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Hone takes on lofty challenge for lost loved ones

After losing her daughter and two friends in a car crash, Dr Lucy Hone has a new outlook on life - doing one thing each year that challenges her. This year she's taking on the Coast to Coast race, calling on her expertise in resilience to help her. 

Two waterborne Dames top New Year Honours List

Arise Dame Lisa Carrington and Dame Sophie Pascoe - NZ's most decorated Olympian and Paralympian have another title added to their names in the New Year Honours List

The surprise bump in Sarah Walker's path

Expecting her first baby, BMX legend Sarah Walker wants to share her IVF story so other female athletes can be aware of the choices they have to start a family before it's too late.

21 from '21: A bizarre year in sport

LockerRoom contributing writer Sarah Cowley Ross looks back at a fascinating year in women's sport, where the highs and lows were amplified by a global pandemic. 

Rugby's super sisters swept up by the Hurricanes

Sisters Sarah Hirini and Rachael Rakatau share a huge respect for each other's achievements on and off the rugby field, and now they get to join forces as Hurricanes in the new Super Rugby Aupiki. 

She may be New Zealand's rugby player of the year and an Olympic gold medallist, but Sarah Hirini still looks up to her big sister, Rachael. 

A fulltime accountant and a mum of two, Rachael Rakatau has also been rewarded for her own rugby prowess, joining the new women’s Hurricanes team for next year’s inaugural Super Rugby Aupiki competition.  

It’s the first time in a very long time the two Goss sisters from the Manawatū will play together, with Hirini a powerhouse addition to the Hurricanes side.  

Despite having different names across the back of their jerseys, Rakatau and Hirini have an unmistakably strong sisterly bond.  

Rakatau has to pause for a second when talking about Hirini, becoming emotional about her younger sister’s dedication to the sport.  

“It’s all the off-field stuff she does that’s really inspiring and has helped her get to where she is today,” says 31-year-old Rakatau.  

Hirini, 29, has just won three honours at the New Zealand Rugby Awards, including the Kelvin R Tremain Memorial Player of the Year - capping off a year where she led the Black Ferns Sevens on a redemptive journey to Olympic gold in Tokyo. (She also passed her private pilot's licence earlier this week.)

Captaining the victorious Black Ferns Sevens team in Tokyo this year, Sarah Hirini's achievements were recognised at the NZ Rugby Awards last week. Photo: Getty Images. 

The awards are testimony to her dedication, says Rakatau, but she knows her sister doesn’t play for the accolades.  

“She just does everything in her power to make herself better,” she says.  

Hirini is equally proud of Rakatau’s accomplishments. “It's really easy to look for inspiration when you have a sister like Rachael doing everything she does,” she says.  

“Now I feel really fortunate to be playing alongside her in the Hurricanes, in the inaugural season.” 

Hirini was the first player to be announced for the Wellington-based team back in October and her sister’s selection at lock helps make the Hurricanes a stacked side.  

Only taking up the sport when she was 22, Rakatau has been in and out of rugby for the past decade - an ACL injury and two pregnancies pausing her playing time.  

She’s recognised as a leader, co-captaining the Manawatū Cyclones to win this season’s Farah Palmer Cup championship. 

Rakatau balances being a mum to daughter Keita (three), and son Paora (almost two) with her fulltime job as an associate partner at Allan O’Neill Accountants.  

She’s sitting in her car as we talk, having to leave work and pick both her kids up from daycare because Keita is feeling unwell.  

Now she’s preparing to spend her afternoon working from home while looking after both kids.  

She laughs thinking of adding a professional season of rugby into the mix next year.  

“I’m just thinking about how I’m going to do all this with the kids next year, but it’s going to work!” she says.  

Super Rugby Aupiki will be played over four weekends in March, but trainings during the three months beforehand will keep Rakatau busy commuting to Wellington and back.  

Before even finalising her contract, Rakatau had sorted out babysitters for her kids, getting family to pitch in outside of daycare hours. 

Her husband, Paora, is a construction foreman, working from 6am to 6pm, so they rely heavily on support from family to keep things running smoothly. 

“This isn’t possible without the support of our families, both my husband, his family and my dad now, just helping out and making this possible,” she explains.  

“How she finds time to sleep or do anything, I don't know,” says Hirini, who lived with Rakatau and her kids during the Manawatū Cyclones season last year.  

Growing up in the Manawatū, family had a heavy influence on the duo and shaped them to be who they are today.  

The sisters lost their mum, Ronnie Goss, earlier this year, and choosing the Hurricanes to be closer to family in the region was an easy choice for both of them.  

Rakatau still lives in Palmerston North, and says keeping that rural connection is important to both sisters.   

“We learned a lot about work ethic, grit and resilience through our parents and their working environment as farmers,” says Rakatau on their upbringing. “We’re really proud to come from that rural background.”  

Rakatau had no doubt Hirini’s first choice of Super Rugby team would be the Hurricanes, knowing how loyal the dual Olympic medallist is to her family and home.  

Hirini is grateful to her extended family’s support. “It means everything to us and I know it's a huge honor for our whānau to have us both playing for the Hurricanes in our home region,” she says. 

It’s not only the proximity to home that’s special for the family, though, with Rakatau full of praise for the rugby community in the region.  

Manawatū Rugby Union were “incredibly supportive” of Rakatau throughout her two pregnancies. 

“When I was pregnant, they kept me in the high performance programme, so I still trained and did stuff with the girls,” says Rakatau, who worked as the Cyclones’ assistant manager in 2019 while she was pregnant.  

“They supported me through coming back with my son and now, with two kids, they help me out with babysitting. The kids have to come to training sometimes so it’s really important.”  

Rachael Rakatau (right) co-captained the Manawatū Cyclones with Selica Winiata (left) to the Farah Palmer Cup championship title this year. Photo: Getty Images. 

The sisters were supposed to line up together for the Manawatū Cyclones last year, but an injury ruled out Hirini, which makes next year even more special.  

“Well, I hope to make the [playing] 23,” says Rakatau, on the chance of taking the field alongside her sister. “That was one of my drives - to be able to play with her. I’m just really excited.” 

Rakatau considered calling it quits at the end of this year, unsure if she’d receive a Super Rugby contract and considering having another baby. The offer from the Hurricanes wasn’t the only thing that called her back though - Rakatau eager to continue what the Cyclones team started.  

“I could see some of the younger girls in our team really developing and I know they look up to me,” says Rakatau, who was co-captain with Selica Winiata (who’s also signed with the Hurricanes for next year).  

“I thought I just need to be there one more year for them so they can grow more confident and then they’ll take over when I go.” 

Hirini and Rakatau won’t be the only sisters on the field for the Hurricanes this year, with young guns Lyric and Dhys Faleafaga also part of the 28-strong squad.  

Rakatau describes the women’s rugby community as “very hard working” and praises how far professionalism has come in her playing days.  

“I don’t think people realise how much work it takes to be a woman’s rugby player,” she says. “That’s the reason why I play - the connections with all the girls. It’s hard work but it’s so rewarding.” 

