, will happily slip back to a measure of anonymity at Waihi Beach where he now lives with his wife, Trish.  The couple plan on travelling in the near future, but coaching will never be far away.

“It’s in my blood, I love it, I love the whole team thing and, even for a short time, being part of a club or a culture is outstanding.”

But he ruled out a return to the All Blacks.

“I’m past those days. They are the greatest years of your life, but I always felt the responsibility keenly," Smith says.

“I’m a real optimist so if we lost a game I always thought it would be our day next week. But there is a lot of pressure, constantly.

“It’s a challenging role and I’m enjoying watching it rather than coaching it.”

*The Black Ferns take on Japan on Saturday, their final build-up game ahead of their opening match of the Rugby World Cup on October 8. Catch the game live on Sky Sport 1 from 4pm. 

Marathon champ finds her stride at 44

The new Rotorua Marathon champion, Mel Brandon, hasn't had the most conventional running career. But she's found her stride at 44, making her three kids proud. 

Mel Brandon took up running when she was 37, to help her navigate her way through a marriage break-up. And then she just kept going.

There have been multiple hurdles to stride over along the road. Before she could even start pounding the pavements in earnest, she had to undergo surgery that allowed her to run.

She's managed to hold down a full-time job (and recently, two) and raise her three kids as a single mum. She takes them to their sports - while fitting in 100km a week of her own training to be a competitive marathon runner.

And now at 44, Brandon is not just out there taking part – she’s winning. Her latest victory, the first woman home in the Rotorua Marathon on Saturday. 

And while she had four medals draped around her neck at the race prizegiving, Brandon’s ultimate reward is to make her teenage children proud and be an inspiration to them – and to other mums.

“The kids are my ultimate driver. I think about them while I’m running, particularly when I’m racing,” says the mother of two daughters, aged 15 and 13, and an 11-year-old son. “They’re my mental pick-me-up when I’m struggling; they give me that extra push to keep going.

“I just want to make them proud. There have been sacrifices, like evenings when I could be watching a movie with them and I’m out doing an hour’s run. Or occasionally dinner is late and their sweaty mum is trying to throw food on the table.

“But my eldest told me recently: ‘You are a really good role model for us, Mum. I want to be a strong, independent woman like you when I grow up’. That bowled me over.”

While Mel Brandon has loved road running, she sees her future on the trails. Photo: supplied. 

This is her seventh year running, and Brandon has never had more success. This year, she’s set new personal best times over 10km and the half marathon and won the first ultramarathon she’d ever entered.

She puts her success down to still having “young running legs” that haven’t been worn out over the years. But her age gives her another advantage.

“For these longer events, you need mental resilience and life experience to push through when things start getting a little dark out there,” she laughs.

Her winning time over 42.2km in Rotorua, of 3h 00m 08s, was a way off her goal to better her personal best time of 2h 53m 22s (set winning last year’s Wairarapa Marathon).

“But getting a win here is still quite amazing,” she says afterwards. She also won her 40-44 age group, and the national masters championship with her performance. 

Although she was late discovering running in adulthood, Brandon reckons she must have had some natural talent. She was the fastest girl at Ngaio School in Wellington – a school with a long running heritage - and competed for the Onslow Amateur Athletic Club as a kid across all the sprint distances.

But when she got to Wellington Girls’ College, netball became her No.1 sport and athletics fell away. “But even then, I was never really encouraged to be sporty, and I don’t recall having any role models in sport,” she says.

She headed overseas at 20, and stayed active by biking, hiking and kayaking. But it wasn’t until after her third child was born she got serious about her fitness and wellbeing.

Before she could run, she needed surgery to repair “serious damage” she suffered having children. “There was no chance of me running before I had that surgery,” she says.

“After my first half marathon I was just grateful to finish and have nothing go wrong, so I saw that as a major accomplishment.”

Brandon started by running the Round the Bays in Wellington with work colleagues. She enjoyed the training so much, she carried on and realised she hadn't lost the ability to run fast as she had as a kid.

When she decided to become competitive, there were more hurdles. “It was really hard - I had a full-on job,” she says.

"The kids were younger, and I had them week about, so on the weeks I had them, I’d do no training, and when they weren’t with me, I’d run. It was good for me to fill up the gaps when they weren’t there, being proactive and not pining for them.

