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Return of the Ferns

Football, netball, cricket and rugby - it's all on for Kiwi women's sports teams across the globe this weekend. Merryn Anderson gives the lowdown on all the Ferns action.

Army bridge builder nails Black Ferns XV

A young army captain who led the major rebuild of a flood-destroyed bridge is now storming the rugby field for the Black Ferns XV.

The flow on effect is a period game-changer

It's time to normalise conversations around periods to help young women feel comfortable playing sport - that's the goal of the Flow on Effect initiative. Suzanne McFadden talks to wāhine aiming to make a difference in athletes' health and wellbeing.

“It’s an uncomfortable journey we all need to be comfortable with.”

It’s a journey Kate Ebrahim - White Fern cricketer, Canterbury rugby player, teacher, coach and mum - is now well into. But she’s in the process of taking young women with her.

Ebrahim is talking about female athlete health – and the need to talk more about it. Removing the stigma around menstruation, normalising discussions around periods and giving coaches the tools to better understand the physical development of young women.

“We're all uncomfortable talking about it but we need to start getting comfortable about it. I guess that happens over time through changing the language we use, changing the conversations we have and increasing awareness,” says Ebrahim, last year’s Otago Sparks cricketer of the year.

“Even in the high-performance environments I'm currently in, it's still a very shallow area. It's not normalised yet - especially with the younger age group, which is alarming. But I can see sports are now trying to normalise it.”

Ebrahim's personal philosophy is in sync with The Flow On Effect – a new initiative by Sport New Zealand to 'kick-start the conversation' around female health, menstruation and physical activity, especially in communities.

It comes off the back of last month’s FIFA Women’s World Cup played in New Zealand, and is part of the government’s leverage and legacy programme to get more young women physically active. In this case by increasing education around female health, reducing period anxiety, and addressing period poverty.

As well as being a top athlete, Ebrahim works with many young women who would benefit from these conversations - she’s a teacher at Belmacewen Intermediate in Dunedin, she’s coaching the St Hilda’s Collegiate 1st XI girls cricket side and working with the Otago women’s rugby team in the Farah Palmer Cup.

Kate Ebrahim wants to be a game changer on and off the cricket pitch. Photo: Getty Images. 

Ebrahim, who had daughter Sophia three years ago, says it’s a serious oversight that female health and wellbeing hasn’t been treated as a priority in sport – from grassroots through to high-performance level.

“We talk about strength and conditioning as being a priority and we put so much time and emphasis on skill and tactical development,” she says. “Yet our health is the driver of our bodies - and if we're not even touching on what’s happening with our bodies, we’re running into trouble. And that can be trouble now, or later in life when we want to start families.

“With my teacher’s hat on, we educate our girls early on in schools around puberty, but then the conversation goes on hold. You can't assume that our athletes know everything about their bodies - there's no harm in relearning or refreshing as well.”

Ebrahim, who played rugby for Canterbury before her daughter’s birth, was the culture and leadership manager for the Otago Spirit women's rugby side in the Farah Palmer Cup this season and saw “recurring patterns” in some players' health. She knew something needed to be done.

“It alerted me these girls needed help and education, and that starts from being aware and then upskilling ourselves as management,” she says. She’s organised a workshop around women’s health through the University of Otago.

“I'm highly invested in this because I've been through it all.” 

Ebrahim admits there was a lot she didn’t know about her body until she’d had her daughter. “Imagine the athlete I could have been if I’d known when I was much younger,” she says.

Kicking down barriers

Earlier this year, Sport NZ listened to young women talk about their fear of judgment and anxiety around their bodies.

“When you’re dealing with your menstrual cycle and trying to stay active, it can present a range of different barriers for young people,” Maddi McLean, the women and girls lead at Sport NZ, says.

“We want to give them some information that might help them on their journey. And hearing from the experiences of others is a really powerful way we can start to normalise conversations around our bodies and start to address that fear of judgment which can be a barrier to participation.”

During the FIFA World Cup, more than 250 students were part of the Hine o te Kura youth symposium in Auckland, with the goal to ‘change the game on menstrual inequity’.

“We realised the opportunity we had with the FIFA Women's World Cup to really leverage the platform that event provided and think about elevating a conversation around something that's not really talked about so often - to reduce some of the stigma around menstruation,” McLean says.

Sport NZ women and girls lead Maddi McLean. Photo: Sport NZ

Sport NZ had already begun putting together their Flow On Effect initiative with the same purpose. Sports organisations were asking for resources they could use to educate around female health, especially at the community level. “And rangatahi are actually really interested in learning more about their bodies too,” McLean says.

The Flow on Effect now has an online site featuring resources, the voices of young women and their experiences with menstruation while keeping active, and a list of sports organisations already doing something about it.

A handbook for coaches, instructors and parents to better understand female health was borne out of a Netball NZ and ACC collaboration, then turned it into a “more broad and holistic” resource for community sport.

“We looked at the key things parents, coaches and instructors were asking questions about - puberty and development, the menstrual cycle, how we can be supporting young people's wellbeing whether it's physical, mental or social,” McLean says. She’s hoping the handbook will be adopted in schools, too.

They’ve also launched a video case study on NZ Cricket’s decision to ditch traditional white uniforms for female athletes, to make them more confident and comfortable to stay in sport. The Football Ferns are another example of a high-profile team, who switched to black and teal shorts for this year’s World Cup, and some had period leak protection integrated into the kit. That's now filtered down to club football sides.

“When I was playing hockey, we were often wearing light-coloured skirts,” McLean says. “And if you were on your period, you didn't want to be worried about leaking. It took your focus a little bit away from what you were out there to do, to go and play. So the positive shifts we're seeing in the move away from white and light-coloured uniforms will benefit the generations playing sport now as well as future generations."

Understanding ikura

Fifteen-year-old basketballer Fern Taiapa wants other girls to understand their period isn’t something to be embarrassed about.

“A lot of girls feel so whakama [shame], but it shouldn’t be this western point of view of hiding away when you get your period. All women get it and it’s something to be proud of,” says the Pukekohe High student who sees menstruation from a Te Ao Māori perspective, where it’s cause for celebration, not shame.

Fern Taiapa (left) speaking at the Hine o te Kura Youth Symposium in June. Photo: Sport NZ

When she took up rowing, she decided to follow tikanga (traditional values) and stay off the water when she was on her period. “It’s part of my culture that when you have your ikura [period] you're not allowed on the water because the blood flow is tapu,” says Taiapa, who spoke to other students at the youth symposium.

“It was a really tough conversation to have with my coach, who’s a man. He was like ‘Oh, are you sure you're not just trying to get out of training?’ And I said, ‘No, sir. This is real serious’.  He was actually super understanding and put me on the rowing erg for a week’s training off the water.”

