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The rejuvenation and return of Bailey Mes

Bailey Mes wasn't banking on playing for the Silver Ferns again, but a change of attitude from the veteran shooter has seen her reclaim her mojo and a ticket to the Commonwealth Games. Suzanne McFadden reports. 

Meet the new Bailey Mes - the calm, confident, refreshed and contented netballer.

The athletic, versatile shooter who’s put the pressure and expectation from an often-tempestuous career behind her and now plays for the love of the game. Who, because of that change in mindset, is playing some of her best netball yet.

The 2019 World Cup champion who this week was reduced to tears when Dame Noeline Taurua told her she had another shot at the Silver Ferns.

A decade after she made her unexpected Silver Ferns debut, Mes hadn’t been expecting a recall to pull on the black dress. Nor the chance to blot out the upsetting memory of the Ferns' 2018 Commonwealth Games downfall.

“I hadn’t been thinking about anything beyond tomorrow,” the 33-year-old admits. “This was never at the forefront of my mind. So there was definitely a lot of emotion.”

A year ago, Mes was far removed from this new and improved version of herself.

Returning to the game following a year's recovery from surgery on a difficult knee injury, she found herself frustrated at the Mystics. The goal attack to Grace Nweke’s goal shoot, her principal role became feeder rather than shooter. She lost all confidence in front of the hoop.

“It was a real shocker last year. It took away the enjoyment factor from my netball,” Mes admits.

“I was barely shooting. I lost that rhythm to the point where I didn’t even feel comfortable going to the post, which is obviously your main job as a goal attack.” In a 16-game season, she put up just 105 shots.

“I loved the Mystics team and ultimately winning the premiership. But it was just a battle.”

Despite a number of knee injuries, Bailey Mes is still respected for her vertical leap. Photo: Michael Bradley Photography

Still struggling with her return from a patella cartilage injury, Mes decided to make herself unavailable for Silver Ferns selection for the rest of 2021, and the tour to England at the start of this year. She remained in the national squad, but stressed her priority was “rest and rehabilitation” to prepare for 2022.

Yet even when the new year rolled around, Mes still wasn’t sure whether she’d play for New Zealand again.

“I was fully aware that was a possibility,” the 72-test veteran says. “But I decided to take everything as it comes.”

Needing a new direction in her life, Mes could have walked off the netball court for good there and then. But instead, she chose to buy a house in Papamoa and joined the Magic for the 2022 ANZ Premiership season.

It was there she found her groove again – and, by her own admission, played some of the best netball of her career.

She certainly did enough to impress Taurua once again, as the Silver Ferns coach named Mes this week as one of her four shooters to play at next months’ Commonwealth Games.

She’s "super excited" to be back in the fold for her second Games, but she still has some work to do before focusing solely on Birmingham. She's working remotely for Sky Sport’s imagery team, who are of course, thrilled by her selection.

"But my boss is a bit upset I won’t be helping to cover the Comm Games from back here,” Mes laughs.

Bailey Mes, who has a diploma in photography, became an intern in Sky Sports imagery team in 2019. Photo: Sky Sport

The weight of volume

Taurua has never been afraid of a challenge, coming to Netball New Zealand’s rescue after the Ferns finished outside the Commonwealth medals for the first time, on the Gold Coast in 2018. But she describes putting together this Silver Ferns team as a “complex situation”. Covid, the flu, injuries, pregnancies, and failed fitness tests all shook up the selections.

When it came to choosing the shooters – Mes, Maia Wilson, Te Paea Selby-Rickit and Nweke - Taurua and her fellow selectors focused on volume.

“When I look at our shooting end, definitely we’ve got height to burn,” Taurua says. (Mes, at 1.87m – or just over six feet tall - is the shortest of the quartet.)

“When I look at the big three teams that we’re up against [England, Australia and Jamaica] and the players we have, we have a moving circle, we have a holding circle. I would like to think we’ve got smart players out there,” Taurua says.

