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'I didn't want concussion to be my story' - Tall Fern

Told she shouldn't play basketball again after multiple concussions, former Tall Fern Samara Gallaher will suit up for the first game of the new Tauihi women's professional league - driven to make a difference for young girls.

Suzie Bates' surprising rugby career

If not for an untimely break, Otago White Fern and Tall Fern Suzie Bates could have taken a different sporting path, Suzanne McFadden discovers in part 3 of our On Your Mark series, taking Commonwealth Games athletes back to high school. 

Fling open rugby's clubroom doors to trans players

As sports release their rules around transgender athletes, veteran rugby player Alice Soper wants NZ Rugby to commit to including trans players at grassroots.

Hard knocks can't rock exciting Magic middie

One of the most exciting players to emerge from this season's netball's premiership, Simmon Wilbore suffered a series of untimely setbacks - including surgery. But she still made her mark on the Magic midcourt, and has her sights set on 2023. 

Mya's medley on song for Birmingham

Frustrated in the pool last year, top Kiwi medley swimmer Mya Rasmussen sought a new start in Brisbane - and now she's off to her first Commonwealth Games.

Medley swimmer Mya Rasmussen always wanted to compete at the Commonwealth Games and was well on track to do so as a young teen.   

But after winning a gold medal in the 400m individual medley at the 2017 Commonwealth Youth Games in the Bahamas, in a lifetime best that would have qualified her for the previous year’s Rio Olympics, she plateaued.

In her late teens, she was struggling to find the form that would get her into the top 16 at a world juniors competition, let alone secure selection to her first senior team. 

Even at age 15, while she was a student at Palmerston North Girls' High, Rasmussen was New Zealand’s top ranked swimmer in both 400m IM and 200m IM.

In 2018, she moved from Feilding to Australia’s Sunshine Coast in search of better times, better competition, and to train with some of Australia’s top swimmers such as Kaylee McKeown, a top 400m IM swimmer who currently holds a world backstroke record.

Yet for the following two years, Rasmussen was consistently swimming times slower than she did when she was 14 – not even 10 seconds close to her personal best - and felt like giving up altogether.

“Swimming was just not feeling the same for me – I hadn’t been anywhere near my times, and I was really struggling mentally to get back to motivate myself,” she says.

She questioned why she was still in the sport.

“I was training so hard, but not getting the results that I felt like I deserved or had worked for. Even last year was quite rough,” the 21-year-old says.

Then late last year, Rasmussen made another move – this time for a change in coaching.

Moving down the coast to Brisbane has paid dividends for Mya Rasmussen (centre lane). Photo: Swimming Queensland. 

She wanted to work with coach Tim Lane at Somerville House, a squad based at a girl’s boarding school in South Brisbane. Rasmussen has settled in there, and has found a part-time job at Nike.

The move has paid dividends.

“I took a break and focused on 200m IM and 200m butterfly. Then I came back and did a four minutes 48 seconds time in the 400m IM and thought, ‘Oh I can actually still do a decent time’, which was like a real confidence boost for me,” Rasmussen says.

In January, she clocked 4m 42.33s in the 400m IM at the New South Wales championships - just shy of her lifetime best. It was her first time under 4m 46.00s since her Commonwealth Youth Games title; and was clocked just a few months after her move to Brisbane.

While that clipped her ticket to this week’s world championships in Budapest (she swims the 400m IM on the final day on Saturday), her time fell nearly four seconds short of the tougher Commonwealth Games standard.

But in April, Swimming New Zealand informed Rasmussen her New South Wales time was good enough to be selected for the Birmingham Commonwealth Games, as a swimmer who could potentially be placed in the top six in the event.   

She will also swim the 200m IM and the 200m breaststroke in Birmingham next month, five years after winning medals in the same three events at the Commonwealth Youth Games.

“I’m shocked I got there after all this time,” Rasmussen says, recalling hearing the news of her Games selection. “I was in the car on the way to training and I just started crying – I was so excited.

“I hadn’t even got a time to make the long list, so I had to do all that long list paperwork to be nominated. I didn’t have a clue whether they were going to select me. I also got nominated last time – but didn’t get selected, so I didn’t want to get my hopes up.

“I’m glad that I stuck with it and finally got there in the end. It’s been such a long time – it’s a huge relief.”

Rasmussen says had she not moved to Brisbane, she would not be off to the Commonwealth Games.

“The facilities, the coaching and the training partners are so much better over here. Tim is an amazing coach, he’s just so organised and onto it. I could not find a more perfect match in a coach,” she says.

“We think very similarly, and he just understands what I’ve been through and makes it clear what I need to do, which makes it easier for me.” 

Mya Rasmussen will swim three events at the Commonwealth Games next month. Photo: Swimming Queensland.

Even a world championships qualification time was not initially part of the plan so early. Rasmussen had not been closer than four seconds to the qualifying standard within the previous five years.  

“I was going to come home [to New Zealand] and attempt it, or do it at the Australian trials, but Aussie trials got moved to May, a month after our qualifying period ended,” Rasmussen says.

A last-minute decision was made with Lane to have a crack at the world championship qualifying standard at the New South Wales champs to avoid having to make a last-ditch attempt at the New Zealand trials in April, should the borders be open.

“I wasn’t too sure how I’d go,” Rasmussen recalls. “I had five days to prepare to try and go under this qualifying time. It was quite daunting, but it was pretty awesome to get under the time.”

Rasmussen holds multiple national age group records and more than 50 Manawatu records. Yet she is the only swimmer in the Commonwealth Games team without a national open title. 

That’s because as a teenager, Rasmussen chose to bypass most senior national events, getting her top times at the national age grade championships. Many of them were quicker than the winners of senior nationals.

Even as a 13-year-old, she broke five minutes in the 400m IM, in a time that would have got a silver medal at this year’s New Zealand championships. 

However, Rasmussen’s initial times in Australia during her slump were pretty good by New Zealand standards. Since 2013 only two New Zealand swimmers have gone quicker than 4m 51.00s in the 400m IM at a national open competition.

One is 2016 Olympian Helena Gasson, who, in April qualified in the 200m IM for both Birmingham and Budapest (which is why Rasmussen isn't permitted to swim the 200 IM at the world champs). 

Teenager Gina McCarthy also met the development qualifying standard for Budapest and could have been selected had Rasmussen not got the A standard. 

Mya Rasmussen training in Slovakia last week before the world championships. 

But Rasmussen has high goals. Her Olympic goal is to lower her times to qualify for Paris in 2024, which has the same 400m IM qualifying standard as the one she missed for Birmingham.

She believes she can do it.

“I’m definitely ready to go faster now,” she says. “Coming over here and going up against people that are just going to kick my arse has been really important. 

“If I can drop below 4:40 at the Commonwealth Games, that would be great. Tim said I’m more than capable of dropping to 4:38.”

Should Rasmussen do that, she will not only be in the hunt for a place in Paris, but she’ll hold her first New Zealand Open record, one that has that has stood since 2007.

For now, she has a busy international schedule of four pinnacle competitions in 13 months, if she wants to compete at the world short course championships in Melbourne in December, and next year’s world championships to be held in Japan in July. 

* Erika Fairweather has finished sixth in the 400m freestyle on the opening day of the world championships in Budapest yesterday, holding on to her sixth ranking. Eve Thomas finished 13th in the same event. (Lewis Clareburt finished just outside the medals in the men's 400m IM).

And at the world Para swimming championships, Nikita Howarth won silver in the 100m breaststroke SB7, and was seventh in the 100m backstroke S7. Gaby Smith smashed personal best times to make her first three world champs finals, with a fifth and two sixth placings, while Lili-Fox Mason also swam a personal best to finish seventh in the final of the 400m freestyle S10.  Cameron Leslie was NZ's star of the world meet, winning a gold and three silvers.