Keeping the faith - goalie couple fending off cancer

One of the Black Sticks' goalkeeping greats, Helen Clarke, has been facing her greatest adversary yet - with her keeper husband repaying the love and support she gave through his own cancer journey. 

In the past three decades, Black Sticks goalkeeper Helen Clarke and her husband, Glyn, have been through a hell of a lot together. 

After first meeting as young goalkeepers playing hockey at the Somerville club in Auckland back in 1989, they both went on to wear the silver fern. 

She would become the Black Sticks captain, and when she retired after a stellar 13-year international career, she was New Zealand’s most capped women’s hockey player.

He would be her greatest supporter, counsellor and analyst throughout her career.

“It was really fantastic because we bounced ideas off each other,” Helen says. “There were things he did in the men’s games that I’d then try in the women’s game. If you had a bad game, he'd analyse it and I could trust him because he knew what he was talking about.

“He was always on your side, and you knew it was only to try to get you better.”

That care and encouragement has continued away from the hockey turf. They married 28 years ago, and together, they’ve raised two teenagers, Nick and Sophie, who are both keen hockey players.

And for the past five years, Helen and Glyn Clarke have had to fend off their biggest challenge yet – both facing their own cancer diagnoses, and helping each other through their invasive treatments.

Both goalkeepers say it was their sports backgrounds - especially being part of a team - that best prepared them to take on the disease.  

A different kind of team

At the age of 50, Helen Clarke has a head of tight curls she never had before. “My chemo curls,” she says, smiling. “Though maybe I’ll get to keep them, because there are curls in my family.”

Helen and Glyn Clarke are both back playing sport following cancer treatments. Photo: supplied. 

In the past two years, she's been through chemotherapy, surgery and radiation for breast cancer. But her treatment continues – she’s now on the Herceptin drug after her cancer was found to be HER2 positive (more aggressive and more likely to return).

Around 20 percent of the 3300 Kiwis diagnosed with breast cancer each year have HER2-positive cancer.

“That’s up to a year-and-a-half of extra drugs. And then there are hormone drugs, too,” says Helen. She’s also wearing a glove and sleeve for lymphedema; the swelling in her right arm a side effect of her treatment.

And yet, she’s still her usual upbeat self. They’ve just celebrated Glyn receiving the all-clear from his oncologist, five years after he was diagnosed with acute myeloid leukaemia. He needed a bone marrow transplant, and stints of up to 45 days in hospital.

“He’s their poster boy - he hit all the milestones,” Helen says of her husband, who works in land surveying. 

She’s doing well, too. She took this year off teaching at Ficino School in Mt Eden, but will return part-time next year while her treatment continues.

“To be fair, there are people out there who are doing it a hell of a lot tougher than I am. It’s not stopping me from doing anything,” she says.

“I’ve just started playing golf again – it’s good for keeping my arm moving.”

Sport remains a staple in their lives, and they have no doubt it prepared them for their health challenges.

“Sport teaches you to take one little step at a time. You don’t get results by jumping to them,” Helen says. “Sometimes you’re going to have to take a step backwards or sideways, it’s not always going to be straightforward.

“There were games where we lost by big scores - and goalies don’t like that - but you learned to deal with it, not dwell on it, and move on because you had a game tomorrow. It’s the same with this. I can’t change what happened to me, I can’t wish it away. But I can control how I focus on it and how I deal with it.”

The Clarke family: son Nick, dad Glyn, daughter Sophie and mum Helen at the end of her chemo treatment in February. Photo: supplied. 

Glyn, who played in goal for the New Zealand U21 side, agrees: “In a team, you can only control what you can control. It’s the same with cancer.”

Helen continues: “This is what the oncologist says I have to do, and I’m going to do it. I have all my experts in a team around me. I used to have my fullbacks - now I have my oncologist and surgeons. They’re all professional at their job and I have to play my part.”

And those who’ve played hockey with the Clarkes for decades (Glyn’s still playing, and Helen last pulled on the pads two seasons ago), gathered around them again during their toughest days.

“We’ve had lots of messages, help and support” Helen says. "That’s the amazing thing about team-mates, you can lose touch - have children, become immersed in your own lives. But when something happens, suddenly they’re there asking: ‘What do you need? What can we do?’ It’s been really cool."

Halcyon days

The Tokyo Olympics opened the floodgates in the Clarke household.  

“For ages, when there was a Comm Games or the Olympics, you’d talk about the experience to the kids, and they’d go, ‘Oh yeah’, but it didn’t really click,” says Helen, who played at three Olympics and two Commonwealth Games, where she won a bronze medal in 1998.

“Now they’re at an age where they understand and appreciate my medal. They asked a lot of questions watching this year’s Olympics.”

That sparked many memories for Clarke, who feels her long international hockey career happened in “a different lifetime”.

Memories like the 1998 World Cup in Utrecht in the Netherlands - a joint men’s and women’s tournament for the top 12 nations. “We stayed in ‘Camp Hi-de-Hi’ out in the wops and all bussed to the hockey venue,” she recalls. The Black Sticks finished sixth.

“But you can’t beat the Olympics for an event - surrounded by athletes you’d normally watch on TV. It was absolutely phenomenal.”

Black Sticks goalkeeper Helen Clarke walks off the Sydney turf after losing 7-1 to Argentina at the 2000 Olympics. Photo: Getty Images. 

She warmed the bench at her first Games, Barcelona 1992, but was the No.1 keeper at the 2000 Games in Sydney - where a strong Black Sticks side came close to making the semifinals, but ended up sixth. “The stadium was packed - so loud you couldn’t talk to your players,” she says. “We got the rough end of the stick with some calls.”

Four years later, she played her final international at the Athens Olympics, where the bus was checked for bombs daily. New Zealand were once again sixth.

Clarke became New Zealand’s first female goalkeeper to play 100 tests, and when she retired from international hockey in 2002, she was the most capped Black Sticks woman on 166 tests.  

From her debut in 1991 to the 1998 World Cup she played her first 50 games. “We just didn’t play very often,” she says. “Then it took me only two years to get the next 50.”

Today the list is topped by recently retired Black Sticks captain Stacey Michelsen, who played 296 tests over her 12 years.

Clarke believes her international longevity came from playing in goal. “Your body doesn’t take quite the same hammering as a field player’s. Well, it’s a different hammering. I didn’t have to do all that running on the turf,” she laughs.

“It’s funny because while you’re in it, you’re striving to stay in and keep up with other keepers around the world, and you don’t take the time to step back and realise what you’re actually doing.

“It’s not until you’re finished and you’re talking to other people, and they say: ‘That’s amazing’. You hadn’t really thought about it in those terms.”

In sickness and in health

Near the end of 2016, Glyn wasn’t feeling like himself - constantly tired; struggling to run with son, Nick, to the summit of Mt Eden; with small cuts that wouldn’t heal.  Helen convinced him to ask his doctor for blood tests.

The following Friday evening, the couple – dressed to the nines - were at a hockey function in Auckland’s city centre. “Glyn’s phone started ringing during the entrée,” Helen says.