“We have variety. Apart from Grace, who’s a specialist goal shoot, we have players who will put up the shot volume. Volume is really important to us, and you can’t quiver from putting the shot up.”

An international goal shoot needs to put up at least 40 shots in a game and her shooting partner around 24 attempts to be competitive, Taurua points out.

“There are areas to improve on in regards to accuracy. But if you have shooters who aren’t even looking at the post, that’s really hard for them mentally to change their habits or their ways,” the learned coach says.

“I feel these four shooters are the highest volume shooters that we have in New Zealand, plus the adaptability to play a different game style.”

Mes certainly proved herself in that department during this ANZ Premiership season. She increased her shooting volume fourfold from the previous year – sinking 330 shots from 428 attempts (at 77 percent accuracy).

Bailey Mes has relished playing with Ameliaranne Ekenasio (left) and her new flatmate Claire Kersten (right). Photo: Michael Bradley Photography.

Although she moved around the shooting circle, often switching roles with her partner Ameliaranne Ekenasio, Mes could be considered the most prolific goal attack in this year’s league.

(Overlooked goal shoot Aliyah Dunn, by the way, had the highest volume with 664 shots at goal, with a 93 percent success rate. She's now switched codes to basketball, playing for the Tokomanawa Queens in the new Tauihi Basketball Aotearoa league).

Donning the gloves

So what changed in Mes’ game? How did she lift herself back up again to potentially be one of the best shooters in the world?

Well, the almost 10-month break she took away from the court was the starting point, she says.

“I definitely think it helped. Stepping away from the Ferns, I knew I was nowhere near able to put out what I would have needed to internationally. I was barely able to get through the ANZ season,” Mes says.

“Then being in lockdown and having more of a forced rest was great for me. And improvising training-wise - I ended up doing heaps of different stuff for enjoyment and with my flatmates - taking my mind off netball.”

She got into boxing (“You probably wouldn’t pick it from looking at me; it hasn’t changed a lot,” she laughs), and circuit training on the back deck.

Watching the Ferns play, she felt a pang of envy. "But I knew I wasn’t in the right space to be there.”

Joining the Magic didn’t come without challenges. Covid illness and injuries constantly changed the face of the team, and they were well into the season before finally fielding their original line-up.

“At times we felt like we had everything possible thrown at us… which almost made it a bit easier to be like: ‘We just have to play netball now; there’s nothing more we can do’,” Mes says. “It was literally about getting out there and appreciating we were still able to play.

“And I was just more relaxed and thinking about the enjoyment of it. Being somewhere different and freshening it up a bit.”

The “real biggie” for her, though, was regaining her shooting mojo. She credits Magic head coach Mary-Jane Araroa for giving her shooters licence to go to the post whenever they were in the shooting circle.

And Mes relished the chance to work with former Silver Fern captain Ekenasio, who found her return to play after the birth of her second child “immensely challenging”. It  was no great shock when she didn’t make the Silver Ferns 12, but as a reserve for the Commonwealth Games, she could be called in if Nweke doesn't recover fully from her ankle injury. 

“Meels is incredible,” Mes says. “Towards the end of the season we got more of a rhythm on in our combo. We were able to mix up between goal shoot and goal attack, keeping the defenders having to readjust. Hopefully we get to play together again next season.”

A relaxed, more consistent Bailey Mes is looking forward to Birmingham. Photo: Michael Bradley Photography. 

Mes’ ability to play strongly in either shooting role helped her Ferns’ return. She doesn’t mind which bib she wears: “I’m not sure I have a preference; it’s good to keep on top of both skillsets.”

Erasing memories of 2018

With her new attitude, Mes doesn’t see these Commonwealth Games as an opportunity to right the wrongs of 2018, when an unhappy, disjointed Ferns team finished fourth (after a glittering record of two golds and three silvers at previous Games). She struggled on the Gold Coast, with her shooting inconsistent coming off the bench.