“Then as I got more into it, the week on, week off training wasn’t really conducive, so I got a treadmill in the lounge, which the kids thought was pretty neat.”

Mel Brandon receives her winner's bouquet from Athletics NZ head Pete Pfitzinger at the Rotorua Marathon. Photo: Aaron Gillions. 

Her daughters now live with her fulltime, and there are different ‘teenage challenges’ to tackle.

Brandon doesn’t train in the mornings, because she’s doing the school drop-offs on her way to work. “So it’s either a quick run at lunchtime, or when my son is at football practice for an hour, I’ll do a speed session. And I fit in longer runs at the weekend if I have the older one looking after the youngest one,” she says.

All of her children were runners “when they were young enough to be directed into doing things”, so there were four the yellow singlets of the Wellington Scottish club side-by-side on the washing line. But now the kids play team sports - her daughters in netball and her son in football.

Brandon loves how her girls will send photos to their friends when their Mum wins a race.

“Life isn’t all roses; we have the typical teenage pushbacks. But overall, they’re all pretty proud of me,” she says.

One of her racing highlights was breaking three hours in the New York Marathon in 2019. Her dream would be to run a sub 2h 50m marathon.

She’d hope to do that in Rotorua this time, but she had faced a different obstacle in the lead-up. During her four-week training programme, Brandon was transitioning to a new job: “So I was doing two jobs for a while there… it wasn’t the best,” she says.

She moved from head of people and culture at a health insurance company to working for Wētā Workshop in the same role. Not only is she inspired by their award-winning creativity, she has new trails to run around the Wellington Harbour waterfront from Miramar.

Mel Brandon hits the roads of Masterton in the 2019 Wairarapa Half Marathon. Photo: Sharon Wray.

Brandon is throwing herself straight into her next challenge, the Auckland Marathon on October 30. It’s the day before her 45th birthday, so she couldn’t turn down the chance to run.

She enjoyed her first ultramarathon in July - the WUU2K, a race that ties all the city’s trails together. Brandon tackled the full 62km event and set a new course record of 6h 31m 37s.

“I’m not a spring chicken, but my body held up better on the trails than it does on the road,” she says.

“I’d love to do more trail running. I think I’ll have one last crack at a PB on the road, but then trail is where my future running lies.”

Brandon doesn’t have to look far to find role models still running in their later years. One is her clubmate Michele Allison; now in her mid-60s she’s one of Wellington Scottish’s greats. She’s also the sister of the late Bernie Portenski (a Kiwi legend who ran the Rotorua Marathon 33 times in her 114-marathon career; taking up running aged 30 and setting world age-group records).

The other is Sally Gibbs, the 59-year-old who holds a slew of world masters records for distances between 1500m and 10km, who took up running in her mid-40s. (Gibbs was the first sportswoman profiled in LockerRoom back in 2018, when she successfully defended the national women’s 10km road title at 54).

“My goal would be to still be running in my 60s,” Brandon says. “I might not still be at the top of my game, but I’d want to be feeling fit and eating well.” And being happy.

* Mel Brandon won the Rotorua Marathon almost three minutes ahead of Courtney Pratt of New Plymouth, with Billie-Lee Haresnape of Piha six minutes behind the winner in third. Michael Voss overcame cramp to win an unprecedent hat-trick of Rotorua titles in the men's race, crossing the line in 2h 29m 21s. 

Taking care of World Cup teams' desires

From ice baths to waka ama, buses to meals, the team liaison officers for the Rugby World Cup will make sure every team's needs and desires are met. Angela Walker speaks to two Kiwi women who've taken on the task. 

When the best female rugby players on the planet depart Aotearoa after the Rugby World Cup, the enduring legacy of their time here won’t just be whether they won or lost. It will also be the people they met, cultures they glimpsed, and experiences they shared.

One person who’ll help shape those experiences for the 12 nations competing in just three weeks' time is the team liaison officer, or TLO.

Attached to a team from the moment they arrive here, the TLO is tasked with ensuring the smooth day-to-day running of their team’s many requirements while they stay, train and compete in Whāngarei and Auckland.

For the Canadian team, that person is rugby coach and school teacher Katie Bowmar. And she’s looking forward to introducing them to her corner of the world.

“When the team are in Whangārei, they’re scheduled to train at my rugby club, Hora Hora. I’m pretty excited to show them around,” the 30-year-old Bowmar says.