Glyn Clarke (left) and wife, Helen (second from right), the night Glyn was given his cancer diagnosis. Photo: supplied. 

He took the call, then told Helen he had to go to hospital. “He gave me a taxi chit to get home and set off walking across Grafton Bridge to Auckland Hospital,” she recalls.  A stunned Helen was put in a taxi by a friend and met Glyn at the emergency department.

“We were dressed in our finest and the young doctor had to tell us the bad news: ‘You’ve got acute myeloid leukaemia and you won’t be going home for a couple of weeks’,” Helen remembers.

“He was in and out of hospital from October till his bone marrow transplant in March.”

Once Glyn’s treatment was finished, there was more anguish: Helen’s mum was diagnosed with dementia in 2018 and died the following year.

Then 2020 brought Covid and more personal heartbreak and worry. Helen was due for her routine breast screening in April, but the nationwide lockdown meant her mammogram was delayed until September. “That’s when they found the cancer,” Helen says. “My first chemo was less than a month later.”

“It was quite freaky when Helen got sick, too,” says Glyn. “Our ability to stand relatively strong was so important, and we stood strong for each other. We always tried to take a positive approach and it made things so much easier.”

Throughout their treatments, the couple made sure they kept their children informed.

“The kids have been unbelievable through the whole thing,” Helen says. “You have to be honest with them, or they’ll stress from not knowing. Sometimes they could only FaceTime Dad in hospital when he was having a bad day.

“Some days I’d been struggling to get out of bed, and they’d ask if I was okay. It’s been massive for them to have a grounding in coping and resilience.”

Kicking back

Glyn has played for the Somerville club for over 30 years, and defended goal and coached their division one side this season.

In 2017, he ‘volunteered’ his wife to play for Somerville’s premier women’s side again, when their regular keeper snapped her achilles. Helen played for three seasons.

“I hadn’t put my gear on for 14 years,” she says. “It was fun – I didn’t train, I just rocked up on the weekend and played hockey.

“I told them ‘If I go down, I won’t be getting back up, so you have to gather round and help me’. What they really liked was the calling - they found it easy playing in front of me because I’d tell them where they should be.”

She was surprised, she says, by how little the game has changed for keepers, other than the penalty shoot-outs to decide drawn matches. “In terms of technique, keeping is still keeping. The kit hasn’t changed either,” she says.  

Helen is keen to get kitted-up again for the Grey Sticks – a team of her old Black Sticks mates. They played at the World Masters in Auckland in 2017, but Helen was supporting Glyn through his treatment at the time.

They’re looking at playing in the Pan Pacific Masters next year. By then, Helen reckons, she’ll be ready and willing.

Double Olympic sevens champ Risi's on the rise

Risi Pouri-Lane has represented NZ in three sports, but she's found her true calling in sevens. As the Black Ferns prepare to rejoin the World Series, the young playmaker from Motueka has already made sevens history. 

She’s just 21, but Risaleaana Pouri-Lane already holds a rare Olympic record.

Risi, as she’s best known, captained the New Zealand sevens team to gold at the 2018 Youth Olympics in Buenos Aires.

And in August this year, she was a valuable team member of the Black Ferns Sevens at the Tokyo Olympics, who also won gold.

This outstanding accomplishment makes Pouri-Lane, Olympian #1477, the only New Zealander to have won a gold medal at both a youth and summer Olympics.

And this young woman, with her humble confidence and calm presence, takes it all in her stride. “For me, winning these accolades are bonuses to what I do. I play rugby because I love playing it. I feel like the rewards are when that little kid comes up to me and is inspired in some way,” she says.  

“Knowing that someone has just decided to play rugby for the first time in their life because of me, or the Black Ferns Sevens as a whole, that's what fills my heart.”

And that’s not all that makes Pouri-Lane so exceptional. The professional sevens player has also represented New Zealand in two other sports - judo and touch.

Sport is in her blood. Her father, Kevin, was a New Zealand age-group wrestler, and her mother, Lealofi, was a body sculptor.

Her older sister, Keilamarita, has represented Samoa in rugby sevens, as well as playing rugby for Canterbury before being contracted to play in Japan for three years.

Risi Pouri-Lane with her Youth Olympic sevens gold medal surrounded by her family. Photo: supplied. 

Born in Auburn, Sydney, Pouri-Lane left with her family when they decided to return to New Zealand when she was three years old, settling in the small South Island town of Motueka.

Pouri-Lane was a 16-year-old schoolgirl when she sat on her bed and devised a plan to get to the Olympics to play sevens. It was a driving force for her, and she documented her thoughts in colourful word bubbles with clear goals and inspirational affirmations, which she proudly shows me.

The goals, along with her academic pursuits, included making the Black Ferns development squad by 2018 and the Black Ferns Sevens for the 2020 and 2024 Olympics.

She also wrote in her plan: “Do heaps of speed, agility, fitness and power work”. And in bright red large writing, the ultimate sacrifice: “No Maccas for as long as possible.”

Her first goal was soon realised, selected for the New Zealand sevens development squad in 2017 when she was just 16, playing in Japan and  Australia.

“I was still in school during that time, so I had to juggle my schoolwork and make sure I was still passing my tests. But at the same time, training and performing to the best of my ability,” she says.

Joining the Black Ferns Sevens for their Commonwealth Games debut on the Gold Coast in April 2018 was a highlight. On finals day, as 13th player, she was doing her duty laying out the game jerseys for the team, when she got told to pull on a jersey herself.

The Black Ferns Sevens team jerseys laid out ready for action in the 2018 Commonwealth Games final. Photo: Risi Pouri-Lane

She sat on the bench for most of the historic game against Australia but ran onto the field for the last moments of the game to be part the celebrations as the team won gold. She says she made the most of that “unreal experience”, soaking up every moment in the team environment.

Pouri-Lane was smashing through her goals, feeling things were all going according to her elaborate plan.

But she remembers being at the national sevens tournament in Rotorua later that year, when a teammate got a call-up to join the sevens development squad. “I didn’t get a call, and I was thinking, ‘Oh no, I’ve been dropped’,” she says.

Within an hour, Black Ferns Sevens coach Allan Bunting phoned to offer her a player contract. “I went from thinking I wasn’t good enough, to being offered a spot in the Black Ferns Sevens,” she says.

At the age of 17, Pouri-Lane was the youngest fully-contracted sevens player for the Black Ferns.

For as long as she can remember, Pouri-Lane has been playing sport. She began judo training at a local club when she was five, and went on to win a few national competitions; by 2016, she'd represented New Zealand at the Oceania championships.

Pouri-Lane says many of the skills she learnt in this disciplined martial art have helped her on the rugby field, in particular the ability to defend and tackle.

At 10, she started playing touch rugby as a social player, but it wasn’t long before she became competitive. She played in the transTasman tournament in the New Zealand U18 women’s team when she was 17.