Her decision brought up challenges – like getting her period while competing at a regatta. “There’s a fine line between playing your sport and your tikanga,” says Taiapa. “I ended up racing, but I felt real paru [yukky] afterwards.”

She’s now focusing on basketball, playing for the Counties-Manukau U17 side, and faces challenges in that sport too.  “We’re so self-conscious of wearing like lighter colours - because sometimes you have to wear reversible [uniforms] – and you might leak through your shorts,” she says.

(A survey of 4000 British teenage girls last year revealed 78 percent of girls who used to be sporty admitted they avoided playing when on their period - three-quarters of them because of pain, while almost two-thirds feared leaking.)

Taiapa strongly believes education around ikura should start earlier in schools in Aotearoa. “I was fortunate enough to get my period at the age of nine, but I had no idea what I was doing. So I think the conversation should start in primary school,” she says.

“It’s still not an open conversation that people are having. All women get it – it something we all have in common - and all girls should just embrace it. I feel like it’s just another way women are a little bit oppressed. There's so much conversation that needs to be had about it.”

Bringing Flow on Effect to life

Across the road from Pukekohe High is the Pukekohe Football Club, where the Flow On Effect is about to take effect.

Celia Kavanagh’s daughter, Felicity, is football-mad and plays in one of the club’s two U14 girls teams. Kavanagh worked with Sport NZ during the FIFA World Cup on the leverage and legacy project, and wanted to see it “brought to life” at the community sports level.

“I wanted the legacy of the FIFA tournament to be more than ‘We went to some games, wasn’t it amazing?’ and see it make a tangible difference,” she says.

Felicity Kavanagh playing for her Pukekohe AFC U14 football side. Photo: Supplied. 

As owner of thinAir, a Kiwi company specialising in revolutionary oxygen therapy, Kavanagh decided to kit out both U14 girls teams with pairs of period underwear, and run a health and wellbeing session at the club.

“We want to use football as a vehicle to empower our rangatahi and wāhine to be active and look after themselves,” she says. “As a parent of a daughter who loves football, I don’t want to leave education, awareness of the different products now available, and the importance of being active and taking care of yourself, to chance.”

While there’s now a wider range of period products – like reusable period underwear, period cups, organic pads and tampons – cost remains an obstacle for some young women. So Kavanagh approached New Zealand brand AWWA, who make sustainable period-proof underwear, and she will donate three pairs to each of the U14 Pukekohe girls.

“It removes the cost barrier for these girls, and they can use the underwear through their cycle, be kind to their bodies and remove sanitary products from landfill,” Kavanagh says.

She sees the Flow on Effect as "a great conversation starter", that will change the attitudes of coaches and the outcomes for young women for the better.

Mystery injury reinvents new White Fern

A shift of focus from ball to bat has given Bella Armstrong a golden opportunity to make her mark on international cricket. She talks to Merryn Anderson ahead of her potential White Ferns debut this month. 

A new start for a long cricket career

A Wellington double code star switches to cricket for Hawkes Bay and is relishing the lifestyle and training opportunities, writes Aiden McLaughlin

At the age of 28, recent Central Hinds signing Thamsyn Newton has left her roots behind to explore life and sport in Hawkes Bay.

A dual code star, Newton was a cornerstone of the Wellington Blaze squad over two spells (2011-2014 and 2018-2023), as well as the Wellington Pride rugby union team, but was actually born in Central Districts territory; Paraparaumu on the Kāpiti Coast is part of the Horowhenua-Kāpiti district association, one of eight district associations that makes up the most widely spread major association In the country.

Newton relocated to the coastal village of Waimārama in April this year, where her partner runs a surf school. After the move, she initially worked remotely, and, by finishing by lunchtime each day, Newton was able to wander down to the beach each afternoon to enjoy that surf as well; but she quickly felt that she needed to make more of an effort to get out and about in her new region.

With the help of her Personal Development Manager at the NZ Cricket Players Association, Newton was successful in applying for a role at BBI Wood Products in Hastings, where she has worked full-time for the last couple of months.

Conveniently, her new job is less than 4 km from the Mitre 10 Sports Park, which is now the main hub for the Central Hinds and Central Stags squads. There are plenty of long days, but her ongoing passion for cricket makes it worth it. Newton trains from 6am-7am at the Sports Park twice a week with a trainer before heading off to work, and also ensures she has three other training sessions a week along, with a net session over an extended lunch break once a week as well.

“Before I decided I was going to sign with the Hinds, the new facilities made things a lot easier. Dave [Meiring, Central Districts Manager, High Performance] gave me a call and he was pretty keen to take me around the facilities, so that was pretty impressive and I think it just made things a lot easier,” says Newton.

“It’s just the convenience of it all. You can go to one place. You’ve got indoor nets, you’ve got outdoor nets, you’ve got the gym, you’ve got the pool, the running track. I don’t know how many places you’d find in New Zealand that have all of that in one location. It’s made things a whole lot easier, being only 10 minutes from work,” she says.

Although Newton’s able to get to her training facilities relatively easily, the unique geographical spread of her Hinds teammates means that outside of the playing season, the full squad don’t really get together apart from specific training camps. Others, such as White Fern Hannah Rowe, have also moved to Hawkes Bay, but at the other end of the spectrum, a newcomer to the Hinds contracted list, Flora Devonshire, is in the South Island, studying at the University of Canterbury. For Newton, it’s very different from the Wellington Blaze set-up where most of the squad were based in the capital.

“It is a big change not being part of a centralised programme. Your team trains after work and then you go to the gym before mahi with nine or 10 girls who are playing in the team so it’s so different here,” says Newton.

“I think it’s great, you’ve got to just be a bit more accountable for getting yourself to the gym, trying to link in and you’ve got to organise a lot more; organising your training times, and trying to fit that in with mahi as well, so it’s good. I think being older you get a bit more independent and I’ve had to be a lot more organised and not just expect to have those two trainings a week that we can train together as a team and train on grass, I’ve got to do that myself,” she says.

Newton brings a wealth of experience to her new team. 107 List A one-dayers, including 10 ODIs for the White Ferns as well as 115 T20s, including 15 T20 Internationals and 14 Women’s Big Bash appearances for the Perth Scorchers.

Newton with former teammate Suzie Bates

“It's definitely been a long career, or at least it feels like that. Wellington’s just been a huge part of my life. I was born and raised there. Whether I go back or not, life can change pretty quickly, but I’m grateful to have been part of such an awesome organisation,” says Newton.

“I think in the last few years it’s been the leader in the development of the women’s game, with their full-time coach, their investment in women’s sport, I’ve been pretty lucky to have been part of that movement with them and I think with a bit more professionalism and money coming into the women’s game as well I think you’re probably going to see a lot of shifts, in terms of girls just moving teams to try and get more opportunities, so, I think it’s just the start of that happening,” she says.