Katie Bowen (third from left) with her Hora Hora players in Northland Kauri. Photo: supplied. 

Hora Hora RFC – Bowmar explains – is a Māori rugby club steeped in traditional values and tikanga.

“We sing waiata at the end of every after-match,” she says. “The club is built on our old pā site. The rugby fields are where food used to be grown, so we look at ourselves as a place that is rich, not in money, but in values.

“It’ll be cool to have conversations with the Canadians and tell them, ‘You’re training on a pretty prime piece of land’. And to introduce them to places like the local maunga where they’ll probably do their recovery walks.”

For Bowmar, being a TLO feels like the culmination of her life so far.

“I never thought I’d be able to share what I’ve done for the last 14 years and pass it on to someone visiting from another country,” she says. “And be able to take what I learn from this opportunity and give it back to my women’s rugby players.

“It’s definitely one of those serendipitous scenarios.”

Bowmar will take time-out from her job as a teacher at Dargaville Intermediate School – a role, she says, that has equipped her to be a TLO.

“As a school teacher you’ve got to be able to balance everything. You have to have great communication skills and be able to sort out problems as they arise. That’s why I thought I would be suited to being a TLO,” she says.

She wasn’t the only person who thought so - multiple people encouraging her to apply.

When Bowmar is not in the classroom, she “loves, lives, and breathes rugby”. She began her coaching career 14 years ago because her brother’s U12 team desperately needed a coach. She soon realised she was “better suited to the sidelines than actually running around on the pitch”.

Now she coaches the Hora Hora women’s premier team who this year won the coveted Rana Paraha Trophy.

In fact, it was the trophy’s namesake who originally inspired Bowmar to become a rugby coach.

“I take my coaching philosophy from ‘Aunty Rana’. She was my rugby coach and I hope to be that person for other people,” Bowmar says.

Hora Hora coach Katie Bowmar (right) and player Tui McGeorge with the Rana Paraha Trophy. Photo: supplied. 

In preparation for the Canadian team’s arrival on September 25, Bowmar has attended a TLO training weekend along with her counterparts attached to the other teams.

And she has the benefit of having already met the Canadian team when they were here for the Pacific Four Series in June. It means she’s in regular contact with them.

“I often converse with them – with the team manager or the video analysis person. And I share their social media content so when they arrive, people will know who they are. They’re a really awesome bunch of people,” Bowmar says.

As well as ensuring the Canadians have a seamless and memorable experience while they’re in New Zealand, Bowmar appreciates getting the opportunity to broaden her rugby horizons.

“Having the chance to work alongside New Zealand Rugby rather than just working in my own province, I see many opportunities out there. My end goal is to coach the Black Ferns or an international team,” she says.

Most of all, Bowmar is excited about what the Rugby World Cup means for her community.

“The kids are so excited about coming to the games,” she says. “At the end of the day, that’s how you grow the game, getting people interested and making them feel comfortable. Our women’s rugby game is quite inclusive in this country, and I think that is something we should be proud of.”

***

The Australian women’s rugby team – the Wallaroos – have been assigned the highly experienced Karen “KJ” Skudder as their TLO.

During her interview for the role, Skudder told the panel: “I want to be an ambassador for New Zealand and make sure everyone has the best time possible.”

“I love different cultures. I love meeting people and finding what we have in common and just going with it,” says Skudder, who’s of Māori, Tongan and Scottish descent.

A former police dispatcher now based in Te Puke, Skudder has been a TLO before – for the Canadian men’s and Fijian women’s teams at World Rugby Sevens Series events.

KJ Skudder at the World Seven Series in Vancouver. Photo: supplied 

During one of those tournaments here, Skudder arranged for the Canadian men’s rugby team to have a unique local experience.

“I organised for them to do a waka tour on Wellington Harbour – to give them an experience they otherwise wouldn’t have had,” she says.

Skudder says being immersed with a team for several weeks means they inevitably get to know each other well.

“Over time, you sit down with players and management and go to a deeper level. We end up knowing quite a bit about each other. It’s crazy how similar we all are really,” she says.

Some have even become lifelong friends. “One of the Canadians phoned and said, ‘Remember that time you took us out on the water?’” Skudder says.

This time, it’s the Wallaroos who Skudder hopes to introduce to waka ama. She also wants to show them some of her favourite places in Northland.