Pouri-Lane speaks highly of her two Motueka High School coaches, Mark Kelly and Bevan Thomas, who she says had a significant impact on her sporting career. From 2015 to 2017, Thomas coached her in the school's girls rugby team, the mixed touch team he took to the national secondary school tournament in 2016, and the Tasman women's sevens at nationals.  

“Risi was very committed to training as well as being a great listener and a very fast learner,” Thomas says. “Because of the other sports she played, like judo, her physical and technical application was huge. Even though most girls were twice her size in the early days, she had no fear of the physical nature of the game.”

Black Ferns Sevens playmaker Risi Pouri-Lane calls on her track running skills on the rugby field. Photo: supplied. 

Another important quality he recalls is her ability to stay calm under pressure. “She never got rattled in times when others did and she was great with younger players in our squad, nurturing and mentoring them. Whenever we finished training, tournaments or games, she always, without fail, would thank managers and coaches,” he says.

“It takes a village to raise a child, and Risi has had many coaches, and I’m sure she has taken gems from all of them. Every sport she's played - judo, athletics, touch, rugby, netball - have all helped her get to where she is now. She loves the challenge and the battle.”

Although Pouri-Lane is a natural talent in so many sports, rugby was always her favourite.

“I started playing when I was 11 as the only girl in the boys’ team, and from that first game, I knew it was the one for me. I just loved being in the environment,” she says.

“I loved the contact, the team spirit, just everything about playing and being able to get out there and have fun.”

She played both rugby 15s and sevens for Motueka High School right through her school years.

It wasn’t always simple. In 2015, she had to decide between three big national secondary school sports events - for touch, athletics and sevens - all on the same weekend. “That was, I think, the stepping-stone towards my genuine interest in sevens, because I ended up choosing the Condor nationals,” she says.

Clearly, it was a good decision and the last three years have been exceptional, despite the challenges of the Covid-19 pandemic and the numerous sacrifices she’s made to reach her goals.

Sevens Sisters Risi Pouri-Lane and Theresa Fitzpatrick with their Olympic jerseys. Photo: supplied. 

Pouri-Lane left home to be closer to the sport she loved, moving first to Hamilton and then to Mt Maunganui, where she now lives as part of the terms of her contract with the Black Ferns Sevens.

As we're talking, she names many of the Black Ferns’ teammates who’ve supported her, including Kelly Brazier, Ruby Tui and captain Sarah Hirini, the Kel Tremain New Zealand rugby player of the year. “I just try to learn and observe as much as I can from the older girls, because the reality is they're not going to be here forever,” Pouri-Lane says.

She’s about to trial for the Black Ferns Sevens team, who will rejoin the World Series on leg three in Malaga, Spain, in late January. She’s hopeful she’ll make it, she says, if she keeps working hard.

Another situation which required Pouri-Lane to draw on her inner strength was when all team members had to be vaccinated against Covid-19.

“I have never been vaccinated in my life, even as a baby. It was one of the biggest decisions I’ve had to make so I could continue to pursue my goals,” she says.

She felt like she was going against all the values and beliefs she’d been brought up with, and it was a very long and difficult process that affected her mindset and her training.

“Probably the hardest thing was telling my parents that I had to be vaccinated, because I knew they were strongly against it and that's just how we've been brought up. It was hard, but I know they still love me. I'm still their daughter and nothing's changed,” she says.

NZ sevens captain Risi Pouri-Lane (right) leads the team out for the 2018 Youth Olympics final against France. Photo: supplied. 

Asked how it feels to have the honour of being the only New Zealander to win Olympic gold at the youth and summer Games, she answers in her usual humble way.

“My faith is a huge part of my life and I feel that any talents I have are God-given gifts that I am able to express on the world stage,” says Pouri-Lane, who has just been named Sportswoman of the Year at the Nelson Sports Awards.

“I always think back to everyone who’s helped me because there is no way that I could have accomplished any of those things without the help of so many people.

“My family are very, very quick to keep me humble and grounded, which I love about them. They don't see me as any different, although I know they are proud of me. But you know, when I go back home, I'm still the same Risi and I've still got to do my chores.”

What does the future hold for this incredible young athlete, who has already achieved so much by the age of 21?

“I feel like my journey has only just begun, which in a way seems crazy, when I’ve already achieved so much. But when I think about what I can still give to the team, and for the jersey I wear, I want more - in terms of the legacy I want to leave behind.

“I think I have a few more years in me yet and I definitely feel like I haven't shown my full potential. But I know it's coming.”

World's largest women’s sports summit delayed

The latest casualty of Covid constraints, the IWG world conference on women & sport - one of four major sports events in NZ over the next two years - has been delayed six months. 

The world’s largest conference on women and sport, to be hosted by New Zealand in 2022, has been postponed - the decision becoming inevitable with around 1200 of the world’s sports leaders unable to attend because of the global pandemic.

It’s the third of the 'Big Four' women’s sports events taking place in New Zealand over the next two years to be delayed by the worldwide effects of Covid-19.  

Two of the three women’s World Cups – cricket and rugby - were put off for a year, and will be played here next year. The FIFA Women's World Cup remains on target to go ahead as planned in 2023.

The 8th IWG World Conference on Women & Sport was to have been held in Auckland in early May 2022, and has now been pushed out six months to November 14-17.

But in a silver lining, the global event now dovetails neatly with the end of the Rugby World Cup, which has its final at Eden Park on November 12.

The pandemic had already changed the face of the four-yearly summit, transforming it into a digital-physical hybrid event.

But with New Zealand’s borders not opening until May 1 next year, it meant overseas presenters and sports leaders couldn’t clear the seven-day self-isolation period in time to attend the conference.

Rachel Froggatt, secretary general of the International Working Group (IWG) on Women & Sport, says organisers had to decide whether to continue to hold the conference in May, but it completely online, or to postpone it.

With the advice of partners, and the help of extra funding from Sport New Zealand to tide them over to November, they chose the latter option.

“The postponement gives us the best shot of realising the original vision we have for the event, to advance sport by empowering women and girls,” says Froggatt, who's also CEO of Women in Sport Aotearoa, who are delivering the conference. 

Rachel Froggatt, CEO of Women in Sport Aotearoa and secretary general of the IWG secretariat. Photo: supplied. 

Pushing back the IWG conference was triggered by the government’s announcement last month that New Zealand would open its borders to international travellers on 11.59am on April 30 next year, followed by seven days of home isolation.

Froggatt says with the event slated to take place on May 5-8, any international conference delegates wouldn’t be clear of quarantine in time to attend.

Around 600 presenters are expected at the conference, and 90 percent of those are international.

“We’re also expecting over 600 international leaders to attend. With the International Olympic Committee as a partner, they want to bring their international family to New Zealand, too,” she says.

Over the last three weeks, those running the IWG secretariat in New Zealand for the past three years put together a “fast, but robust consultation” to find a solution. They consulted with Sport NZ, the Women in Sport Aotearoa board, the IWG global executive and funding partners including the IOC.

After landing on six possible scenarios, they whittled it down to two – a purely digital version of the event or postponement.

“The overwhelming preference was to postpone,” Froggatt says.