Burger's down but not defeated by unlucky break

Silver Fern Karin Burger will watch the Commonwealth Games with her leg in a cast, but the outstanding defender is dead-set on returning for the World Cup defence in her native South Africa, she tells Merryn Anderson.

For the past year, Karin Burger had been nursing an undiagnosable niggle in her foot - all part of being a professional athlete, the star Silver Ferns defender thought. 

Little did she know one awkward landing would result in six months away from the sport she loves, and rule her out of next month's Commonwealth Games in Birmingham.

In the final game of the Tactix season against eventual ANZ Premiership champions the Pulse, Burger came down badly on her right foot. She describes that moment as “the last straw”, unable to work through the pain she’d been managing until then. 

“Everybody kept doing as much as they could to try and figure out what the issue was so it’s not like there was a lack of effort in that area," she says. "Nothing showed up until we did the scans after the last game."

Those scans revealed the injury was a fracture in her navicular bone, which will require surgery to heal. Now the 29-year-old defender is hoping to return to the Ferns environment by December.

Despite the blow, Burger is staying positive and is determined to come out of this setback fitter and stronger than before - especially with the next Netball World Cup being held in her homeland of South Africa next year. 

“It’s so frustrating for everybody that we couldn’t pick up on anything earlier to prevent anything. But everybody did as much as they possibly could. It is what it is, no-one’s to blame,” she says. 

Burger is also taking that mindset with her as she prepares for six to eight weeks in a cast, unable to join the Silver Ferns on their journey to Commonwealth Games redemption.

A sure selection for the pinnacle event, her unavailability leaves the Ferns a lot lighter on defence. And the dynamic 33-test player is obviously disappointed.

“I’m not the kind to think about something and think ‘what if’. It’s the situation I’m in so it’s important for me to look ahead," she says.

“I had my weekend to cry about it and get through it.” 

The surgery involves putting a screw through the bone to fix the crack, and shaving off a bit of bone to prevent a clash against any other bones - which could create another fracture. Once her time in the cast is over, then rehab starts. 

“Then it’s just about recovering all the muscle I would have lost and the fitness I would have lost by that point,” Burger explains. 

“As much as I’d like to take the court as soon as the cast is off, there’s also a lot of dangers in that, in going to any competitive stuff undercooked. So it’s important to get the ankle mobility back, the fitness and the strength back up and running.” 

Burger is hoping to return in time for the Silver Ferns trials in December, but light-heartedly says she could be available for FAST5 World Series in Christchurch in November if things go well. 

Despite a disappointing season with the Tactix, Burger still found herself enjoying her netball. Photo: Getty Images

For the athletic defender who hates sitting still, she’s already researched ways to cover the cast while swimming, and planned seated boxing for cardio and upper body workouts while she recovers from surgery. 

“I’m quite excited to focus on the things I can do that are non-netball related. And also working on my body to get it up and running and fit and healthy and mobile and strong - specifically going into another pinnacle event next year, and making sure I don’t have niggles,” Burger says. 

“I can’t remember the last time I didn't have niggles, so it’s the perfect time to work on those little things. I try not to dwell too much on the negative and keep going.” 

Burger played every second of the Tactix’ disappointing 2022 ANZ Premiership season, mostly at goal defence. 

The Tactix finished bottom of the table this year, with just five wins - a stark contrast to last year where they lost in the grand final to the Mystics by only two goals. 

“I love being on court so regardless of what the score is going to be, I just want to be able to play netball,” Burger says. She was without her defensive partner of Jane Watson this year, who welcomed her first child, Tia, in May. 

“Sometimes you’re gonna enjoy the game and sometimes you’re not,” Burger says. “So it’s just about how you can make yourself enjoy it and find ways to enjoy it when it’s not going your way - I think that’s been a big challenge for me as well.”

For a player who has made the grand final of the ANZ Premiership every year since she’s been playing (winning back-to-back titles with the Pulse in 2019 and 2020), this season was definitely a change for the talented defender. 

“It was a complete different experience for me, which I felt like I learnt quite a bit from," she says. "So I wouldn’t change anything cause everything happens for a reason." 

While Burger is upbeat and positive talking about her injury, she's also trying not to think too much about missing the Commonwealth Games. 

“Mentally, I need to try and distract myself, especially with the netball going on,’ she says. “As much as I want to support the girls, I know it’ll be hard for me to watch it, knowing I can’t be out there doing it as well. So it’ll be good to find some things to distract myself with off-court.” 

She’s hoping to be able to make the trip back home to South Africa while in recovery, the last time she saw her family was before Covid. But she also has support in Christchurch and Wellington. 

“Rehab for me is my key priority at the moment so I need to put myself where it’s going to be best for me. So whatever that looks like and we’ll work from there,” Burger says, noting overseas travel can still be difficult with Covid - which she impressively managed to avoid this season. 

Burger made her Silver Ferns debut in September 2018, and has amassed 33 test caps since then, including a handful as part of the victorious 2019 Netball World Cup team. 

Being part of a Ferns team defending their world title is high on Burger’s netball bucket list, especially when it's held in Cape Town. 

“Growing up, wherever I went, regardless of what sport I did, there was always support on the sidelines, especially Mum and Dad,” says Burger, who moved from South Africa to New Zealand as an 18-year-old. 

There won't be a lack of support for New Zealand in the crowd - Burger’s parents, siblings, wider family, friends and old school teachers all supporting her from afar at the moment, but eager to see her play in person in the black dress. 

“Having my people in the crowd will be the biggest thing for me to look forward to,” Burger admits, as well as playing in familiar surroundings. 

Twenty-seven Silver Ferns triallists enter camp on Monday, with the team to compete in Birmingham named on June 27.

Burger is eager to point out fans don’t see who performs well at camp, and coach Dame Noeline Taurua considers all players at trials, so all 27 could be in with a chance of making the final playing 12. 

As for who Burger predicts will get the nod in the defensive end? 

“It’s always a tough one when people ask about selections,” she says. “I guess it depends on what happens in trials and the connections, cause Noels is quite big on not necessarily individual players playing well, but how they gel within a group as well. 

“Considering Sulu [Fitzpatrick] and Phoenix [Karaka] have that great connection already and they have been in the mix prior, you’d have to think they’re up there. And obviously Kelly’s [Jury] had an amazing season, and has been in the mix as well, so I guess those three would be three key players in the defensive end.” 

She predicts the usual suspects of England and Australia will be New Zealand’s biggest competitors, with reigning Commonwealth champions England playing on home soil. 

“But it’s going to depend on who their players are and their playing style, and what ours look like as well,” Burger guesses. “From experience, it’s the styles that are the difference and styles that are usually the downfall rather than the team itself.” 

The hearts of Kiwi netball fans broke with the news that Burger would miss the Commonwealth Games, the defender being a sure pick for the Silver Ferns. Photo: Michael Bradley Photography

The 2023 ANZ Premiership will be key for players to stand out and put their hand up for World Cup selection. While Burger can’t announce where she’s signing yet, it seems she has unfinished business with the Tactix. 

“I don’t like club hopping so that in itself is a big indicator for me. Regardless of the season we’ve had this year, I know there’s a lot of potential down here and I enjoy Christchurch, so that’s as much as I can say I guess,” she laughs. 

With the potential return of Watson in the defensive circle, Burger is looking forward to spending more time domestically at wing defence. It's a position she frequently fills for the Ferns but has spent little time there for the Tactix this season. 

“If the opportunity presents itself for me to do that, I think it’ll be quite nice to be able to just practise doing the switch on a regular basis and doing it seamlessly,” she says. 

“I think that’s a key thing for me as well, because as confident as I feel in one position, if you don’t play the other one for too long then you sort of feel a bit uneasy about it. So it’s just making sure that when I do make the switches, I can play the best I possibly can. And being able to play both ways next year would be a good starter.” 

While the rest of 2022 is undetermined, Burger’s still optimistic and determined to bounce back. 