While most of the time she’ll be kept busy with a wide range of tasks – anything from transport logistics to organising ice baths – being a TLO is more than a support role for Skudder.

“Having lived overseas myself, and had an experience and a half, I want to reciprocate when people come here,” she says. “Sport is the thing that brings us together, but it’s the cultural experience that’s the icing on the cake.”

The other team liaison officers are:

Wales: Chanelle Salmonrugby

England: Chantal Baker-Smith

Japan: Georgia Calder-Lee

New Zealand: Jono Chappell

Italy: Kaine Robertson

South Africa: Ross Brazier

France: Peter White

Scotland: Maxime Ramiroz

USA: Steve Downie

Fiji: Jone Puamau

Hayley Jensen: The White Ferns spy

As the White Ferns take on the West Indies - and the Antigua heat and Tropical Storm Fiona - they're tapping into the intel gained by bowler Hayley Jensen, who's been playing cricket in the Caribbean. Merryn Anderson reports. 

Hayley Jensen is the one to ask how to survive playing cricket in the hot Antigua sun. But even she will face a new and sweaty challenge returning to the 50-over ODIs. 

The 29-year-old White Ferns bowler has been in the Caribbean for almost a month now, playing in two leagues - the 20-over Caribbean Premier League (CPL) and The 6ixty, a new 10-over competition. 

Now she’s switching focus to the White Ferns’ tour of the West Indies, with three ODIs and five T20s over the next three weeks, starting this weekend. (Well, that's if Tropical Storm Fiona allows a start - the first game tomorrow morning has already been postponed by extensive rain falling in Antigua, with the second ODI still set to go ahead early Monday morning NZ time).

Chatting from her hotel room in Antigua after a long day of training and meetings, Jensen is grateful for her air conditioning - a luxury the team won’t have out on the pitch. 

“It’s going to be interesting. I’m just thinking about how much I was sweating during 20 overs, let alone 50 overs,” she laughs. “It’s definitely going to feel like a long time out there, but I’m looking forward to it. It’s going to be a good challenge for us.” 

Now the rest of the New Zealand cricketers have arrived, Jensen has been a key contributor to strategic meetings, able to share details about the conditions and new West Indian players the White Ferns haven’t seen yet. 

“The wind was a big factor over there, it was going straight down the pitch so anything that was full and was hitting with the wind went for six,” she describes. 

“But it was super hot and super sweaty so you had to keep wiping your hands because the ball would slip out. Towards the end of the tournament, the wickets definitely started to turn a bit more and stay a bit lower.” 

Jensen played 10 and 20-over cricket for the Trinbago Knight Riders, but will now don the silver fern against the West Indies. Photo: Getty Images

The last time the White Ferns played one-day international cricket was during the home World Cup in March, where the side were disappointed with their performance. Their three wins and four losses kept them out of the semifinals. 

That was also the last time they played the West Indies, who won a thriller in the tournament opening game - bowling New Zealand out with one ball to spare, three runs short of the total they'd set. 

The Ferns rang in the changes, with fresh new players joining the team under a new head coach, Ben Sawyer, who led the team to a bronze medal at the Birmingham Commonwealth Games last month. 

“Having a new coach brought a fresh perspective on everything,” Jensen explains. “He kind of keeps things really simple, especially for the bowling group, so he’s definitely helped me a lot with my game.

“But definitely that bronze medal has helped lift the morale in the team. We’ve had a few bad years, so it’s really brought the team up and we’re looking to continue that form on throughout this series.” 

Jensen has been playing with the Trinbago Knight Riders, who finished runners-up in the 6ixty and won the CPL. 

“It was awesome to be playing over here in a different environment, seeing how the West Indies clubs go for it,” Jensen says. 

“Just being able to play with a bunch of international players as well, who I haven’t really played with before. And it was good preparation leading into the West Indies tour here.” 

There are a few new names in the White Ferns side, and a lot of players who haven’t experienced the Caribbean conditions, including young spin bowlers Eden Carson and Fran Jonas, who will likely get a shot on pitches favourable to spinners.  

Jensen is looking forward to her match-up with another Hayley - West Indies captain Hayley Matthews. The 24-year-old played for the Barbados Royals this season, with Jensen claiming her wicket in one of the games. “I’ll hopefully be able to do that again,” she says. 