When she made the move earlier this year, Newton didn’t forget to pack her rugby boots and mouthguard, and got straight into club rugby in Hawkes Bay, playing a full, albeit short, club season at fullback for Clive.

“I actually bloody loved playing footy this season. Clive’s where my partner plays and her Dad played for Clive too so I was only ever allowed to join that club. I did think it might be fun to play against each other but that didn’t go down too well,” Newton says, laughing.

“We managed to make the finals but unfortunately, we didn’t quite get over the line, losing to Napier Tech. I’ll definitely still stick around the club scene [next season] for sure.

With the newly promoted Hawkes Bay Tui having made the semi-finals of the Farah Palmer Cup premiership this season, would Newton be tempted to put herself forward for selection next season?

“Depending on how life goes and how work goes, I’ll wait until the season rolls around and see what’s happening. I don’t plan too far forward. I take things in their stride, see how it goes and give it a crack,” Newton says.

“They [the Tui] had some awesome crowds. I was so stoked for them and they played some awesome footy too. At the end of the day, they only play five games of club footy too, so to be able to produce what they did is pretty outstanding. You get promoted and you make top four. Imagine what they could have done if they’d had more games,” she says.

In the immediate future, Newton’s sporting attentions are firmly fixed on the Hinds as pre-season training really kicks into gear, and she’s relishing it.

“It’s definitely a younger team, it’s not as star-studded as the Wellington Blaze but that brings new challenges and new excitement,” says Newton.

“At the end of the day my career goal is pretty simple in the fact that I just want to add value to any team that I’m a part of and however big or small that looks is dependent on what the team needs and if I can give it on that day and at that time.”

Lifeline kept new Ferns keeper in football

An unfortunate run of injuries for a teammate gave footballer Brianna Edwards an opportunity to prove herself in goal. Now the keeper is bringing her new confidence to the Football Ferns. 

In 2021, the Wellington Phoenix threw Brianna Edwards a lifeline when she was in danger of quitting football. The goalkeeper grabbed it, hauled herself out of an unhappy situation and established herself as one of the best keepers in a country she'd never lived in before.

Now she's off to Chile, representing her new nation as part of the Football Ferns. 

Born and raised in Sydney, Edwards moved to the United States to play college football and found herself falling out of love with the game. 

“I really wasn’t happy and I honestly said to my mum ‘I don’t really care if I don’t play, I just want to come home’,” the 20-year-old explains. 

*Phoenix pocket rocket playing for herself
*Veteran Fern thrilled to return - as a Phoenix

Eligible to represent New Zealand through her Kiwi-born dad, playing for the newly-established Phoenix women's side hadn’t been on Edwards’ radar. 

“But as soon as [an offer to play] popped up, I knew it was an opportunity I couldn’t let pass,” she says. 

“I always say the Phoenix saved me from not wanting to play football anymore. So when I signed, it was an easy decision. It was an easy 'yes' to an opportunity I wasn’t expecting.” 

In her first season with the Phoenix, Covid protocols meant the team were based in Wollongong, not far from Edwards’ family in Sydney. Brianna’s twin sister, Siobhan, also plays football, after their mum wanted them to play a team sport that wasn’t netball as kids. 

Edwards played just two games of the Phoenix's inaugural season, as captain Lily Alfeld took the goalie gloves. But a string of injuries ruled Alfeld out in 2022-23 – and the upcoming season – giving Edwards an opportunity to further develop her game. 

Naturally, it created conflicting feelings for Edwards, who was devastated for her teammate. 

“Lily and I are really, really good friends, which sometimes is quite unique for goalkeepers to be close, but we are. From the first season, she’s always been my role model,” she says. 

“When she told me she wasn’t going to be able to play, the first thing she said was ‘This is your chance, this is your opportunity, you got it’. She was more excited for me than I was.

“Even now, I’m still gutted for her, but I know this is my time to take the opportunities I have in front of me and run with them as far as I can and use them to my advantage.” 

Edwards (right) with Lily Alfeld, one of her biggest supporters. Photo: Getty Images

Edwards was full of nerves last season, the step-up unexpected and creating added pressures mentally – especially as a keeper. 

“Goalkeeping is 100 percent a mental game, being able to bounce back after conceding, or keeping your head in the game when we score or trying to manage all those emotions and all those moments in games,” she explains. 

“It was something I hadn’t really done at a high level before and that was probably the biggest step-up. I think it took a few games to really get the gist of it, but after a while, I feel like I thrive in that. That’s where I want to be and that’s why we play.” 

Edwards was selected in the training programme for the Football Ferns’ build-up to the FIFA World Cup earlier this year. And while she didn’t make the final 23, the time spent training alongside New Zealand’s best was a dream come true. 

“If you had told me a year before that I would be in contention for a World Cup, I probably would have laughed and thought you were joking,” she says. 

“But it was really cool, it was such a great environment to be around.” 

Edwards returned home to Sydney during the tournament, and watched the Football Ferns’ opening game sitting in the stands for the Matildas game, proudly wearing her Ferns jersey. 

“I was cheering for them and honestly when that final whistle blew, I felt a part of that," she says. "That’s what the Ferns is about and that’s what I felt, going through that camp with them.” 

And now, getting the call-up from head coach Jitka Klimková for the Football Ferns’ team to play two matches against Chile, was another unexpected surprise. 

“When Jitka rang me and told me I was going away with them, I honestly didn’t even know what to say,” Edwards admits. 

“I’m really excited to push myself, and work with [fellow keepers] Vic [Esson] and Anna [Leat] and get the best out of that environment that I can. To be a part of international games and to be a part of the Ferns, it’s just a dream and I’m really grateful. I honestly can’t wait.” 

Edwards comes into the squad ahead of 83-cap Ferns keeper Erin Nayler, who's easing her workload after dealing with a hip injury. She's also just signed as back-up keeper for German giants Bayern Munich.

While Edwards’ sudden thrust into the first-choice goalkeeper for the Phoenix helped develop her game, it also her boosted her belief in her own abilities. 

“With playing and game time comes confidence and I think my confidence just grew and grew over the last season,” she says. 

“Being in those high pressure environments and training at high levels more often, you get that kind of confidence and you know you can do whatever you put your mind to. 

“My biggest improvement last season was my confidence and backing myself in those moments.” 

Edwards makes a save for the Phoenix. Photo: Getty Images

When Edwards signed on with the Phoenix for this season, she didn’t know Alfeld was ruled out, or who the other goalkeepers on the team were going to be. 