“I don’t know what the next six months are going to look like, and how I’m going to come out of it,” she says. “Obviously I’m going to think the most positive way I can and think I’m going to come back fitter and stronger than I went in.

“So if I can do that really well and hopefully put my hand up for the January tour [the Quad Series, also in South Africa] that’ll be a good starter.”

Burger is enthusiastic when asked if being selected for the 2023 World Cup defence would be a career highlight. 

“Oh, 100 percent! Definitely having it in South Africa as well,” she says. 

“Also, more so now that I’m not in Comm Games, I’m going to put even more effort and time into that because I refuse to miss out on another one.” 

Nana and Tui help Black Ferns wing love rugby again

Caught in a downward spiral after a major concussion, Black Ferns scoring machine Ayesha Leti-I’iga thought she’d never wear the black jersey again. But with the support of family – and a close bond with Ruby Tui – she’s back to her explosive best.

To see Ayesha Leti-I’iga crashing through tackle after tackle, or her scorching pace kicking in and leaving defenders flailing, or laughing with her new buddy, Ruby Tui, as they practise their chip kicks, you’d have no idea of the pain and torment she's been through.

The Black Ferns’ weapon on the left wing, Leti-I’iga scored twice in the opening match of their Pacific Four campaign, a win against Australia, a fortnight ago, and was player of the match in last weekend’s victory over Canada. She’s never been as fit or enjoyed her rugby so much, she admits, before the Black Ferns' final game against the United States on Saturday. 

Yet it wasn’t that long ago, Leti-I’iga believed she’d never get to pull on the black jersey again.

And she’s forever grateful to the grandmother who raised her for helping to pull her out of a downward spiral.

A Black Fern since she was 19 back in 2018, Leti-I’iga quickly stamped her mark on the Black Ferns as an exciting try scorer and a powerful and deceptive runner with the ball. Standing at just 1.65m, she was proud to be “different to other wingers” and stuck to her grandfather’s advice to always be fearless in a game.  

But then the Porirua-born Samoan’s progression came to a sudden halt – when her head hit another player in a club match in 2020.

Playing for her Ories (Oriental Rongotai) club side - where she's famous for repeatedly scoring five or more tries in a game - Leti-I’iga made a tackle but went in headfirst.

“I had a headache after the game and thought nothing of it,” the 23-year-old says.

Ayesha Leti-I'iga has played 14 tests for the Black Ferns since her 2018 debut. Photo: ACC NZ.

But it turned out she had delayed concussion, and a major one at that.

“As the days went by, I started getting sensitivity to light and I was really tired throughout the day. I slept most of the day, and I was barely eating,” she says.

“I had sharp headaches which made me sleep more, because I couldn't bare the pain when I was awake.”

What made it tougher for Leti-I’iga to cope was that she was already grieving the death of her beloved grandad, Faaui. 

Leti-I’iga was raised by her grandparents after her mum, Mary Asolupe Leti-I’iga was tragically struck by a car in 2009. Ayesha was just 11 years old.

She had a special bond with her grandparents, who are from the Samoan village of Lalomauga on Upolu. But especially her grandad, who she’s always called her “coach off the field”.

She was devastated by his passing. “It was really hard for me because rugby was our thing. With him not being here, it was hard to find my love for rugby again,” she says. “So I didn’t cope as well as I thought I would.

“After that all happened, I spiralled. And I turned to alcohol to try to solve my problems. I really thought I wouldn’t be able to put the black jersey on again.”

But then a “good chat” with her grandmother, Salafa, turned her around.

“Nana just told me straight: ‘Where do you want to go in life? You’re not going down the right path. Is this what your grandad would have wanted for you?’,” Leti-I’iga recalls.  

“That was a real eye-opener because I didn’t want to take his name in vain.

“I knew I could either keep going downhill or go back up from this. And so I just knuckled down and did the hard work to get back here.”

Black Fern wing Ayesha Leti-I'iga attempts to leap over Canada's Elissa Alarie in their Pacific Four match in Auckland. Photo: Getty Images. 

Concussion remains a serious issue in sport in New Zealand, and rugby tops the list in ACC claims for concussion. Research undertaken by the University of Otago of Kiwi rugby players, on top of international research, shows female rugby players tend to be at a higher risk of concussion than male. Rugby concussion for men sits around 13.8 suspected concussions per thousand playing hours, and in the women's game it's about 20.8. 

The Black Ferns have been involved in helping World Rugby to better understand head injuries in the game, wearing hi-tech mouthguards in a test against England late last year. 

Leti-I’iga saw a specialist in head injuries, and spent three months away from the field. Her aiga were her biggest support, she says. And they also became her driving force to get back into black, and earn a fully-professional contract with the Black Ferns. A goal she achieved in February.

“We didn’t have the most privileged upbringing and I wanted to give back to my grandparents, for the sacrifices they made for me,” says Leti-I’iga, who’d worked for the Ministry of Social Development. “Knowing I could make money just playing the sport I love, so I could give back to them, that’s driven me.”

When she suffered her concussion, she’d just been selected for the Possibles v Probables trial looking towards the 2021 Rugby World Cup to be played in New Zealand. But of course, Covid struck, and the tournament was postponed 12 months. Leti-I’iga could finally thank her lucky stars.

“I’m pretty lucky the World Cup got pushed another year. If it was still last year, I don’t think I would have made the team,” she says. “But I have faith now that I can still make that team, so I’m trying to push for it.”

‘I may not be everyone’s cup of tea, but I may be someone’s shot of vodka’ - Ayesha Leti-I'iga

If the Black Ferns selectors had to choose their team today for the World Cup, kicking off at Eden Park on October 8, Leti-I’iga would be a sure bet to be there.

“Man, our wingers are world-class aren’t they?” the Black Ferns new director of coaching, Wayne Smith, said after Sunday’s win over Canada (when right wing Ruby Tui scored two spectacular tries).

“Ayesh isn’t bad either,” Smith said with a grin. “They’re phenomenal, so you can see why we want to play some rugby because you’ve got to use your great players. They’re pretty special.”

Leti-I’iga found her love of rugby again playing in this year’s Super Rugby Aupiki for Hurricanes Poua. And on this Pacific Four series tour, she says she’s enjoying her rugby even more and is the fittest she’s been, too.

She credits a new “family environment” in the Black Ferns, under a new coaching team led by Smith, and being given the licence to run the ball from anywhere on the field.

And then there’s been the arrival of Tui.

Practice makes perfect for Ruby Tui with the chip and chase she's been practising for a month.

This series has been Olympic gold medallist Tui’s international debut in rugby 15s. And she’s immediately made an impression on the coaches, fans and her team-mates. None more so than Leti-I’iga.

After Tui, 30, scored the Black Ferns first try in the test against Canada – a smartly executed chip and chase in the right-hand corner – she gave kudos to Leti-I’iga.

“Ayesha has been my coach on the chip and chase, and she’s been really hard and critical every day,” Tui said. “And when I did it on the field, she even said it wasn’t good enough; it wasn’t high enough… so I’ll try and work on it more.”

“Nice,” Leti-I’iga chipped back. “I’m glad you acknowledge your mistakes.”

Tui has now set a challenge for Leti-I’iga. “We’re both competitive people, so Ruby has got one up on me. So if there’s an opportunity in this game [tomorrow] I’m going to give it a crack,” she laughs.

“Having Ruby in this space has made this tour even more fun for me. We play the same position, but I never feel like I’m in competition with Ruby - we’re just helping each other get better.

“We’re similar people, we’ve naturally gravitated to each other, and we’ve become real close super-fast.”

Leti-I’iga has also learned from Tui, a veteran of more than 150 games in the black jersey, and the 2019 World Sevens player of the year.

“Rugby aside, the first thing I picked up from Ruby is she’s a human first. She’s a people person, and that really shone throughout this tour. She took that on the field, and there was so much trust in our team,” Leti-I’iga says.