It was actually Jensen who was the first to dismiss Matthews in international cricket - the all-rounder from Barbados making her Windies debut against the White Ferns in 2014, getting caught by Lea Tahuhu from a Jensen delivery. 

In an unforgettable match for Jensen, she took three wickets from her four overs. The White Ferns won in a Super Over, which Jensen says is her only real memory of that tour eight years ago. 

White Ferns captain Sophie Devine (right) with West Indies captain Hayley Matthews. 

In their spare time, the White Ferns have been making the most of the beach, swimming and playing beach volleyball. But Jensen admits she loves coming back to her cold hotel room at the end of the day. 

They have separate rooms, which means separate air conditioning controls. 

“We always joke about Hannah Rowe having her air con on about 16 degrees,” Jensen says. 

Members of the White Ferns who aren’t playing on game day will have just as much work as the players - running drinks to the batters and fielders while they battle 30-plus degree heat and burning sunshine. 

But Jensen is looking forward to getting out in front of the vocal West Indies crowds again, with their infectious energy buoying on the players. 

“There’s a lot of dancing in the crowd, there’s horns going, a big DJ, so everyone’s up and about, yelling, dancing," she says. "It’s very, very loud out there.” 

***

While the New Zealand-based White Ferns arrived in Antigua on Tuesday, well before their first game, the Jamaican netballers travelling to New Zealand haven't shown the same timeliness.

The Silver Ferns series against the Sunshine Girls should have started on Saturday, but it's also been delayed after the Jamaicans didn't receive their passports and visas back from Washington. Providing they fly out in time, the first game of the Taini Jamison Trophy is now scheduled for Sunday at 4pm in Hamilton, with the second moved to Monday night.   

*The White Ferns take on the West Indies in three ODIs and five T20s, with the first match now on Monday at 1.30am NZT, live on Sky Sport 1.

Young Silver Ferns middies seize chance to impress

Normally fierce rivals, midcourters Mila Reuelu-Buchanan and Maddy Gordon have their first chance to play - and dance - together for the Silver Ferns against Jamaica. And both want to stay there for next year's World Cup defence.   

The easy part is making the Silver Ferns. The hardest part is staying there. 

That’s the advice Ferns centurion Leana de Bruin gave Mila Reuelu-Buchanan; advice she's working on and sharing with her fellow midcourter Maddy Gordon, as both look to keep their place in Silver Ferns after being recalled to the team to play Jamaica this weekend.  

Reuelu-Buchanan has just one international cap from the northern Quad Series in January, while Gordon earned her two in 2021. 

Both middies missed out on a place in the Birmingham Commonwealth Games team, although Reuelu-Buchanan was a travelling reserve. 

Since the Games, the Silver Ferns have lost 206 international caps of experience in the midcourt. Shannon Saunders is expecting her first child, Gina Crampton has taken a sabbatical for the rest of the year, and Kayla Johnson is absent from the side. With the 2023 Netball World Cup in South Africa in July, Saunders' return to the team for the pinnacle event is doubtful. 

That opens up a huge opportunity for Reuelu-Buchanan and Gordon - who've never played on a team together before.

Reuelu-Buchanan saw the chance to travel with the Ferns to Birmingham as a "massive privilege", but quickly realised it wasn't where she wanted to be.  

“It was almost bittersweet…it’s definitely driven me to work harder," she says. "These opportunities are really important because the World Cup isn’t very far away; that’ll be the challenging thing.” 

Gordon has battled injuries since her Ferns debut against Australia in last year's Constellation Cup. But she came back stronger with the Central Pulse this year - the speedy midcourter playing all but two minutes of this year’s ANZ Premiership grand final, won by the Pulse.

“It was tough but I’ve worked hard behind closed doors," Gordon says. "I’ve come back and I want to put my hand up and say I definitely deserve to be here."

Gordon made her Silver Ferns debut last year, picking up one more cap since. Photo: Getty Images

The Silver Ferns have three tests against Commonwealth Games silver medallists, Jamaica, in the Taini Jamison Trophy, with captain Ameliaranne Ekenasio also returning to the side after missing out on the Games team. It's a chance for players to stamp their mark before the Constellation Cup in October, the four games split between New Zealand and Australia. 