“The point of playing is to fight for your spot and be the best in that moment in the team, and it doesn’t matter who was playing, whether Lily was back or not,” Edwards says. 

“I want to be a first-choice goalkeeper so whether that means I’m competing against someone who already is a number one or someone who maybe is perceived as a number two, either way the competition is there and I want to keep pushing myself.” 

The Phoenix won just two games in their inaugural season, losing 11 and finishing with seven points. Last season, they managed to win three and drew four. It wasn’t enough to raise them off the bottom rung of the ladder, with 13 points, but the team looked much improved. 

This year, they have a new coach – former Phoenix Academy technical director Paul Temple taking the reins for the next two seasons. 

Pre-season work has only just begun, but Edwards is enjoying the new-look side already. 

“The quality of the sessions has been really good and I think that’s just going to keep getting better as we keep going through pre-season and as we get into the season,” she says. 

“Obviously having new coaching staff, everything’s going to feel a bit different but some change is good. I think this season is going to be really positive and we’re going to get the best out of each other as players, and as coaches as well.” 

Edwards will travel to Chile with Phoenix teammates Michaela Foster, Kate Taylor and Grace Wisnewski, but has grown close to a lot of the Ferns at previous training camps. 

“I’m the kind of person who makes friends with everyone, to be honest. But obviously going with the Phoenix girls, Wiz [Wisnewski] and I are really close so going all together, it’s just really cool,” Edwards says. 

Edwards is the only uncapped member of the squad, which has seen four members of the World Cup team out, and five fresh faces in. 

She’ll bring her youthful energy to the team, and is eager to soak it all in. 

“I feel like I’m a big ball of energy constantly and I’m really excited for everything all the time,” Edwards says. 

“A lot of energy and personality to give and to share around, that’s probably how people would describe me. Just a lot of energy.” 

*The Football Ferns will play two matches against Chile - the first on Sunday, September 24, at 11am NZT. The second match will be played behind closed doors the following Wednesday (27th). 

**Football Ferns team: CJ Bott, Katie Bowen, Claudia Bunge, Olivia Chance, Milly Clegg, Brianna Edwards, Victoria Esson, Michaela Foster, Ally Green, Jacqui Hand, Betsy Hassett, Grace Jale, Anna Leat, Annalie Longo, Grace Neville, Gabi Rennie, Ali Riley, Indiah-Paige Riley, Paige Satchell, Malia Steinmetz, Rebekah Stott, Kate Taylor, Hannah Wilkinson, Grace Wisnewski. 

Gender equality: Are we there yet?

When will women's success and inclusion stop being extraordinary?

Forty years ago, one of the first stories I wrote for a newspaper was about a woman working on a road crew. 

A woman! Fancy that! 

There were other stories in a similar vein after that. Air New Zealand's first female pilot in 1986, our first female Governor-General in 1990, and, of course, our first woman Prime Minister in 1997.

Since then there's been an avalanche of other firsts, expectations raised by the profiling and publicity, and the continuation of the 'girls can do anything' message. 

Now with the success of three women's world cup hosting jobs behind us, and the whole country's embrace of the action, has New Zealand hit peak equality? Can I stop writing these 'first' stories? 

"It's a tricky one, isn't it?" says associate professor of communication at Massey University Susan Fountaine, who keeps a close eye on how women are portrayed in the news.

"News is about the novel, the new, the first things to happen; and perhaps unfortunately in the gender environment that means we do have this emphasis on the first women to do particular things. 

"I guess, and I hope, and I really like to think that the media is starting to normalise more the achievements of women, and I think we're seeing that particularly in politics." 

Having high-profile politicians, in particular female prime ministers, has had payoffs in terms of women's visibility in the media. 

"I don't think the progress is always linear," says Fountaine, "but I do feel like there are moves towards normalisation in some of those achievements." 

Fountaine speaks to The Detail today about the risk of the women we're elevating being turned into superwomen who people can't relate to – which is why diversity of voices in the media is so important. 

"A role model has a better chance of being influential if they're somehow relatable to the person who's seeing them."

She's also concerned that some of her journalism students are becoming complacent, in that they seem to think all the battles have been won.  

The Detail also speaks to Niamh Barraud, a qualified builder who runs her own company, Windy City Builders, and is on the board of NZ Certified Builders. 

The organisation is launching a programme designed to provide wrap-around support to apprentices and their employers, which includes matching female trades trainees up with mentors. 

It comes at a time when the industry is trying to widen its recruiting pool – and women are a largely untapped resource. 

"It's a battle that every institution in the industry is focusing on now because diversity is becoming a much more important part of the industry," she says.

Officially, women in construction are 14 percent of the industry – which doesn't sound too bad until you realise most of those jobs are in support services. Barraud estimates the number of women on the tools is more like 3 percent.  

She says we need to show women it's possible, and that includes images that normalise women on work sites, who have their tool belts on and are not the client or the builder's wife. 

"We have to show girls that this is a viable career option ... we have to show their parents that it's a viable career option ... and we have to normalise the presence of women on site so that employers and colleagues value women on site." 

Barraud also talks about the barriers still blocking women from a career in construction, including the strange reasons employers still use to not employ them. 

If there's one series of events that's made great strides in equality, it's the trio of highly successful world cups New Zealand's just hosted and co-hosted. 

Former Olympian heptathlete Sarah Cowley Ross, who writes for Newsroom's LockerRoom, has seen a real shift in the portrayal of women's sport and female athletes over that time. 

She talks to The Detail about how she sees generational change through the attitudes of her children, who don't distinguish between men or women playing sport – because it's all good. 

Listen to the full episode.

Check out how to listen to and follow The Detail here.  

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Long arm of the law reaches into Black Ferns XV

One of NZ's most decorated rugby stars, Linda Itunu wants to make a difference in her new double life - as a policewoman and a coach of the first Black Ferns XV. 

Walking the beat on the streets of west Auckland, Constable Linda Itunu is collecting skills she hopes will help in her other walk of life.

The four-time rugby world champion and Black Ferns great, Itunu has been a frontline police officer in Waitematā for just over a year. But at the same time, she’s been building her reputation as a rugby coach.

Right now, the two careers go hand-in-hand. And she hopes through both jobs, she’ll be able to help save lives.

“I wasn’t the greatest kid in school, and to be honest, rugby saved me,” says the former No.8 who played 38 tests for the Black Ferns over 17 years, and was an original Black Ferns Sevens star.

“My faith is important to me, but if I didn’t play rugby I don’t know where I’d be right now. I know wouldn’t be where I am right now.”

Linda Itunu performs a haka at her police graduation in August 2022. Photo: NZ Police. 

Coaching has already taken Itunu to offshore stints in Italy and Sri Lanka, and closer to home, the Ponsonby Fillies and the Blues. The next place she hopes to make a difference is as assistant coach of the inaugural Black Ferns XV, who play Samoa later this month.