She makes them laugh, too: “We’re doing drills and she’s groaning and scaring people. I ask her 'Why do you make those noises?' and she says she can’t keep her excitement in.

The irrepressible Ruby Tui. Photo: Sky TV

“We’ve been real big on culture and she’s helped implement that in our team. It’s really cool to see how much our team has grown. We’re still building and I can’t wait to see where we go.”

Tui will be missing from New Zealand’s backline against the United States in Whangārei on Saturday, having returned to the Black Ferns Sevens fold.

“I’m already missing my buddy,” Leti-I’iga says. “I sent her a long text today saying how much love I have for her, and how grateful I am to have her in this team.”

Leti-I’iga is looking forward to taking the field against the US, the nation she made her debut against at Chicago’s famous Soldier Field in 2018 – scoring the final try in the Black Ferns’ 67-6 victory. She’s excited, too, her family have travelled north to watch her play.

She'll have the names of her mum and grandad written on tape around her wrist when she plays.

“I’ve never gone into a game scared because my grandad always told me to be fearless,” she says.

“I know I’m different to other wingers because of my size and I want to bring something different. So I use my size to my advantage.

“There’s a netballer, Cathrine Latu [now Tuivaiti], she’s different. And there’s a quote that sticks with me: ‘I may not be everyone’s cup of tea, but I may be someone’s shot of vodka’. So that’s me.”

On your marks: Gymnast clears her highest bar

In the second part of our series On Your Marks, taking Commonwealth Games athletes back to high school, Suzanne McFadden meets rhythmic gymnast Havana Hopman, who remembers a NZ team-mate who set her a high bar at Baradene College.

When Commonwealth Games track athlete Portia Bing made a visit to her alma mater, Baradene College, one young girl was spellbound.

Aspiring gymnast Havana Hopman, then about 13, was hooked on every word Bing uttered.

“She had such a big influence on me,” Hopman says. “I remember asking her heaps of questions. One of them was ‘How many badges did you have on your school blazer?’

“That was my goal to have all the badges by Year 13.”  A year out of high school, Hopman’s own heavily embellished Baradene blazer remains a prized possession.

Seven years after that first meeting, both women are national champions in their respective sporting fields, and find themselves together in the New Zealand team for the Birmingham Commonwealth Games. One in the 400m hurdles; the other in rhythmic gymnastics.  

Now 18, Hopman has been carving her own path in international sport. Earlier this year she competed at three gymnastics World Cups in eastern Europe to earn her ticket to Birmingham. And she did it while she battled a chest infection, ending up hospitalised in Bulgaria.

She’s thrilled to be in the same team as her role model – who literally set the bar high for her.

Throughout her years at Baradene, in Auckland, Hopman broke all of Bing’s school high jump records.

Even though she was focused on rhythmic gymnastics and making the 2022 Commonwealth Games team, high jump was “something I liked to do on the side”, explains Hopman, who jumped at national secondary schools level.

“My dad and I would sit down and say: ‘Okay we’ve got to break this school record’. I got it in Year 7 and 8, then my goal was to get it every year,” she says.

In her final year of high school, she cleared 1.66m to snare Bing’s senior record.

NZ gymnast Havana Hopman (right) with Baradene school mate and pole vault champ Lillian Bing. Photo: Suzanne McFadden

She had some competition – including Bing’s younger sister, Lillian, a national junior pole vault champion (who won bronze at the Oceania champs in Mackay last weekend). “I’d say to Lilli ‘I’m so sorry but I really want to get your sister’s record’,” Hopman says.

Lillian and Havana bump into each other on the school grounds, and wish each other luck in their international competitions. One day, they say and laugh, they could be on the same New Zealand team, too.   

With the bar now well behind her, Hopman is concentrating on the hoop, ball, clubs, ribbon and rope - and winning a medal in Birmingham.

***

When Hopman was in Year 10 at Baradene, she approached the school’s director of sport, Catherine Ratcliffe, and asked if she could coach the school’s rhythmic gymnasts.

“She came to us, she wanted to do it,” Ratcliffe says. “It’s not often athletes can give back.” Especially when they’re still at school.

To acknowledge her contribution, Hopman received the student service to sport award last year for her dedication to coaching. She's happy to help out again - but once her long international season is over.

I meet Hopman in the principal’s office of the Catholic girls’ school in Remuera, her first time back at Baradene since she left. “It's weird signing in as a visitor,” she says.

Havana Hopman and Baradene principal Sandy Pasley on the school's front steps. Photo: Suzanne McFadden.

Hopman was competing for New Zealand even before she started at the school in Year 7. She began tumbling and cartwheeling at kids’ gym classes from the time she could walk.  

“I used to climb the door frames in my house, wait for someone to go past and jump down on them,” she laughs.

A swimming coach told her parents Hopman’s very flexible feet would make her good at ballet and gymnastics.

At seven, her ballet teacher told her she should do rhythmic gymnastics.

“I was looking for another sport, so she got me to watch a YouTube video of her daughter doing rhythmic gymnastics. I remember thinking ‘wow’ - she was throwing the hoop up, rolling under it and catching it behind her back,” Hopman says. “So I went and tried it, and my parents couldn’t get me out of the gym.”

She’s grateful for a decade of ballet classes. “It’s a huge part of gymnastics to have good technique,” she says.

Neither of her parents, Donna and Nick, were gymnasts, but they encouraged their kids to do sport. Hopman's older brother, Cooper, is a sailor.

They even gave up the lounge in their Glendowie home during Covid lockdowns for their daughter’s makeshift gym floor.

Havana Hopman's strengths are with the clubs and hoop, she says. Photo: Bernd Thierolf.

Her dad, she says, is her biggest supporter, and it’s her wish he’ll be well enough to travel to Birmingham.

“My parents and aunty have booked their tickets. But Dad had lung cancer and had part of a lung removed. Now he has it in a lymph node, so he’s having chemo now,” she says.

“Hopefully he’ll be healthy enough to be there. If not, the world championships [in Bulgaria] are the following month, and he could come to that.” Hopman has her fingers crossed he’ll be there to witness both pinnacle events in her career.

***

Hopman can’t imagine where her sporting pathway would have led her had she not gone to Baradene.

“You always supported me with all my international tours,” she says to principal Sandy Pasley. “You were always asking ‘How can we help you?’" 

Pasley says it went both ways. “Havana is a very modest young woman. From our point of view, she was a fantastic role model to other students. She was a great student leader, who quietly got on with everything, and she was an absolutely outstanding athlete.

“Our 1350 students and 100 staff will be with you entirely at the Games, Havana. We’re just so excited to see you perform.”

Hopman and Bing won’t be the only Baradene old girls in Birmingham. Young spinner Fran Jonas (who was in the same year as Hopman) is in the White Ferns side to play T20 – the first time women’s cricket has been part of the Commonwealth Games.

And Year 12 student Lanihei Connolly will be swimming for the Cook Islands; she’s still 16.

“It’s so good to see these girls who’ve balanced their school life with chasing their sporting dreams. They’ve shown tremendous commitment,” says Pasley.

She then quotes English nun and educator Janet Erskine Stuart: ‘Our education is not meant to turn our students out small and finished, but seriously begun on a wide basis.’

“I really hope Havana has seriously begun,” Pasley says.

Havana Hopman in front of a wall of recent NZ representatives from Baradene College. Photo: Suzanne McFadden

Baradene approaches sport with a two-pronged philosophy: encouraging excellence and promoting participation. 

“Participation is huge for us,” says Catherine Ratcliffe. “It’s a really important part of school life.”

While research shows there’s a significant decline in Kiwi teenage girls staying in sport or recreational activity, Ratcliffe is proud of Baradene’s participation numbers: 78 percent of Year 9 to 13 students are involved in school sport; at Year 7 and 8, it’s over 90 percent.