“We were incredibly fortunate to receive funding from the government – much the same as they did with the cricket and rugby World Cups. Now we’re in a position to deliver the original vision – a highly collaborative, highly connected open learning experience, to advance equity for women and girls.”

Moving to mid-November also means international leaders attending the Rugby World Cup, to be played in Northland and Auckland, could stay on for the conference. “We have the very enthusiastic support of the Rugby World Cup and New Zealand Rugby,” Froggatt says.

They also have the “unanimous support” of the IWG global executive in making their decision, and the UK secretariat, who take on the running of the next four years of the IWG from October 1.

There is a back-up plan, too, if border restrictions in November are back in place.

“If the worst happens and the world is still in a state of flux, we can deliver a fully digital event,” Froggatt says.

“We are in a really good place with the planning and set-up of the conference, so  we will be able to spend the extra six months focusing on Women in Sport Aotearoa initiatives to advance gender equity in New Zealand.”

Brave cricketers find gold at the end of the rainbow

Determined to promote equality on and off the field, the Northern Districts women's and men's cricket teams now share a Brave new name and are celebrating pride in the Super Smash.

The weather forecast predicts potential showers on Friday, but one thing’s for sure - we’ll see plenty of rainbows in Hamilton.  

Seddon Park, the family-friendly cricket ground with its lush grassy banks, will play host to the Pride Round of the Super Smash today - a double-header between the women’s and men’s teams from Northern Districts and Auckland.  

It’s not just about gay pride either. Pride Round is all about promoting equality in cricket, in keeping with New Zealand Cricket’s theme of the sport being “a game for all New Zealanders”. 

And it’s fitting Northern Districts will host the matches for a second season running. The concept behind Pride Round links in perfectly with the teams’ new identity.  

From now on, both the men’s and women’s teams will be known as the Northern Brave, a decision in the works since 2017. The Spirit and the Knights are now united as the Brave – the first major association in the country to have women’s and men’s teams playing under the same name.  

“We’re going through that journey so little boys and girls can look at our teams and aspire to be what they see,” says Northern Districts CEO, Ben MacCormack. 

It’s been a tough start to the season for the Brave, with many of their players stranded in Auckland’s lockdown - captain Brooke Halliday among them. With the borders now open, Halliday is one of four players who return to the side for the Pride Round. 

Kate Anderson, who’s stood in as the Northern Brave captain, was part of the inaugural Pride Round match in January. It was, she says, an "awesome experience".  

It gave female cricketers the chance to play under lights for the first time, swapping the match order so the men played in the afternoon and the women received the prime-time slot.  

Families set up on the grass banks at Seddon Park for the first Pride Round double-header in last season's Super Smash. Photo: Bruce Lim Photography.

Anderson says the round was evidence of the association’s commitment to always push for better opportunities for their women’s team. “It showed that it wasn’t just lip service in terms of equality,” she says.  

Cricket has always been an accepting game for Anderson, now 25, who played through high school and was part of the White Ferns squad this year.   

“I think cricket - and especially women’s cricket - has really led the way in terms of that,” she says. “I’ve never felt not accepted or that I can’t bring myself to cricket, which has been awesome.  

“It’s made it quite a comforting, safe environment for me to play in and I hope that’s something young girls and boys actually can see.” 

While captaining the Brave, Anderson’s key to fostering a supportive environment as leader was simply to enjoy the game. 

“If people are having fun, they’re probably bringing themselves forward, and I think that’s really important that people don’t shy away from who they are,” she says.  

“People are bringing their true selves to cricket, to trainings and to the games and I think that’s also how you get the best out of them when they’re comfortable in the environment.” 

While Pride Round celebrates New Zealand’s rainbow community, it’s also a chance for everyone to be celebrated for their identity.  

“It’s not just gay pride, it’s including everyone and making sure everyone has a place where they can feel comfortable and feel like they can be themselves,” says Anderson.   

“Even just in our team, there are people from all over the country and all over the world, really,” she says. There’s a diversity in age, too - the women’s team ranging from 15 to 36.   

Some of the initiatives of the first Pride Round included rainbow bat grips and rainbow colours marking the inner circle. Photo: Bruce Lim Photography. 

With big names like Tim Southee and Mitchell Santner in the men’s team sporting rainbow bat grips and shoelaces at Seddon Park as part of the last Pride Round, Northern Districts promise this season will be even more colourful.  

Players from both the men’s and women’s Brave teams were involved in the decision-making process and their feedback shaped this season’s event.  

Along with the bat grips and shoelaces, the Brave are incorporating the rainbow in the logo on their hats, an easy way for every player to show their support.  

It will also be the first game of the season for the Auckland Hearts and Aces, finally free to travel and play cricket after being in lockdown with travel restrictions since August.  

After a successful event last season, the Aucklanders were eager to be a part of Pride Round again - a chance to showcase the sport’s acceptance for all.  

“It’s just showing that young people, no matter who they are or how they identify, if they’re watching, they can see people either similar to them or supporting them,” says Anderson.  

The decision to host Pride Round and the Brave name change aligns with Northern Districts’ reputation as a progressive association.  

“That’s been something we’ve really worked hard on over the last couple of years to bring our men’s and women’s brands together,” MacCormack says. 

He recalls a moment a few months ago where his four-year-old daughter summed up their new name perfectly.  

“We were at a Super Smash training hub and there was an 18 or 19-year-old girl and boy, both in polo shirts that were taking the session and she said to me ‘Look Daddy, there’s a Brave boy and a Brave girl; they’re the same’,” he says.

A dad of four, MacCormack’s passion for portraying cricket as a sport for all is evident. “Having that one brand allows for that, where a boy and a girl can stand there and watch men’s or women’s cricket and say ‘I can be that, I can aspire to wear those colours’,” he says. 

With a home Cricket World Cup starting in March of 2022, initiatives like Pride Round and free childcare at the World Cup games are proof of how women’s cricket is leading the way to make the sport a game for everyone.  

Anderson sums it up perfectly.  

“It’s where people can come together and be treated as equals. It doesn’t matter where you’re from, what you do...everyone just comes together for a common goal of playing cricket and having some fun.”  

Littlejohn is NZ's new teen swimming sensation

Waikato teen Laura Littlejohn will compete in her first major international event as the only Kiwi swimmer at the world short course champs this week. And she's on track to make a splash.

Teenager Laura Littlejohn knows the world championships are the pinnacle of short course swimming competition. But she’s still disappointed she cannot yet call herself an Olympian. 

The 17-year-old was hoping to make New Zealand’s 4x200m freestyle relay team for the Tokyo Olympics, but fell short at the qualifying meet, despite being one of the country’s four fastest freestylers. Her place was taken by an eligible backstroker.

“It was definitely disappointing and not what I wanted. But I learned a lot from the whole experience and being in that sort of pressure, which I’ve never been in before,” she says.

That pressure is about to ramp up.  From Thursday, the student at St Paul's Collegiate in Hamilton - who trains in the school’s pool - will be in Abu Dhabi, competing in the senior world short course (25m pool) championships. It’s in the midst of a pandemic, but Littlejohn is not too bothered by that.