The team has been formed to give more players and coaches experience at international level, and provide a pathway to the Black Ferns (there are no female coaches in the new Black Ferns set-up). It was an opportunity Itunu couldn’t turn down.

“I’m always telling people if there are no doors open, create one and smash it down yourself. I thought I should make sure to follow what I tell other people,” she says.

She’ll work alongside head coach Whitney Hansen, who was in the coaching team for the victorious Black Ferns at last year’s World Cup. Initially, the humble Itunu wondered if her new posting was a mistake.

“I was flying out to Melbourne to see my family, and I got the call just before I got on the plane. After they asked me, I was like ‘Are you sure you’ve got the right person?’” she laughs. “But it’s such a cool opportunity and I’m really privileged to be considered for this role.”

“Everything has been kicking off for me this year, which is pretty cool.”

Supporting her coaching career, the police will give Itunu the week off so she can go into camp with the team, who’ll be named today.

"It does get a bit risky out there. But I actually wake up and enjoy going to work" 

One of eight siblings (including her Black Ferns prop sister Aldora), Itunu was drawn into the police to change the lives of her 18 nephews and nieces, she says.

“When I grew up, you could play out in the street till the lights came on. It’s not like that anymore,” she says. “If I can contribute to kids being able to be kids again, that would be cool."

She's still getting to grips with balancing her two callings – especially working night shifts. “I still struggle with finding a routine, when your days off fall on different days of the week,” she says. “You can imagine how difficult that is with coaching and trying to mix the two.”

Black Fern loose forward Linda Itunu on the rampage against France in 2018. Photo: Getty Images. 

During this year’s Super Rugby Aupiki season, when she was an assistant coach of the Blues, Itunu moved to a different role within the police for three months, as a youth engagement officer.

“The biggest thing I learned is young people often don’t know who they are. Their identity is massive, and they need an environment that nurtures that. I find that’s my role in the youth space, getting to know them, see what the enjoy, and helping them find out what makes them who they are,” she says.

“It’s like that with the players too – what do they bring to a team, what’s their X-factor? I try to find out what sets them apart, and then help them use it.”

Policing has helped Itunu become more empathetic and open-minded as a coach. “Everyone has a back story you should listen to, and be more curious,” she says.

“As a coach, if a player doesn’t rock up to training, straight away you think, ‘Nah she doesn’t want to be here’. But speaking from experience, when I dug deeper, I found out the girl was the older sibling and the main breadwinner, her mum had left and her dad had been in hospital. She was working 12-hour days, they only had one vehicle, and there was no way she could turn up for a rugby camp.

“That’s helped me as a coach being more open-minded – not being so results focused, but looking after our people so they can perform.”

Itunu was in Christchurch on Saturday to support her sister and her old team, the Auckland Storm, as they wrested the Farah Palmer Cup off Canterbury in a thrilling final, 39-27. It was the first time Auckland had won the national title since 2015, when the sisters played together. 

She was there to hand Aldora her nine-month-old son, Ezekiel, after the game - marking a huge comeback year for Aldora, also part of the Ponsonby Fillies side who won the Auckland premier club title this season.  

Saturday's victory avenged last year's final loss to Canterbury and was Auckland's 16th national championship victory. Captain Eloise Blackwell and young wing Angelica Vahai both scored twice in the match, which saw the home side draw even with less than 20 minutes to go, before another Storm surge overthrew the Canterbury dynasty.

Aldora Itunu (left), son Ezekiel and sister Linda after winning the Storm won the FPC final. Photo: supplied

Itunu sees her role with the Black Ferns XV – who play Samoa at Pukekohe on September 23 - as making sure the young players enjoy the experience, and want to come back for more.

“It's just a short campaign, and the first time we’ve had a Black Ferns XV. My role is to make sure the girls come in, play their game, and leave with little gems,” she says. “Whether that’s ‘Oh flip, that was such a cool experience’, or they walk away thinking ‘Oh man, I learned something in that short amount of time’.

“I haven’t really thought about being the Black Ferns coach, but I’ve had thoughts about being involved in that space with our athletes coming through. In terms of what I do as a job and seeing the changes in the game, I want to be there to help bring these new athletes through. And make sure we are creating a safe space for them to grow – as athletes and as people.

“But also to have fun and enjoy high performance level sport - when they get to that stage, it gets quite serious. So being able to nurture and bring the girls through is something I’ve always wanted to do.”

Culture within a team has always been important to Itunu, during a long and distinguished playing career where she won the 2013 Sevens World Cup and retired in 2018 after winning her third World Cup in 15s rugby; and made the World Rugby Team of the Decade in 2020.

“When I came into the Black Ferns, the culture was real good. The girls would take you under their wing, and there was no cattiness; no ‘You play the same position – I’m not going share the knowledge’,” she recalls.

“It was a real fun competition for a place in the starting XV. If we were going against each other for the same position, we’d tell each other everything but then compete, so whoever got the jersey earned it. Obviously culture evolves, but it’s important you have a culture where everyone enjoys the environment.

“It’s a special place because the people in there make sure the management and the players are on the same page and everyone buys into the culture. It’s not about different ethnicities – it’s about ‘the Black Ferns way’.”

Linda Itunu and Willie Walker coaching the Blues in the 2023 Super Rugby Aupiki. Photo: Getty Images. 

Itunu began coaching while she was still in her playing heyday – she was a player-coach at a club in Italy and spent time working with the Sri Lanka sevens side. Coaching the Blues this Aupiki season – with head coach Willie Walker and alongside All Black Carlos Spencer – was “so much fun”.

“We had a great culture – the girls were able to be themselves, have fun, and enjoy each other’s company. Be vulnerable if they needed to without being judged. A lot left the campaign wanting to come back as a Blues player - that’s what we were after,” she says.

“Putting aside our win-loss record [one win from five games], our team played some really exciting, attacking rugby. Carlos and Willie have creative minds and the players were open to learning new things.”

It’s the first time Itunu will work with Hansen, head coach of Aupiki champions, Matatū. Itunu describes her as “pretty chill” and with valuable experience to learn from.

Regardless of what comes next in her coaching career, Itunu is in no hurry to give up her day (and night) job.

“It does get a bit risky out there. But I actually wake up and enjoy going to work, which is the most important part to me," she says. "You might be the only positive encounter someone has on that day. And who else is going to save our community?”

Fisher hoping to boot Auckland back to the top

As many as 18 past and present Black Ferns could be on display in the national women's rugby final this weekend. Adam Julian talks to Auckland's goalkicking prop who's undaunted by the challenge.