“Our students can choose from 28 sports, and in every sport bar one [skiing] if they want to play a sport, they can do it,” she says.

“A big sport at Baradene is archery. It’s important to have a variety of sports, because they each appeal to different people.”

In terms of high performance, 14 of the school’s top athletes are taking part in the BEST (Baradene Elite Specialised Training) programme.

“It’s a holistic programme, not an academy, aimed at supporting these young athletes. They can use the AUT Millennium for training if they need it, and we also provide nutrition and mental skills training, or support with their workload," Ratcliffe says.

Hopman laughs: “You had to keep up your schoolwork or get kicked out of the programme. I really enjoyed the one-on-one mentoring. It’s nice to talk to someone about your problems, and get it all out of your system.”

Fortunately, she managed to keep up her schoolwork; she’s now in her first year studying health sciences at the University of Auckland.

“I’ve always thought of becoming a sports doctor. I find science really interesting,” Hopman says. She’s taken on just two papers this semester so she can train at her Counties Manukau club in Takanini in the afternoons.

“I’m trying to do my sport while my body still works, and make the most of it,” she says. “Because when I’m 30, I probably won’t be as mobile as I am now.”

***

Hopman can’t believe it came down to her last attempt.

With one of her two coaches, Tracey Redhead, in tow (and the other, Elena Pirozhenko, chiming in on Zoom calls) Hopman went to Europe in March to compete in four international competitions, including three World Cups.

It was the moment Hopman had waited for since Covid hit New Zealand two years before. “I’d dreamed about it since the first lockdown in 2020 - to finally go overseas and really start my international career,” she says.

But it didn’t start well. In her first major event, the Sofia Cup in Bulgaria, she fell ill on competition day.

“I got a viral chest infection, and it was probably the sickest I’ve ever been,” she says. “I did the competition but I didn’t realise how sick I was. I was falling down in routines.”

Havana Hopman loves the emotion competing on the world stage brings. Photo: supplied. 

But she wouldn’t let a virus steal her moment on the world stage, again. The whole reason she was in Europe was to prove she could finish in the top six in the Commonwealth.

Although she’d impressed with her clubs and ribbon routines at Sofia and Taskent, Uzbekistan, it came down to the last World Cup, in Baku, Azerbaijan, to meet the standards she needed to be nominated by Gymnastics NZ to the NZ Olympic Committee.

“It was incredibly stressful, I was a bit emotionally drained,” Hopman says. “On the last day I knew it was my last chance, and somehow we did it.

“It was the hardest experience I’d ever had competing. But there’s something about the world stage. The stadiums are massive, and people who don’t even know you will call out ‘catch’ in Russian or Bulgarian. They’re all clapping, and little girls look up to you. The emotions you get are insane.”

Hopman is well again, and can’t wait to make her Commonwealth Games debut, alongside her team-mate, Paris Chin, who’s in her final year at Christchurch’s Burnside High School.

And speaking of Paris, Hopman is already thinking ahead to the 2024 Olympics. Angela Walker was the last Kiwi rhythmic gymnast to compete at an Olympics, in Seoul in 1988.  Hopman wants to break the drought.

“The process starts now – this year’s world championships are one of the first qualifiers,” she says. “It’s definitely a dream of every athlete. There’s no question, I absolutely want to be there. I’ll just keep working.”

Kiwi diving teen's in sync for Games debut

The youngest athlete in NZ's Commonwealth Games team, 16-year-old Maggie Squire is ready to make a big splash in the diving world. And she has a "good mate" who'll be right beside her, mid-air.

With a four-year age gap and a significant difference in height, they’re an unlikely duo for synchronised diving. 

But 16-year-old Maggie Squire and Frazer Tavener (20) make a great pair - called up to compete at their first Commonwealth Games after just a year diving together. 

They've also become good mates, and are looking to follow the same path outside the pool, to become engineers. 

Tavener and Squire will compete in the 3m mixed synchro in Birmingham - with the extremely technical event included on the diving programme for the first time at the Games.

Squire, who's the youngest athlete in New Zealand's Commonwealth Games team so far, loves the event despite its difficulty.

“It’s definitely a higher standard you have to dive to," she says. "I have to try really hard to jump so I can get to the same height as Frazer."

For Tavener, it’s often a case of using less power and height so their dives are perfectly synchronised. He can adjust the fulcrum on his board for the stiffness.

“I have to make the board really stiff when I’m doing synchro just to try and keep everything in time, keep the height the same and make sure we hit the water at the same time,” he says. 

For such a recent pairing, Squire and Tavener gel very well together - both in diving and outside the sport. 

“When we started doing it, we didn’t realise we’d actually be quite good at it. So it was a little bit of a surprise,” Squire laughs. 

Tavener agrees. “We get along quite well, so it’s going to be fantastic to be able to share that experience with someone I’m good mates with.” 

Squire and Tavener competing their mixed synchro dives at the national championships in May. 

Squire, now in Year 12 at Takapuna Grammar School, has managed to balance diving with her academics, even doing Level 3 subjects this year in order to graduate a year early. 

She’s hoping to study engineering next year (but considering a gap year first), after being inspired by Tavener, who’s studying part-time at Auckland University. 

Tavener is full of praise for his quiet and modest diving partner.

“She is incredibly smart, really driven, both in diving and outside of diving. She’s also really kind to other people as well, really wants the best for other people,” he says. 

Squire is competing in the 1m and 3m springboard in Birmingham - two events she recently won at the Diving New Zealand national championships. 

She started making a splash on the world scene in late 2019, at the age of 14, in her first FINA Grand Prix events. In Kuala Lumpur she made the semifinals, finishing sixth in the 3m springboard.

Just as her senior diving career was taking off, Covid lockdown hit and Squire was limited to training over Zoom. 

“It was definitely really difficult; those are some pretty big comps [the Grand Prix] and they were an amazing experience,” she says. “Having Covid come along right at that time really put a physical and mental block on the training I could do.” 

When lockdown restrictions eased a little, Squire and her fellow Auckland divers could get out of the house and made use of what was available - jumping from backyard trampolines into pools, and even off the wharf at Murray's Bay on Auckland's North Shore. 

Returning to training after all of Auckland's lockdown levels, Squire was quickly back to her world-class form. 

“I just had even more love for the sport than I did before and it was just so exciting to be back," she says.

NZ's diving team heading to Birmingham, including Squire (far left) and Tavener (second from right). Photo: Getty Images

New Zealand are sending eight divers to Birmingham, the largest contingent of Kiwi divers ever selected for the Games. 

Squire will be away from home and school for eight weeks - first to the world championships in Hungary in a fortnight, then a Grand Prix in Italy, followed by a training camp with the Australian diving team in the UK before the Commonwealth Games start at the end of July. 

Luckily, they’re a tight-knit group. “Everyone going over with me I’m really close friends with," Squire says. "We train together every day so it’ll just be a really awesome trip.

“It’ll be really exciting to meet the other athletes in the New Zealand team [at the Games] and talk to them about what they do.” 

Squire was recently awarded a FINA development scholarship, which will help her with the cost of travel and training for a year.

“It was really exciting news. It's really helpful having it there to know that I can go to these big competitions which will give me so much experience for the future,” she says. 

Along with support from family, who drive her to training every day, Squire also has sponsorship from Mike Walczak and his company Signify which has helped her to compete overseas.

At the world champs in Hungary, Squire will compete in the open women’s 1m and 3m events, as well as the mixed synchro with Tavener. And she might team up for the platform synchro with 17-year-old Mikali Dawson, who’s competing in the 10m platform at Birmingham. 

“It will be so amazing diving with all the top divers in the world, it’ll be so cool,” Squire says. It will be her first world champs. 

“I’m definitely a little bit nervous because it is a huge opportunity. But I just want to go there and try my best and see how well I do.” 