“It will definitely be a different experience,” she says.  “There will be Covid testing all the time. Abu Dhabi is a very good place, it has 70 cases a day – less than New Zealand - so that’s a good sign.”

Littlejohn has qualified in four events, the 50m, 100m and 200m freestyle, and the 100m individual medley (IM).

Despite missing some training, locked out of the pool for several weeks while the country was in lockdown, Littlejohn hopes to produce her best times at these world championships.

Her times are already handy. Her 50m freestyle best time, 24.85 seconds, is the second-fastest time by a female Kiwi teenager. Her 100IM time of 1m 00.59s, her 200IM time of 2m 10.51s, and her 100m freestyle time of 53.92s are the fastest any female teenager has ever swum in New Zealand. And all would have had her in the top 18 at the last world champs.  

Laura Littlejohn qualified for the world champs in the 100m IM at the 2020 nationals. Photo: BW Media.

It will be Littlejohn’s first major swimming competition, having never competed outside New Zealand or Australia until this month. It’s also a user-pays trip (Swimming New Zealand decided not to send an official team to the UAE), but she’s had financial assistance from her school, the New Zealand Swimming Alumni and Swimming Waikato.

“Not many people get to do this in these Covid times,” she says. “I’m excited, this is my first big meet and I’m just looking forward to seeing the way different athletes approach big meets like this.

“Hopefully I can take some of these things back and put them into my own training.”

It was the 100m IM at the 2020 national short course championships in Hamilton in October that first qualified Littlejohn for the worlds, an event initially slated for December 2020.

Littlejohn was also one of just two New Zealanders to qualify for next year’s world junior championships in Kazan, Russia. Tokyo Olympic finalist and world junior 200m freestyle champion Erika Fairweather has also met juniors times, but to qualify, swimmers must be 17 on December 31 - the day Fairweather turns 18.

The 2021 swimming year was tough, as all national long course meets and some smaller meets were cancelled due to the pandemic.

“There were so many missed opportunities, but it was possible to make worlds happen,” Littlejohn says. “We just jumped on it and thought ‘Why not give it a crack and see what happens?’

“I really just wanted to get some international experience, put my toes in the water, just learn a lot about international racing and get to see how the real elite top dogs do it.”

In addition to the cancellations, the New Zealand short championships were also abruptly stopped during the first day when Auckland went into lockdown.

“That was really hard,” Littlejohn says. “I felt I had a good build-up to it. I was training well, then all of a sudden - bang! Lockdown.”

“I just had to refocus and set myself more goals, and it was at that point I was trying to figure out whether going to the world champs would be possible. Once I knew that I could, that was my new goal.

“When I don’t set myself goals, it can be challenging to keep going and keep mentally in the right head space.”

Laura Littlejohn won the Life Members Trophy for the best individual performance at the 2021 national age group swim champs. Photo: BW Media.

Littlejohn’s coach, St Paul’s head coach Graham Smith, says Littlejohn is resilient and knows how to deal with the sport’s curveballs. 

“Laura has an ability to handle that really well, bounce back from it quite quickly and be able to handle some of these setbacks. You’ve got to be good at the mental part of the game,” he says.

Smith, who’s originally from Scotland, won’t be in Abu Dhabi; Littlejohn has travelled with her mother, Jenny. Smith has arranged some coaching and support for his top swimmer through contacts within the Irish team and he’s confident she will excel. 

“She’s just a kid who is really driven, and has a passion for performing well,” Smith says. “I’m 100 percent confident in sending Laura away without a coach knowing that she will be able to handle this situation and will be able to gain and grow from this experience.”

The Littlejohns will also have a different Christmas day this year – it’s the day they return home.

“I’ll be spending half of Christmas Day in the air and the other half in a hotel,” Littlejohn says. 

She first competed in the pool the day after her seventh birthday, and she currently holds more than 60 Waikato open and age group records.

She also holds 10 national age-group records – the most recent three in the 50m freestyle, 200m IM, and 100m butterfly set in Dubai last weekend in a lead-up meet to the world championships.

And she’s 0.35 seconds outside the national open record for 100m freestyle.

Laura Littlejohn wants to join her brother and sister on a scholarship at a US college. Photo: BW Media. 

She’s always played sport, including cross country, athletics, gymnastics, water polo, badminton and netball right up until last year, when she felt she was good enough to focus on swimming, despite the daily 5am alarm for training.

“I could just see myself having a future in swimming,” she says. “I was really enjoying it, and it was something that I really wanted to pursue. I’ve always looked for challenges, I don’t usually choose the easy route. But it’s a super fun sport.” 

Sport seems to run in the Littlejohn family.  Littlejohn was the St Paul’s Collegiate sportswoman of the year in 2020 and 2021.  Her older brother, Ben, is also a swimmer and at Harvard on a US college scholarship; sister Kate is rower who’s also on a college scholarship at Stanford. Both won sportsperson of the year awards while at St Paul’s. Laura would like to follow them to the US after she leaves school next year.

For the past eight years, she’s been volunteering at Riding for the Disabled (now Waikato Equitherapy) helping look after the horses and support riders. It helps her keep perspective, doing something outside of sport.

“I can help kids who are less fortunate and who can’t do things that I am lucky enough to be able to do,” she says. 

After the world champs, Littlejohn is eyeing the 4x200m freestyle relay team for the Commonwealth Games in Birmingham next year, but she’s using her Olympic trials and worlds competition as a stepping-stone to her big goal: the 2024 Paris Olympics.

“When I’m in the position to try and qualify for Paris, I’d have been through these processes.  I just need to get stronger and faster,” she says.  “I love swimming. I love to race. I want to be competitive, to continually improve, and do the best I can.”

The call of the north pulls netballer Oceane Maihi

Once told she'd never make it as a netballer, Oceane Maihi has dug in her toes and overcome major injuries to become one of the country's top defenders. Now she's spurring youngsters in the north to follow her lead. 

Oceane Maihi is one very proud Northlander.  As we talk, the up-and-coming defender stresses how important her home region remains to her - even though she's now about to play for the Waikato Bay of Plenty Magic. 

The girl who grew up in the small town of Rawene, in the Hokianga, wants to share the highs and lows of her journey with other young Northlanders - so they know if they really want something, they can achieve it, no matter where you come from. Or what other people might say.  

Maihi, who's training in the Silver Ferns camp in Wellington this week, has endured a tough run with some major injuries. Told she should give up netball, she persevered, and became a qualified physiotherapist along the way.  

“Coming from up north, there’s not a lot of access to coaches, to facilities that people down in Auckland have,” she says.  

“I want people and young kids to know that it doesn’t matter where you come from or what your journey is like and what happens along the way - if you really want something and you work for it, you can get there.  

“It’s about surrounding yourself with people who believe in you, and people who want to help you to achieve those things, rather than listening to other people’s opinions.” 

An in-circle defender, Maihi played 13 games in her first fully-contracted season with the Northern Stars this year, wearing the purple dress in the defence alongside Anna Harrison and Elle Temu.  