Auckland has never won the Farah Palmer Cup (FPC). Since the National Provincial Championship was renamed after the World Rugby Hall of Fame inductee in 2016 the Storm has failed to add to their tally of 15 national titles in the first 16 years of officially organised competition which started in 1999.

Canterbury has replaced Auckland as perennial winners with five triumphs in the last six seasons. In fact, since 2017 the Red and Blacks have won 51 out of 55 matches. In the same period, Auckland has won 25.

A particularly imposing reality of facing Canterbury is confronting the Black Ferns World Cup-winning front row of Pip Love, Georgia Ponsonby, and Amy Rule. Rule has never lost in 29 appearances for Canterbury and Ponsonby is 37-1. Black Ferns lock Chelsea Bremner who recently returned from a broken finger, is an unblemished, 43-0.

Love is Canterbury’s most capped prop with 55 matches. The loosehead has played 27 Tests and will mark Auckland’s Sophie Fisher (19 games) in the FPC final at Rugby Park in Christchurch on Saturday.

Fisher has played less than two whole seasons at tighthead. She is undaunted by the Canterbury challenge, which occurs in her blazer game for Auckland.

“I don’t think about them as the World Cup front row. They are just another front row we can beat,” Fisher said.

“We’ve been getting stronger throughout the season and are really confident if we can stick to our fast game, a bit like the way the Black Ferns play, it’ll be a good day at the office.”

On August 26, Auckland blew a 21-10 lead to lose to Canterbury 27-24 at Eden Park. Ponsonby scored two tries from lineout drives. 

“We’ve been working hard at stopping the rolling maul. The best way to do that is not give away penalties, compete at the lineout where possible, and stay connected strong,” Fisher said.

Black Ferns and Canterbury tighthead prop Amy Rule in action against Hawkes Bay in this year's quarterfinal. Photo: Getty Images

“The biggest thing I’ve learned about being is prop is how technical the position is. If you don’t know the little tricks on how to manipulate your opponent, it’s hard to block out a good loosehead. I’m learning ways to use my shoulder and neck to better out-manoeuvre opposites.

An appetite for scrummaging has caught the attention of national selectors. In April the apprentice builder was rewarded a full-time Black Ferns contract after a strong Super Rugby Aupiki campaign for the Blues. She had been given several interim contracts before being upgraded to full-time status.

Fisher only started playing rugby in Year 13, after a long spell playing hockey, at Kaipara College, and it certainly wasn’t as a prop.

"I was an eight or a lock. At Kaipara, we played 10-aside and won the North Harbour competition. We played the Auckland winner next and beat them to make the National Top Four. That was the first time I played proper 15-aside rugby and we got third in New Zealand. That was awesome," Fisher said.

She played 22 games for North Harbour, mostly as a lock, between 2017 and 2020. There were only five wins but some overtures about switching to prop.

"There was one game against Northland where I played four positions. I stared at lock moved to eight and then we had an injury crisis in the backs so I was told to switch to centre and finally fullback because I could kick," Fisher said.

"Willie Walker [North Harbour coach] mentioned the idea of going to prop but Covid interrupted things. When I went to Auckland, I had no choice to move because of the depth at lock."

Northland and Black Ferns prop Krystal Murray has earned cult-like status for her goal-kicking prowess, but she has competition from Fisher, who booted 74 points for North Harbour and occasionally kicks for Auckland.

In 2022 she nailed a last-minute sideline conversion at Eden Park to secure the Storm a 26-25 win against Wellington and repeated the same feat, albeit from closer to the posts, against the same opponent in July this year.

With 11 minutes remaining, in wet, freezing, conditions, Wellington led 15-10 with Auckland down to 13 players due to yellow cards for ill-discipline. They had lost to Hawke’s Bay 32-31 in the opening round with Fisher missing a penalty to win the game.

With the last play, Auckland went blindside from a stable midfield scrum set five metres out. The forwards were patient and lock Eloise Blackwell, just returned from the sin bin, muscled over close to the posts to tie the scores.

“I heard the Wellington girls say, ‘We’ll charge when she steps back.’ I remember laughing because I don’t step back. I’ve become a lot less anxious with the kicks. It was the wind’s fault the one against Hawke’s Bay didn’t go over. That was a good 45m kick,” Fisher laughed.

Canterbury did suffer a rare defeat to Waikato (a team Auckland has tamed twice) in Hamilton in the same round but that was in extra time with 10 present Black Ferns absent. Otherwise, Canterbury has been more dominant in 2023 scoring 17 more tries than last season.

However, Auckland is better too, and won’t face the tidal wave of emotion that accompanied last year’s final due to the retirement of Black Ferns and Canterbury legends Kendra Cocksedge and Stephanie Te Ohaere-Fox.

Fisher has been working with past Black Ferns Aldora Itunu (24 Tests), Aleisha-Pearl Nelson (38 Tests), and redoubtable Samoan Census Johnson (60 Tests) to upskill. She has developed a close relationship with her loosehead propping partner Chryss Viliko, another who is training full time with the Black Ferns.

“We’ve been playing together for three years now and become best of mates. Our connection is an honest and caring one. We give feedback to each other and have a strong chemistry which helps the whole team,” Fisher said.

“Anna Richards is another big help. She’s improved my carry by bettering my footwork, finding weak shoulders and just being more mobile.”

Auckland won the first six national finals against Canterbury but have lost the last two. Their last triumph in any decider was a 39-9 thumping of Wellington in 2015. Double World champion and Olympic Sevens gold-medallist Theresa Fitzpatrick scored three tries.

Fisher has already won a final this year. She played for Ponsonby in their 29-24 upset of unbeaten College Rifiles in the Coleman Shield decider in June.

The Farah Palmer Cup final with potentially as many as 18 past or present Black Ferns is at Rugby Park, Christchurch. Kick-off is at 2:05 pm on Saturday, and will be broadcast live on Sky Sport.

The most privileged chair in sport

Commentators get to travel with their teams, nab the best seat for the best matches and hob-nob with some big names. But underlying their job is the knowledge necessary to get it right on the night. 

Surely no one is more of a sports fanatic than the fast-talking fan who makes it their job. 

As the Rugby World Cup kicks offThe Detail talks to three sports commentators about what they do, how they got their starts and the perks and peaks of the job.

One thing they all agree on, is getting the names right. 

"It's imperative," says rugby commentator Scotty Stevenson. 

"This team is representing its country, but the players are representing their families. It's really crucial that the historical document of that match – of that player's career – is accurate. And to me, that's the bottom line in the game." 

Sky's lead netball commentator Jenny Woods recalls commentators' old attitudes, where "as long as we all say [names] the same, it doesn't matter".

"Now those days are well and truly gone. You've got to get it right," says Woods.