Their relationship outside the pool complements Squire and Tavener's synchro skills. Photo: Bex Charteris

Despite her youth, Squire has been diving for around eight years; her promise first spotted by her swimming coach when she would dive at the start of a race.

“I definitely wasn’t the most naturally talented diver when I started, but after a lot of practise and the love of the sport, I started to get a lot better,” says Squire, who's been to national championships since she was 12.

Getting the call to say she was going to Birmingham was "super exciting", but also a weight off her chest after balancing diving and school for so long. “It was also a big relief after doing so many trials and competitions - that was a lot of hard work. It was just a relief to finally be like ‘Oh woah, I’ve made it’.”

While Squire’s plans for study and work next year are still up in the air, one thing for certain is her continued ascent through the diving ranks. 

Tavener, who’s been diving for seven years, knows Squire has a bright future. 

“It’s fantastic to be able to see someone four years younger than me stepping into the senior scene at the same time with so much potential,” he says. 

“She’s going places for sure, coming in at such a young age and setting the bar so high. I’m excited to see the career she can make for herself.” 

Pushing our female athletes to top of the mountain

As New Zealand's ski season starts, a bold challenge has been laid down to give female skiers and snowboarders equality on the slopes, Sara Essig Webb reports. 

One of the things that vexes World Cup freeskier Laura Wotton most is being told by coaches she should "ride like a guy".

"What? I'm not a guy," Wotton says in a new documentary that lays out the obstacles faced by New Zealand females in snow sports. "I want to be told you should ride like a girl, or look up to this girl."

Kiwi girls and women have been wowed watching Zoi Sadowski-Synnott, Alice Robinson and Jess Hotter climb to the top of snow sport's world stage.

But Laura Hedley knows that’s not enough.

As a girl who grew up in the mountains, Hedley is now the general manager of the Cardrona and Treble Cone ski areas, a role she’s held for the past year. And she and her team are spearheading a campaign to inspire wāhine to take up snow sports – one Instagram post at a time.

The “All In” campaign challenges everyone in the New Zealand ski industry to commit to equal gender representation in snow sports media.

A young girl is shown the ropes on Cardrona's beginners slope last weekend. Photo: Troy Tanner. 

The project came about during a journey of self-reflection by the team who run Cardrona and Treble Cone.

According to research they undertook, their social media audiences are made up by nearly 45 percent women. But in the winter of 2020, only 29 percent of skiing and snowboarding content featured women.

Posts showing women actively participating were scarce – just 15 percent. In many cases they were a single snapshot within a longer clip featuring mostly men.

“At the end of 2020, our team took stock of gender representation in our social media content,” Wānaka-based Hedley explains. “It quickly became clear that we were perpetuating gender stereotypes, often reducing women to ‘lifestyle’ content.”

With the Cardrona skifield opening last weekend to kick off the winter season, and plenty of snow falling on our mountains, the Southern Lakes ski areas have released two films. The first is a celebration of great skiing and snowboarding, showcasing the talent of wāhine in the mountains.

The second is a short documentary about the experience of women in the New Zealand snow sports industry. The documentary, ‘All In,’ (watch below) features interviews with top talent from across Aotearoa, including Freeride World Tour champion Jess Hotter, Olympians Cool Wakushima and Janina Kuzma, up and coming female athletes and women’s health professionals who play a critical role behind the snow sports scene. It looks at the differences in media, biology and culture for female skiers and snowboarders.

“All In is a celebration of Kiwi women in snow sports, highlighting the challenges that many face, while discussing hopes for a more equitable future in the New Zealand snow sports industry,” Hedley says.

They already made a start on righting the imbalance last winter.

Cardrona and Treble Cone ensured 50 percent of their social media content featured women. In 2022, their two biggest pre-season campaigns – the annual earlybird season pass and multi-day pass sales – have exclusively showcased images of women in snow sport.

“This was a first in New Zealand and proved that focusing on women in sport can be incredibly powerful - both inspirational and driving commercial success,” says Hedley.

"Mark my words - we are catching up," Jess Hotter in 'All In'.

Looking ahead, Cardrona and Treble Cone have committed to equitable gender representation in all marketing media, encouraging more people to find their passion in the mountains. They are challenging other snow sports brands to join them.

“We know this is just a good start – it’s not all that needs to be done,” says Hedley. “We’ll keep asking ourselves and others the questions that need to be asked. We’ll listen, we’ll learn, and we’ll keep making change.

“However, this change can’t be something we do alone.”

Nic Cavanagh, chief executive of Snow Sports NZ, is aware of the underrepresentation of women in high performance snow sports coaching around the world.

Numbers are more evenly split at the participation level, where the largest fields in New Zealand’s alpine ski races last year were the U12 and U14 girls. Cavanagh notes World Cup alpine ski racer Alice Robinson has had a significant influence on younger competitors.

World Freeride champion Jess Hotter at Treble Cone. Photo: Troy Tanner. 

So why are there so few female coaches?

“International travel is a big part of it,” Cavanagh points out. "The coaches spend at least half the year overseas, following the international competition circuit. It’s a pretty tough gig for anyone, male or female, especially if you have a family."

As an organisation, Snow Sports NZ has reflected on their approach to supporting women who want to train toward high performance coaching. This could include starting the process of recruiting female coaches for the high performance programme much earlier in the pathway, “nurturing and developing at the instructor level,” Cavanagh says.

Right now, six of the 11 athlete performance staff at Snow Sports NZ are women. Jane Stevens, adapative and para sport development manager, serves on several International Paralympic Committees. Doctors Sarah Beable and Nat Anglem work with athletes, parents, coaches and performance support staff on education initiatives around women’s health.

"A lot of people have been concerned with an athlete getting her period on race day... but it could be their performance superpower,"  Sarah Beable in 'All In'



Last year, Snow Sports NZ put alpine coach Lucy Brown forward for the Women in High Performance Sport project, Te Hāpaitanga, which gives female coaches mentors and networks.

Fiona Stevens has just been voted onto the FIS Council, the board for all snow sports disciplines led by the world body, becoming the first New Zealander to sit at this table.

While there are wins on the board and on the mountain, more can be done, Hedley insists.

“We've started a programme called Ride Tamariki, for the kids in the region to come up the mountain and experience it,” Hedley explains.

She grew up believing every child could benefit from time in the mountains. Her mother was a ski patrol nurse and her father was a ski instructor.

Olympian Cool Wakushima at Cardrona. Photo: Troy Tanner. 

Hedley rebelled against the family tradition and started snowboarding at a young age.

“My parents were adamant that the mountains were a good place for us to be growing up,” she recalls.

Today, five senior managers report directly to Hedley, whose leadership extends across 16 departments and influences the work of up to 900 staff between the two resorts. She cites the influence of female leaders in the Southern Lakes region for growing her confidence and preparing her for the general manager role.

“I’ve had these amazing people around me. We ask our staff to give everything they’ve got,” she says. “So guests leave feeling that they’ve got this mana from being up there; they feel better for being on the mountains. If we’re asking our staff to do that,we need to do that for our teams.”

Hedley’s brand of leadership is learning on the job, and has certainly been shaped by the mountains. In one breath, she can champion a national movement around equity and diversity. In the next, she sounds like a fangirl, speaking of New Zealand’s first winter Olympic gold medallist Sydowski-Synott and and World Freeride Tour champion Hotter.

"If you see what girls are doing now on snowboards and skis, it's absolutely phenomenal. I'm so stoked to have that behind me, to grow into the rest of my life as a woman,"  snowboarder Corrah Phillips in 'All In'.

The world is watching the Southern Lakes, and Hedley knows this is the moment.

“They are showing that they are so strong,” she says. “And that it’s possible to be on the world stage in snow sports, even when you’re from New Zealand.”

Young guns fire in Black Ferns and Pulse triumphs

What did netball and rugby's main events at the weekend share in common? The energy and exuberance of youth, Merryn Anderson and Suzanne McFadden discover.