Against the Sunshine Girls, Gordon and Reuelu-Buchanan will line up in the midcourt alongside Whitney Souness (21 caps) and 22-year-old Kate Heffernan, who made her debut in Birmingham and played all seven matches at the Games. 

A lack of experience around them doesn’t phase 22-year-old Gordon or Reuelu-Buchanan, 24, who say now is the time to bring in young players.  

“At the end of the day, the priority is the World Cup so now is the chance for us to gain our own experiences internationally,” Reuelu-Buchanan says. 

“As we know, international netball is a massive step up from ANZ [Premiership] so hopefully we’ll be able to play with a bit of freedom and not have that pressure on our backs.” 

Gordon is looking forward to playing the exciting Jamaican style, but believes the young Ferns side will bring something different, too. "I think we’ll put out not a different, but quite an exciting way of how we play as individuals and what we bring to the team for the Ferns,” she says. 

Gordon’s two Ferns caps came from last year's Constellation Cup (played in March), where the Ferns won the trophy for the first time in almost 10 years, and the 2021 Quad Series, where she played one match against England. 

Under Covid restrictions, both games were played without crowds, so Gordon can’t wait to have her parents, partner and a packed crowd support the team. 

Reuelu-Buchanan’s one international cap came during a very Covid-precautionary England tour, so her friends and whānau are yet to see her play in the black dress. 

“Although it’s not my debut, it’ll be my debut in front of my family if I get the opportunity,” she says. Her partner, Du'Plessis Kirifi, will be at Sunday's second test after playing rugby for Wellington on Saturday night. 

“I’m just really, really excited," she says. "You forget what a massive privilege this is, to represent New Zealand. I keep imagining us running out on court and looking up to my family, regardless of whether I’m playing or not. It’s a special moment and obviously we won’t ever take that for granted.” 

Mila Reuelu-Buchanan will wear the black dress for the first time in NZ in the Taini Jamison series. Photo: Michael Bradley Photography

The Sunshine Girls’ squad is a largely different one from the team who beat the Silver Ferns, 67-51, in the Commonwealth Games semifinal. 

Fan favourite Shamera Sterling and star shooter Jhaniele Fowler are both absent from the team, along with a handful of other key players - leaving just three of the team who won silver heading to New Zealand. 

Despite facing a new-look team, Gordon is still relishing the chance to play the Caribbean style of netball. 

“At the Pulse, we kind of play man-on [defence], which they do quite similar too," she says. "So we train against that a lot. Obviously I like a good man-on-man tussle, so I’m quite excited for that.” 

Reuelu-Buchanan is already planning how she’ll tackle the aerial flair of the Jamaican midcourt. 

“All I know is that it will be physical," she says. "They can jump high, their arms are long.

“So I'll be navigating my way through that using my strengths to combat their style of play - whether that be working around the three-foot mark or playing a shorter game.” 

With the Sunshine Girls missing some of their stars, it’s still a chance for growth and finding new combinations for the Ferns. 

“Obviously we want to win, that’s always the number one goal,” Reuelu-Buchanan says. “But a lot of it will be getting girls out there, gaining experience, growing our connections. As long as there’s growth within the team environment and what we display out on court, I think that’s where we’ll be achieving the most."

It's also an opportunity for Gordon and Reuelu-Buchanan to play on the same team. Northland-born Gordon moved south to the Pulse as Porirua-born Reuelu-Buchanan headed north to the Stars. 

“I feel like we are both quite ruthless players, body on the line, so it will be pretty cool to see us both out there, hopefully at the same time,” Reuelu-Buchanan says.  

And it won’t only be their on-court debut together, as their partnership continues behind the scenes on game day. 

Gordon has over 30,000 followers on TikTok, with her videos amassing almost one million likes in total; frequently featuring her Pulse teammates. 

“I need a new pre-game buddy for my TikToks as Karin’s not here, so…” Gordon says to Reuelu-Buchanan, pointing out that she’d be the perfect dance partner, while Karin Burger recovers from a foot injury. 

Reuelu-Buchanan is emphatic in her response: “Mads, sign me up please!” 

*After a delay to Jamaica's arrival in New Zealand, the three-test series between the Silver Ferns and the Sunshine Girls will now start on Sunday at 4pm at Hamilton's GLOBOX Arena, with the second test moved to Monday 7.30pm in Hamilton. The third game remains at Auckland's Eventfinda Stadium next Wednesday at 7.30pm.

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