It's more of a challenge with tennis, where the action is so fast and the names are often so long – and likely to be tongue-twisting Polish, Thai, Czech, Swedish or another language unfamiliar to the Kiwi ear. 

It's a challenge tennis' Matt Brown has had to get used to over decades of calling the French Open for Radio Roland Garros. 

"You do have to sometimes simplify it a little bit ... sometimes I can recall the odd player, going with the first name, which is not the norm, but it's very easy on a long rally to get a little bit tongue-tied, and that's happened on numerous occasions.

"Then there was the time Caroline Wozniaki faced Aleksandra Wozniak ... on that occasion it was 'the Canadian' or 'the Dane'."

To add to the confusion, different countries often pronounce the same name differently – listen to the episode to find out how Grand Slam winner Stefan Edberg's name is really pronounced in his native Sweden.  

Scotty Stevenson travelled to Japan for the last Rugby World Cup, but this year he'll be calling the game for SENZ radio without leaving the country. It's what's known as "off-tube" commentary: watching a TV screen to describe the action. 

"It's a different type of challenge to TV commentary," he says. 

The term 'off-tube' shows the age of the phrase – we don't have tube TVs anymore – but "it's becoming more and more a part of commentary as costs are saved across the board and there's a lot of hub production," he says. 

And the difference with when it comes to commentating on the radio?

"More words!

"Explaining where on the field play is at, where the pass is going, what direction play is heading in, who's making tackles, the player identification becomes much more important ... and it just brings, I think, a different element creatively to to your commentary. You are trying to give the listener as much of a mental picture as you can about where the game is taking place, what the weather is doing," he says.

Jenny Woods says she got into the job via luck: being in the right place at the right time, and knowing the right people. 

"I thought it might last a year or two – but I'm still there! I just keep waiting for the call not to come."

As with Brown and Stevenson, she says you also have to have a passion for the game, and it certainly helps to have played it.

"I love it," she says. "I just love it, I could talk about tennis and netball til the cows come home – and in fact that's what I used to do, because I grew up on a dairy farm and I would be putting the cows away at night and I'd be doing mock commentaries and interviewing my two heroes." 

Hear Stevenson, Woods and Brown share some of their favourite commentating stories by listening to the full episode.

Check out how to listen to and follow The Detail here.  

You can also stay up-to-date by liking us on Facebook or following us on Twitter

New Silver Fern shooter's time to shine

Amelia Walmsley always dreamed of being a Silver Fern. But she never imagined the chance would come this soon, she tells Merryn Anderson.

Amelia Walmsley played just 18 minutes for the Central Pulse in the 2022 ANZ Premiership season, scoring just 12 goals. 

In 2023, she played over 900 minutes, slotting 627 goals - the third-most of any shooter in New Zealand’s domestic netball competition. 

And now the 19-year-old has been named in the Silver Ferns team to take on both England and Australia, starting this month. 

Getting the call-up earlier this week was a shock for Walmsley, who shot with 86 percent accuracy this season. 

“I was very overwhelmed, I was super-surprised. It wasn’t something I'd expected to come so soon,” she says. 

“It was a whirlwind of emotions, it was very surreal. It still doesn’t quite feel real yet, but it’s starting to.” 

*Report card for netball’s top league
*Young guns fire in Black Ferns and Pulse triumphs

With Grace Nweke ruled out of the Taini Jamison series against England, still recovering from the patella tendon injury she suffered at last month's Netball World Cup, Walmsley has the chance to make her mark as a tall goal shoot in the Silver Ferns circle. 

Despite being a similar height (Walmsley is 1.92m, just a centimetre shorter than Nweke) and having similar shooting volume, Walmsley has been assured by coach Dame Noeline Taurua she’s not just a replacement for Nweke. 

“We definitely have our different strengths. I do think having the height in there is something we’re quite similar in, which [the Ferns] will use to their advantage,” Walmsley says on her role in the Ferns. She's yet to have a full training camp with the coaches. 

“Noels [Taurua] has spoken to me about the differences between us, so they will use us in a similar sense of our heights. But we play somewhat different styles, so that will be interesting.” 

Walmsley is a high volume shooter at the Central Pulse. Photo: Michael Bradley Photography

When the 2023 Pulse team was announced, import shooter Joyce Mvula was expected to take hold of the goal shoot bib, with international World Cup experience for Malawi alongside six seasons playing in the UK Superleague. 

However, once pre-season started, Walmsley proved herself to be the number one choice at goal shoot, combining well with goal attack Tiana Metuarau and improving as the season went on. 

“At the start of the season, we spoke about using the season to build my minutes and gain a little bit more experience under my belt,” she explains. “But then I started to establish myself more as a starting shooter, which was really exciting for me.” 

It was an unexpected step-up for Walmsley, but one she learnt a lot from - some of which came from being pushed in the deep end. She made the New Zealand Secondary Schools team in 2021, in her last year at Howick College, but the promotion to the domestic scene was a new challenge. 

Having to deal with the physicality of the ANZ Premiership defenders was tough both physically and mentally for Walmsley. 

“I wasn’t as experienced with the physical side of the game and playing against defenders in the ANZ Premiership…so just gaining experience in that environment was a physical challenge,” she says.  

“And then the second part of it was the mental side, where I had big shoes to fill with Aliyah [Dunn] leaving. She was a very trusty shooter. 

“So trying to manage the pressure from the audience, the coaches, all the external pressures, but also the pressure I placed on myself to try and put my best foot forward - with that comes a lot of pressure, so that was definitely something I had to manage.” 

But the teenager stood up to the challenge, helping the Pulse finish second on the minor premiership ladder with 10 wins - losing the elimination final and missing out on the grand final by just one goal. Walmsley shot 41/45 in that loss to the Stars. 

“At first, I found it very easy to be knocked around,” says Walmsley. “But through the season, my physical strength improved which meant my mental strength improved because I had a bit more confidence in myself. And I learnt what the pressures were like and gained strategies to deal with them."

Walmsley holds her ground against a physical challenge. Photo: Michael Bradley Photography

Walmsley will become Silver Fern #184 if she takes the court against the England Roses in the Taini Jamison series, then faces another tough challenge in the form of the new world champion Australian Diamonds in the Constellation Cup - a series Nweke is hoping to be fit for. 

The other shooters named in the Silver Ferns are Maia Wilson, Ameliaranne Ekenasio and Metuarau - the latter the only one Walmsley has a playing connection with. 

“I’m really excited to potentially get on court with Tiana, just because we have that combo through Pulse. So that will be fun to put on court in an international environment,” Walmsley says. 

“But I also would love the opportunity to work with Ameliaranne, because she’s someone who I’ve idolised since I was younger. That would be really, really cool.” 