You may not think you could draw too many parallels between the Black Ferns grinding down world No.3 rugby nation Canada, and the Pulse walking over the Stars in netball’s premiership grand final, both played out on Sunday afternoon.

Yes, two sides dominated their encounters. The Pulse smothered the Stars from the get-go in their 56-37 title victory in Wellington; the Black Ferns taking a little longer to evade the clutches of Canada, running out 28-0 winners with a more complete second half in Auckland.

But there was something else the two big matches of the weekend shared: The youth in both winning sides stood up to the test of professional sport.

You’d like to think that puts both netball and rugby in good stead for the future.

Of course, the national sides in both codes are desperate to be at their absolute competitive best in the very near future. The Black Ferns when they defend their world title at home in four months’, and the Silver Ferns to deal with their unfinished business at the Commonwealth Games in Birmingham next month.

Suzanne McFadden was in the crowd as the Black Ferns made positive steps forward, while Merryn Anderson watched the young Pulse side make history – twice in one afternoon.

***

PACIFIC FOUR SERIES: BLACK FERNS 28, CANADA 0.

Wayne Smith, the Black Ferns’ new director of coaching, was glad he’d read the text messages from Ruby Tui.

The sevens star, who’s thriving in her new 15s environment, messaged Smith and told him to keep an eye on an 18-year-old Auckland midfielder named Sylvia Brunt at the Black Ferns camp.

“I didn’t know she was,” Smith admits. “But she sent me texts saying: ‘You’ve got to see this girl play’.”

Then Brunt was called into the Black Ferns squad of 32 as a travelling reserve for the Pacific Four Series, but on Sunday made her debut in the black jersey against Canada.  

Black Ferns captain Ruahei Demant (right) congratulates Sylvia Brunt on making her debut in the black jersey v Canada. Photo: Getty Images.

And, when she did, somewhere around 50 minutes into the clash, the bottom of the Waitākere Stadium grandstand erupted. The Sylvia Brunt fan club – made up of Auckland whānau, Ponsonby Fillies team-mates and Mt Albert Grammar school-mates – screamed and wildly waved huge homemade banners.

Brunt responded. “She made a massive impact, she sparked up that field,” her captain, Ruahei Demant said, after the Black Ferns’ victory. “I’m so excited for her future in this jersey.”

Tui first saw Brunt aged 16, when they played in the Fillies together: “I thought she was in her mid-20s, just the level of rugby intelligence she had.

“Sis is so quiet, she’s really polite. But as soon as she crosses that white line, something happens... Like Wolverine, she transforms. That kid is going to be one of the greats, eh.”

The other Black Ferns debutant in the game, 22-year-old Amy du Plessis, made quite an impression as a next-gen Fern, too. Playing at centre, du Plessis was strong on both attack and defence, and linked up well with Brunt when she entered the game.

Her searing break down the left wing (despite cramping up) near the end of the game, was finished off by Tui for her second try of the match.

“That’s probably the best game I’ve seen Amy play,” said Smith, noting the work South African-born du Plessis has done on her game with All Black centre Conrad Smith as her mentor.

Smith was full of compliments for the home side, who made it two from two in this series after their 23-10 win over Australia in heavy rain last week. He also called Demant (who started at second five next to Hazel Tubic at No.10) “probably the best player in the country at the moment”.

And yet for a second time, the Black Ferns struggled in the first half to avoid handling errors, link up passes or score tries. Even with a brisk wind behind them, they led only 6-0 at halftime thanks to two Tubic penalties.

The Canadians, ranked third in the world, put in some big hits on defence and looked threatening on attack just before halftime. But the breeze died, the Black Ferns made their connections more often, and a Tui chip-and-chase try opened the gates for three more New Zealand tries (including one each from 20-year-old lock Maia Roos and flanker Alana Bremner).

Tui credited fellow wing Ayesha Leti-I’iga with coaching her in her kicking game. Meanwhile, Leti-I’iga showed off her power for a second week straight, relentlessly piercing Canada’s defence and earning player of the match.

"Our wingers are world-class aren't they?” Smith said. “You can see why we want to play some rugby because you've got to use your great players.

“Ruby hasn't played a lot of 15s, but it's incredible how she picks things up. She's been working on that kick for three weeks. To do it under pressure - she's special.”

Black Fern Ruby Tui prepares to tackle Canadian Pamphinette Buisa at Waitākere Stadium. Photo: Getty Images. 

Even down to 14 women twice during the game, the Black Ferns’ exceptional defence still kept a disappointed Canada scoreless.

Sticking with Smith’s philosophy to see everyone in the squad take the field this series, a different XV will line-up in their last game in Whangārei this Saturday, against the United States (who beat Australia, 16-14, yesterday). It will help the Black Ferns coaching team come closer to finding their best squad to defend the World Cup in October.

The connections are growing with each game and training, Demant reassures.

“You guys are only seeing 80 minutes of it, but those connections are coming every day when we step out on the training field as well,” she says. “There’s a lot of work the coaches and players are putting into, not only the game plan, but our whanaungatanga [a sense of family connection]. And there are so many benefits of that, and this is one of them.”

***

ANZ PREMIERSHIP GRAND FINAL: PULSE 56, STARS 37.

The Central Pulse turned out with the youngest team in the ANZ Premiership this season, with an average age of 22.

After finishing fifth in netball's elite league in 2021, few predicted them to flourish this year with such a young team; their oldest player – Kristiana Manu’a - just 26 years old.

But it turned out to be a dominant performance from the Pulse, both on Sunday and throughout the season. They‘d won 10 of their 15 games in the regular season, with four of their five losses being five goals or less. And their 19-goal trouncing of the Stars was the biggest grand final winning margin in the history of the national league.  

Vital midcourter Maddy Gordon played her 50th ANZ Premiership game on Sunday, aged just 22. She was elated at the win, speaking to LockerRoom after the final whistle.

“It could have really gone either way, so I’m so stoked the girls could pull through,” she said.

Gordon, who returned from a knee injury part way through the season, believes the youth of the Pulse was key in their success. “We’ve had such a good vibe in the team; we really wanted to go out there and play for each other,” she says.

Pulse shooter Tiana Metuarau evades the defence of the Stars' Elle Temu in the ANZP grand final. Photo: Getty Images. 

Among the young guns who played their role in the Pulse’s success this season were 20-year-olds Tiana Metuarau – their co-captain - and Paris Lokotui, who had her season cruelly cut short by an ACL injury. Parris Mason (19) and Amelia Walmsley (18), who both came off the bench yesterday, were also crucial in Central Manawa’s victory in the second-tier National Netball League this year.

The Pulse’s latest title makes them the most successful ANZ Premiership team, winning the final in 2019 and 2020 as well.

Manu’a put her side’s final success down to the young side’s consistency.

"Before the game started we said ‘No matter the result, we want a consistent 60 minutes’, so that's what we did. And I’m absolutely elated with our performance tonight,” the crafty goal defence said.

It was a scrappy first five of those 60 minutes, but the Pulse were the first to settle and an explosive six-goal run at the end of the first quarter gave them a nine-goal lead.

Pulse goal shoot Aliyah Dunn didn’t miss with her first 14 attempts, with several tricky no-look assists from Metuarau helping them to a 15-6 lead.

Every time the momentum looked to swing the Stars’ way, a yellow dress would charge through, and the Pulse’s lead grew to 11 goals at half-time, 26-15. The damage had well and truly been done, and the Stars never made a dent in the home side’s lead.

With the win secured, Pulse coach Yvette McCausland-Durie introduced her bench players to the court in the final stanza, rewarding all of her 12-strong side with a grand final experience.

Gordon was full of praise for McCausland-Durie, who returned to the Pulse after a year away in 2021.