It was a successful season for Maihi, ending in selection for the Silver Ferns development squad.  

But she isn’t putting any pressure on herself ahead of the Silver Ferns camp starting Wednesday - instead adopting the healthy relationship she’s had with netball since a string of injuries halted her progress.   

Maihi's work as a physio off court complements her strength and awareness on court. Photo: Michael Bradley Photography. 

Maihi played netball throughout school and in her final year, transferred from Kerikeri High School to Mount Albert Grammar School (MAGS), the academy famous for producing elite netball talent.  

After falling off a horse and injuring her back - “being a country girl,” she laughs - Maihi was unable to trial for the school’s premier team, which in 2013, boasted future ANZ Premiership players Jamie-Lee Price, Maia Wilson, Holly Fowler and Chiara Semple.  

Having moved to the city for netball, it was a difficult time for Maihi - away from home and unable to play to the best of her ability.  

When there was an injury in the premier team, Maihi was invited to travel with them to the national secondary schools championships, which MAGS won with a comprehensive final victory over Wellington’s St Mary’s College.  

“It was a really cool experience to be able to do it, but I didn’t actually get to play much with the prem team, because I just wasn’t good enough at that time,” says Maihi.  

“You don’t realise the difference in skill and what the girls learn down in Auckland. You’re already a few steps behind them... so it was a real big eye-opener for me.” 

Before receiving her first contract as a training partner for the Stars in 2020, Maihi had already battled through numerous injuries, along with five surgeries (including on both hips).  

“It definitely slowed down the process - I would get to a team and be learning and growing and then I’d get injured again,” says Maihi, whose most recent injury was her ACL about four years ago.  

Mum, Nicky, and dad, Arepata (known as Sibby), have been Maihi’s biggest supporters, watching every game. They would even drive down to Auckland to watch Maihi play club netball.  

It was Nicky who suggested finding a passion outside of her sport, seeing how injuries had stalled Maihi’s playing career.  

Their support encouraged Maihi to pursue a degree in physiotherapy, a four-year degree at AUT, which she completed while recovering from her surgeries.  

“I'm a believer in things happen for a reason and you go through that journey to make you a better person, and a better athlete,” says Maihi on her injuries. “It’s definitely made me more aware of my body and looking after myself.” 

The encouragement from her parents inspired Maihi to continue with netball and rise above.  

"I’ve had quite a few people along the way with my injuries say ‘That’s a sign you should just stop netball', 'You’re getting all these injuries, you should just give it up’,” says Maihi.  

“I’ve had people say ‘You’re not good enough’ or ‘You’ll never make it’. And it was definitely my parents who helped me to believe that it didn’t matter what other people thought,  if I was willing to put in the hard work, that’s the half of it.” 

It was a difficult decision for Maihi (centre) to leave the Stars environment, making lifelong friends like Lisa Mather (left). Photo: Michael Bradley Photography. 

Always loyal to her home, Maihi’s goal is to open a physio clinic in the north with her partner, Levi Quitta, also a Northlander, who’s a personal trainer and works in strength and conditioning.  

“We want to make that available to anyone, but especially young kids up there aspiring to be sportspeople. Or supporting them on whatever journey they want to go on,” Maihi explains.  

Physio is taking a backseat right now, as Maihi focuses on netball, but it has a significant place in her future.  

“I love physio and I love helping, especially young sportspeople, but I found that I wasn’t able to give 100 percent to netball and to physio. I didn’t want to do any one half-pie or not do it justice,” she says. 

“There’s only a window of time that you can be a professional athlete, so I wanted to give it a good crack and put all my energy into that and see where it goes. Physio will always be there, whereas you have a short time frame with netball.”  

That focus has led her to a new team this year, joining a defensively-stacked Magic side.  

Leaving the Stars was not an easy decision for Maihi, a loyal player who first joined their ranks in 2019 as an injury replacement at the Super Club competition.  

“Even though I was only fully contracted with the Stars for a year, I had been around the environment for quite a while. And I really wanted to push myself outside of my comfort zone and do something new,” says Maihi.   

“I haven’t had the easiest journey in terms of injuries and other things. I owe a lot to Kiri [coach Kiri Wills] and the Stars and I appreciate them so much for giving me my first opportunity and seeing that talent when I was coming up.” 

The revamped Magic side doesn’t lack experience, with new coach Mary-Jane Araroa collecting 320 Silver Fern caps in her squad; new mum Katrina Rore leading the way with 137 international games under her belt.  

With five players in their 30s, and an average age of 28, Maihi is the third youngest in the Magic team, at 25 - a contrast to the Stars where Maihi was one of the older players.  

Maihi will be teaming up with Rore, Erena Mikaere, and the newest Silver Fern, Georgia Tong, in the Magic defensive circle, and is excited to see what combinations coach Araroa trials.  

“The big thing she’s pushed is that you’ll be given an opportunity and it’s what you make of that opportunity and the effort you put in to get on court,” Maihi says.  

“She’s very much about making and building those connections so it’s not necessarily about the best player - it’s about the best group, or the best connection you might have with someone.”  

Rore isn’t attending this week’s Silver Ferns camp, but other new mums Phoenix Karaka and Kayla Johnson are both returning to the international environment. That bolsters the squad, and makes selection even more difficult for coach Dame Noeline Taurua and assistant coach Debbie Fuller.  

Maihi’s first Silver Ferns camp was in 2020, when she was selected as injury cover. “That was really unexpected because I hadn’t even had an ANZ contract that year, I was just a training partner,” she recalls.  

After a fully contracted season this year, Maihi shed happy tears when the news sank in she was part of the Ferns development squad.  

“When you’ve been told by other people ‘no’, to actually get named in the development squad was a dream come true,” she says.  

Maihi is happy to see where her journey takes her, with no expectations at the moment. 

“I play netball because I love it, so I’m just making sure that I go and give it my best shot,” she says. “If anything comes from it, then that’s amazing, and if not, that’s okay, there’s still lots of time for me to learn and to grow so that I’m ready.  

“That’s the talk with Debbie and Noels - if you’re ready, they’ll take you, and if you’re not, it doesn’t mean you’re not good enough. It just means you’re not quite ready for it yet. It’s making sure you don’t put that pressure on yourself.” 

Maihi’s healthy approach to netball has taken her far and continues to support her career. She knows if she hadn’t had those setbacks, she might not be where she is today.  

“Having those things happen, they’ve made me more resilient to trusting the process and making the most of those opportunities that you get.”  

Joy after loss: Silver Fern Watson's taking care of baby

Vital Silver Ferns defender Jane Watson reveals she's both ecstatic, and mindful, of her pregnancy. And, she tells Suzanne McFadden, she's searching for ways to keep giving all she can to her netball sides.

Jane Watson will pack her training shoes for the Silver Ferns camp this week, just in case.

The Silver Ferns vice-captain, pregnant with her first child, has been invited to the camp in Wellington by coach Dame Noeline Taurua. But Watson isn’t sure yet what her role there will be.