Walmsley's not expecting too much from the English series, aware that Ekenasio (65 caps) and Wilson (46 caps) are the experienced heads in the shooting circle. But it’s still a chance for her to prove herself in the black dress. 

“My goal is just to soak it all in and be really present in the moment, and just learn as much as possible,” Walmsley says. 

Her support system have been amazing for her, she says. Her family in Auckland supported her move to Wellington to play for the Pulse as just a 17-year-old - but making sure she lived with an adult, Pulse manager Jill Clapcott, for her first season in the capital. 

At the end of the ANZ Premiership season, Walmsley returned home to Auckland. She’s studying digital marketing online through Massey University, alternating between full-time and part-time study depending on her netball schedule. 

She’s hoping to have a big group of family and friends in the crowd for the series to watch her make her Silver Ferns debut, including her dad, former Black Caps bowler Kerry Walmsley. 

“I think my nana is going to try to be there. She never came to any of my Pulse games, because it’s just too much for her. But she said this moment is a bit too special, so she’ll come to Hamilton hopefully,” Walmsley says. 

“I’d love for my boyfriend to be there, but he’ll be overseas, which is okay.” Her boyfriend, Rafe Couillault, is a Kiwi high jumper. 

Regardless of who she has in the crowd, Walmsley says it will be a proud moment. 

“My reaction, I think, will be quite emotional," she admits. "It’s something I’ve dreamed of doing since I was very little, but it’s come a lot sooner than I thought.” 

*The Taini Jamison series against the England Roses starts in Christchurch on September 24, before moving to Porirua on the 27th, and wrapping up in Hamilton on the 30th. The four-test Constellation Cup starts in Melbourne on October 12.

Kiwis head for lifesaving event bigger than Texas

The Black Fins are heading to one of the biggest global events for surf lifesaving. Dave Crampton catches up with a silver medallist on debut at last year’s world champs and a national team debutante. 

Surf lifeguards Briana Irving and Claudia Kelly are looking forward to doing the Black Fins team proud.

Already world title winners with the 2018 Junior Black Fins, they are about to head to Texas to compete at the world’s biggest three-day test match for surf lifeguards.

The International Surf Rescue Challenge, starting on September 20, is the biggest international ocean and beach competition outside the world championships.

This year’s ISRC was postponed from 2021 due to Covid-19 travel restrictions. NZ has been runner up on most previous occasions, including in 2019 when both a senior and junior team competed. Both Kelly and Irving were in the 2019 Junior Black Fins. Kelly was team captain and both NZ teams placed second behind Australia.

Now, both are together in the Black Fins. Kelly, 21, is making her debut; Irving, 20, already has a world championships medal as a Black Fin.

Irving, the sport’s premier sprinter, said it was an honour to wear the fern again. “I’m super stoked to be racing under the black cap, racing against the best of the best,” she says. “I’m pretty proud to be able to do it again.”

Irving knows Australia is the team to beat but is determined to play her part so the Black Fins can return victorious.

“Australia is always going to be a big challenge, but if we race well and have self-belief, I think we can do it if we put our minds to it,” she says.

Twelve Black Fins will compete in Texas, including siblings Gus and Molly Shivnan, the latter who trains with Kelly, a paddler and a swimmer.

Irving has been coached by leading Athletics NZ coach James Mortimer since 2020, training with top athletes Zoe Hobbs, Georgia Hulls and Portia Bing, the latter two being Oceania titleholders.

Last month Hobbs, in New Zealand’s best ever 100m performance at a World Athletics championship, missed out on the final by 0.01 seconds. Irving is clearly in good company; she is also a former U18 200m national champion.

“I do most of training with 200m sprinter Georgia Hull. I find it so motivating as my skills are transferred to the beach,” Irving says.

The biannual three-day test match will test the expertise of surf lifeguards among the world’s top six nations. Events include a surf race, board race, surf ski race, and beach disciplines. The competition started in 1937 as a trans-Tasman challenge, adding South Africa in 1999 for a tri-nations event. In 2015 Canada, Japan and the USA were included.

Surf Lifesaving NZ High Performance Sport Manager, Tanya Hamilton is excited to see what the team, which has a good mix of experienced and new talent, will do in Texas.

“The ISRC is the perfect opportunity for our athletes to develop and test their skills in competition outside of the World Championships,” she says.

However, unlike the world championships, the pool element is not contested.

Claudia Kelly in action. Photo: Supplied

For Kelly, making her Black Fin debut is the next logical step after being named as first reserve for the World Championships last year. A Junior Surf Lifesaving Ironwoman world champion, she aims to make the Nutri-Grain Ironwoman series in Australia and will train there next year. She also hopes to make her first Black Fins world championships team at the Gold Coast that year.

Her journey differs from Irving’s as she had to deal with injury setbacks. She broke her foot one year which took her out for the rest of that season and has had several stress fractures. But she knows making the Black Fins team is next level.

“It’s a big step up to make the Black Fins,” she says. “I’ve had a few tough years pre-Covid with injuries. It’s been a pretty long road between black caps so I’m pretty stoked to be back here. I think resilience is a term I’ve been using a lot in my sporting life, just knowing that I’ve done it before, and I can get back there again.”

At last year’s world surf lifesaving championships in Italy, Irving, one of the world’s youngest competitors there, won a silver medal in the open beach sprint on debut. She now has four world titles and 11 national titles in beach sprints. At the previous world championships in 2018, both were the Junior Black Fin’s youngest members and won that world title, with Irving winning three individual U19 world titles.

Both athletes are also students. Irving studies sports and recreation, majoring in management, at the University of Auckland, and this year Kelly is doing five papers, studying at the University of Otago. She is in the middle of a biomed degree, majoring in infection and immunity, with a neuroscience minor. She is then hoping to do post-graduate studies in medicine and become a doctor.

As well as studying and training, the pair also must do a requisite number of hours as volunteer lifeguards to be able to compete. There’s little free time for much else.

“'I'm tired 24/7,” Kelly says. “I’m trying to get into medical school. I live in the library - I’m not joking. It’s the library, the harbour or the pool.”

Irving is not much different. “I do work, I do placement, I do uni, and I train – that’s about it. That’s my life.”

While this month the pair can focus on competition, the real focus of surf lifesaving is to make ‘fitter faster lifeguards’. “It’s to make the best possible lifeguards we can have, and as an added bonus we get to do a sport that is really fun,” Kelly says.

“I like the two elements – the lifeguarding and the surf competitions,” Irving adds. “You’re helping out and giving back to the community and keeping the beaches safer –but you're also training to be a professional athlete.”

This year, the Junior Black Fins will not compete at the ISRC. Instead, they raced in a newly developed competition with their Australian counterparts on the Gold Coast last month.

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