“She is honestly the best coach, knows how to bring a team together, and knows how to make them laugh,” Gordon said. “I’m really stoked that she came back and so excited that she’s back again next year.”

Manu’a, who returned from Australia to suit up for the Pulse this season, was grateful to McCausland-Durie, too. "She's been absolutely amazing to give me a chance to come over here to Wellington and play,” she says. “I'm so thankful."

With the Silver Ferns trialists announced on Wednesday, Pulse goal keep Kelly Jury would no doubt have caught the eye of coach Dame Noeline Taurua, sitting in the noisy, sold-out crowd.

The MVP of the match, Jury played all but three minutes and had eight gains, four intercepts and seven deflections. She limited the normally dominant Stars shooter Maia Wilson to just nine goals in the first half.

One of the standouts of the season, Jury (who's just 25 by the way) was almost speechless after the win. "All season we've been looking for that complete performance and what a day to bring it,” she said.

Despite being on the losing side, Stars goal defence Elle Temu still had a strong showing in her pursuit of the black dress, finishing the game with six gains and six deflections.

Emotion was visible on all of the Stars’ faces, but none more than Anna Harrison, who officially confirmed her netball retirement at 39.

Stars coach Kiri Wills was quick to reflect on the season as a whole. "We could quite well be at home watching this on TV, but we're here and we fought really hard to get here,” she said post-match.

“My team in time will be able to hold their heads high because they played some brilliant netball this year."

Irene van Dyk gives rangatahi a voice

WATCH: Our most celebrated netballer, Irene van Dyk, talks openly about growing up in Apartheid South Africa, the backlash of becoming a Silver Fern and retiring on her terms in the latest Pure As video.

She also tells Suzanne McFadden how she’s now giving back by ensuring NZ’s young netballers have a voice.

Irene van Dyk is living the dream.

Eight years after she retired as the world’s most recognisable netballer, ending 20 years at the top of the sport, van Dyk is still very much immersed in the game.

Now she’s giving back - focusing on giving rangatahi a voice, so they can help shape the future of netball.

Living in Hawkes Bay with husband Christie, van Dyk’s new professional role is Netball New Zealand’s participation manager of youth and heads netball’s pioneering youth board.

“Working for Netball New Zealand is a dream come true. I absolutely love my job,” van Dyk tells LockerRoom. “I’m completely out of my depth, but I learn so many new things every single day.”

That was probably van Dyk’s greatest strength throughout her 217-test career - she was constantly learning, always reinventing herself to flummox the world’s best defenders (often with Christie, armed with a broom, defending her shot in the backyard).

“But I am making a little difference,” she says. “When you do a job that’s the ultimate outcome, isn’t it? And I’m so lucky to have lived through some amazing times in netball and now I can give back.”

In the latest Pure As episode from Netball NZ, van Dyk talks about her goal to make a difference in young people’s lives.

“Netball in New Zealand made me a hero. And I think I have a lot to give back,” she says in the documentary. “When someone becomes a Silver Fern and says: ‘I remember watching Irene and I want to be just like her’… that would be epic.”

Her work to encourage more youth to play netball and have equal opportunities is a far cry from the situation when she was growing up in South Africa during Apartheid. Van Dyk became more aware of the differences between black and white children in sport when she went to university. “There were so many kids out there that didn’t get opportunities; that had the right to have opportunities,” she says.

Having seen New Zealand’s netball landscape “change significantly” in the past three years, van Dyk wants to help usher in more progressive change.

“I’m part of a team who want to grow the game and be innovative to make sure we future-proof netball. We’re giving our rangatahi a voice, because they will be the future of what netball looks like,” the 2003 World Cup champion says.

She admits she's been a little bowled over by what those young voices are saying.

“I listen to them and think they’re so clever for their age; they’re so worldly and knowledgeable. I wasn’t like that at all. In my day it was: ‘You speak when you’re spoken to, Cupcake’. You didn’t have a voice,” she says.

“Politically these rangatahi know what they stand for, they know what they want, they know their values.”

So what is it the next generation of netballers want from the game?

“For them, diversity and inclusion is extremely important,” van Dyk says. “And they want a quality experience - not only as participants, but as coaches and umpires and spectators. They want to see our game grow.”

Irene van Dyk has also ventured into coaching since retiring from international netball in 2014. Photo: Photo: Andy Radka Above Ground Level Photography

She’s enjoying leading the youth board, alongside Georgia Trent - the first student to intern on the Netball NZ executive board back in 2020, who’s been on the youth board since it started that year.

Youth now have a seat at netball tables. Centres throughout the country have youth advisory groups, and now zones are doing the same, van Dyk explains. “So now we will have a multi-tiered system to make sure all of our rangatahi have a voice,” she says.

Van Dyk is able to work out of Hawkes Bay and travels to Auckland once a fortnight to spend two days in the Netball NZ office.

She’s also an ambassador for the new Sport NZ campaign #itsmymove to get girls involved in physical activity.

“It’s really opened my eyes to see there’s so much more than just organised sport. It doesn’t matter what you do, just move and keep physically active - for your mental health, it’s so important,” she says, talking as she does her daily lunchtime walk.

“It doesn’t matter what you wear, where you do it or what you do. As long as you’re happy and it fills your cup.”

Van Dyk is also coaching a netball team, the Hastings High School Old Girls. But one of the most consistent shooters in netball history can’t be convinced to take the court again.   

“They’ve asked me a few times if I’d play, and I’m like ‘Nope’. I believe that it’s the younger people’s turn to experience the game,” says van Dyk, who turns 50 later this month.  

“I train with them on Wednesday nights as their opposition, and they hate it. They say, ‘Oh can’t you just play?’ But my ship has sailed. I’m very happy on the docks.”

She’s relishing the opportunity to coach a premier club team, who are sitting in third in their competition.  

“They’re really competitive, and there’s a really cool culture. We have an occupational therapist, a doctor, a policewoman, two physios, three teachers and two school kids - a really good mix of people, who play their hearts out,” van Dyk says.

It’s the coach’s philosophy that everyone gets court time, every time.

She’s no longer a specialist coach with the Pulse, who'll play in the ANZ Premiership grand final on Sunday against the Stars.

“These days, I can just enjoy watching classy netball,” van Dyk says. Her prediction? “I reckon the final is going to be a doozy, and there’s going to be only one goal in it.”

Irene van Dyk, and daughter Bianca, at a Hurricanes rugby match in 2017. Photo: Getty Images

In Pure As, van Dyk explains why she decided to stay in New Zealand after coming to play for the Capital Shakers in 2000, and how that decision influenced the life of her now adult daughter, Bianca.

There’s a video clip of a young Irene telling the late Paul Holmes why she chose to put herself forward for the Silver Ferns, then having to weather “three weeks of slamming” from some Kiwi netball critics. “They should put themselves in my shoes as well, because I came over here to have a better lifestyle with my little girl,” she told the broadcaster.

A talented netball shooter in her own right, Bianca van Dyk studied at San Diego State University on a rowing scholarship. She's now living in Wellington working for Netball Central as participation lead.

“She’s doing my old job,” her mother laughs. “She absolutely loves it - netball is in her blood.” Every Tuesday, mother and daughter see each other on a nationwide Zoom call with others helping to boost netball participation. 

Van Dyk has no regrets that she brought her family to New Zealand, their home now for 22 years.  

“The opportunities I’ve been given, the lifestyle Bianca has had; it’s mind-blowing. It’s the holistic view, not just the sporting side of it, everything that has added to my life," she says.

“It’s unbelievable how the people of New Zealand have taken me in, and I just want to give back everything I can. And I count my blessings every single day.”

In two seasons so far, Pure As has gained a global reach of over 5 million and more than 3 million organic video views.

All episodes will be launched with an exclusive first watch through www.silverfans.co.nz, and shown on LockerRoom each week. Wat the first episode, Sulu Fitzpatrick, here, and Sam Winders here. 

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