Her baby is due at the end of May next year, but Watson has continued to train and keep in shape - especially on the comeback from her ankle surgery immediately after this year’s ANZ Premiership grand final. But she knows she has to be on limited exertion at the end-of-the-year camp starting on Wednesday. 

“I definitely want to stay fit. Whether it’s biking or running sessions, I’ll be doing something,” Watson, a veteran of 52 internationals, says.

But she definitely won’t be contesting for the ball. “I’d feel a little bit bad if I did, like the girls would hold back a little - because I do have a bit of a puku now,” she laughs. 

Rest assured, Watson won’t be taking any undue risks.

This baby is very special to her and partner, Santana Nicholls-Hepi - after Watson suffered a miscarriage during the ANZ Premiership season.

“I didn’t tell many people, and we had a game the next day in Nelson. It was quite full-on, but we were okay,” she says.

When Watson was first pregnant, the couple had been planning to start their family to work around the 2022 international netball season.

“That was our perfect plan,” the 31-year-old Watson says. “The timing would have been right for me to possibly make the Commonwealth Games [in late July next year]

“But you can’t always plan these things, and we’re very grateful that this has happened, regardless of the timing.

“And life is bigger than netball.”

But netball will continue to feature large in her life as she looks to help the Silver Ferns and the Tactix next season.

Captain Ameliaranne Ekenasio set a precedent in September, when she was involved with the Silver Ferns during their series with the English Roses, although she was heavily pregnant with her daughter, Luna (who's now six weeks old).

It’s all part of Taurua’s philosophy on encouraging Silver Ferns to become mums, and with the right support, return to the game afterwards.

But Watson, who's been a mainstay in the Silver Ferns defence under Taurua's tenure, admits she wasn’t looking forward to breaking the news of her pregnancy to the Ferns head coach.

“I just felt so bad. But straight away when I rang her, her response to me was really lovely. That reassured me that it was okay,” she says.

“Her caring, loving way and her support for us as individuals is so special.”

Watson knows she can turn to other netballer mums, too – she’s already asked Ekenasio for advice a couple of times during the pregnancy. “I’m sure I’ll be asking her a lot more as time goes on, that’s for sure,” Watson laughs.

She can also tap into Kimihia, the players' personal development programme, introduced by the NZ Netball Players' Association this year for all players in the ANZ Premiership and National Netball League. Tailored specifically for female professional athletes, Kimihia was created after an Ernst & Young report determined what netballers needed for their health, wellbeing and development, and in their life outside of netball. 

“It’s all about finding what the players need, want or need to learn. It might be about the female [menstrual] cycle, or it might be about finance,” Watson says.

“This year, the Tactix got someone in to talk to us about our pelvic floor, so we can be aware of it. Everyone goes through these things, but a lot of people don’t want to talk about it. But it might happen to half the girls in the team, so I think it’s really important that knowledge is out there."

Silver Fern Jane Watson keeps the ball well clear of Australian shooter Kiera Austin during the 2021 Constellation Cup. Photo: Michael Bradley Photography. 

Former Silver Fern Debbie Christian runs the programme, and says one of Kimihia's key pillars is returning to play.

"We know Netball New Zealand have a great medical team to support the players through their pregnancy and afterwards, but we're there to help them with that identity piece," Christian says. 

"For Jane, imagine being one of the best netballers in the world then suddenly being on reduced capacity, and your body is changing so much. We want to make sure there's someone there for those players as they're going through those changes.

"These are women going through ordinary issues under extraordinary pressures. Under the spotlight, it's way harder."

Watson will also have the support of her personal relationship manager, Commonwealth Games swimming gold medallist Anna Simcic, who's also a mum of three.

A fortnight ago, Watson broke the news that she was expecting to her Tactix team-mates, while they were at Hanmer Springs in their pre-season camp.

“I told the team on the first day [of camp], so they knew before everyone else. The girls were really shocked, but they were just so excited too. So it’s been pretty cool,” she says.

But Watson has discovered that being pregnant brings with it a whole new raft of responsibility.

“We went rafting and I had to get consent from my midwife to be allowed to do it, and to jump on the jetboat on the return. It’s just little things like that I didn’t think I’d have to consider,” she says. “We went to the hot pools as well, so I didn’t hop in the hottest one.”

Jane Watson leaps high for the ball thrown by her partner, Santana Nicholls-Hepi, at home in Christchurch during the first lockdown of 2020. Photo: Getty Images. 

Now in her second trimester, Watson is over the nausea, but she’s noticing other changes in her body while she’s working out.

“Coming off ankle surgery as well, my lungs are definitely burning more than they normally would be,” she says.

Watson is pleased with her comeback from the operation, where they created two new ligaments, removed some bone and “cleaned a few things out”.

The damage goes back a few years, to when Watson – one of the most aerial and athletic players in New Zealand netball - rolled her ankle, tearing ligaments.

“But I kept on playing without the ligaments for a few years. I had a very mobile ankle,” she says. “I think a lot of people do it, you just don’t know about it. You just bounce back when you don’t have them.

“But it got worse over time, with everything overcompensating for not having the right structure to my ankle. I was having to manage it a bit too much. So for my longevity, it was best that I got it done.”

Over the last fortnight she’s been increasing the load in her training, and feeling it in her ankle. But she’s confident her recovery is still on track.

Renowned for her athleticism and grit, Tactix goal keep Jane Watson goes high to block Magic shooter Khiarna Williams in the 2021 ANZ Premiership. Photo: Michael Bradley. 

The next year will look very different for Watson, but she hopes to play a part in the 2022 campaign for the Tactix, who came agonisingly close to claiming the ANZ Premiership title last season.

“I’ll still help out and offer my support and advice where I can. I still want to be part of the team and we just have to work out what that looks like once my contract ends,” she says.

“Though they’ll probably be happy not to hear my voice all the time.”

Watson has handed over the captaincy of the Tactix to fellow Silver Fern, Kimiora Poi.

“I’m very happy with that, she’ll be a great leader,” says Watson. The whole Tactix squad were involved in choosing their next captain, filling out a questionnaire so coach Marianne Delaney-Hoshek could see if “any natural leaders popped up”.

“We actually have a lot of leaders in our team. There are five girls who kept popping up quite a bit, but Kimmi nailed it,” Watson says.

“Even though it’s hard not to be playing, I think I’ve actually accepted it now. So I’m enjoying stepping back and supporting everyone. It feels really right.

“Our environment over the past few years has really grown and it’s in a really good place. There are leaders right through the court – everyone has been growing as people too.”

Watson’s partner knows just how important it is for her to keep in touch with her teams; Nicholls-Hepi has played netball for the New Zealand Defence Force.

The couple met “many, many years ago” at the Wellington Sevens. “It’s been a long journey,” Watson says.  

“Santana is very happy - we’re both really looking forward to being parents.” They're used to being surrounded by babies, with five young nephews and nieces.  

“We know it’s going to be very different, because we’ve had so much freedom, and time to spend with our animals. It will be funny to see how they react to having a baby in the house.”

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