“It definitely took a while to recover from that experience,” she says. “I was pretty grateful to have the opportunity to play for the Ferns again after that.

“But I hadn’t thought ‘Right I need to go to another Games and make this right’. I was very much like ‘If it happens, that’s awesome’. So it’s super exciting to be going again.”

Mes’ very first selection for the Silver Ferns in 2012 was a bolt from the blue. She’d played just one quarter in the ANZ Championship for the Mystics when New Zealand coach Wai Taumaunu picked her after she stood out at a trial for her athleticism and speed (Taurua, incidentally, was assistant coach).

She failed to make an impression at wing attack in her first internationals, but her perseverance and her reinvention since then have been admirable.  

Mes reflects on the past decade. “I’m still the same person. But I’ve definitely learned a lot,” she says. “And I think my reasons and my mindset are the biggest things that have changed.

“I don’t know how long I’ll keep playing for, so I just want to enjoy it while I can.”

Waiheke Island - the global epicentre of women's rugby?

With 101 days till kick-off in the Women's Rugby World Cup, Suzanne McFadden spends a day at the Waiheke Island Rugby Club and discovers how the tight-knit community could be the nerve centre of the tournament.

A crooked line of girls and boys waits on the sideline of the Waiheke Island Rugby Club at Ōmiha, holding their boots or their drink bottles in their hands. At the end of the line, next to a silver cup in a protective case, is a young woman armed with a permanent marker.

“It’s Patricia,” a boy whispers.

Most of the kids had seen Black Fern Patricia Maliepo the day before, when she visited their schools with ‘Nancy’, the Rugby World Cup trophy.

Now they pay her the same kudos they would an All Black who’d come to the island to watch them play; queueing for her autograph or a photo with her and the silverware.

Maliepo, 19 and a three-test Black Fern playmaker, is on a break from the game, recovering from concussion. But she’s happy to have a run around with the Waiheke U13 girls’ rippa rugby team on this once-a-year Club Day; the first-five dodging, weaving and laughing.

“It’s really lovely to be out here, seeing little girls picking up the rugby ball, playing the game and proudly wearing the jersey for their club. Community rugby is what backs you up; it brings everyone together,” Maliepo says.

“Yesterday some of the girls at school didn’t even know that there’s a national women’s rugby team like the All Blacks. So it’s real cool for them to discover that.”

Black Fern Patricia Maliepo signs the boots of young Waiheke rippa rugby players next to the Rugby World Cup. Photo: Suzanne McFadden.

For Michelle Hooper, whose three kids play for the Waiheke club and who’s also tournament director of this year’s Rugby World Cup in New Zealand, this moment is huge.

“These girls don’t realise what the opening of the Rugby World Cup is going to be like – the bright lights, the full stadium at Eden Park. Yet here they are, playing with a potential star of the Black Ferns,” she says.

“And they’ll go to that game on October 8 and see her out there on that field, and say ‘Oh my god, Patricia spent the day playing with us’. It will be their light bulb moment - making that connection between what they do every week at the Waiheke Island Rugby Club and the best rugby players in the world.”

Maliepo’s already influenced the girls of Waiheke rugby.

“She’s really cool,” says Harper Wood, a star of the U13 girls. “She taught us how to draw the player then pass; she’s really good at sidestepping and she’s really fast. It’s my goal to become a Black Fern like her one day.”

The heart of women's rugby

There’s a joke at the Rugby World Cup 21 headquarters in Auckland that Waiheke Island has become the nerve centre of the global event.

It certainly was during Covid lockdowns - home to the tournament director Hooper, the team services manager Delyth Morgan-Coghlan, and the commercial operations manager for World Rugby, Kenzo Pannell.

And, of course, it’s also where Sir Graham Henry lives – he’s stepped out of retirement to take on a new coaching support role for the Black Ferns leading into this tournament.

As Hooper points out, the small but tight-knit rugby community on the island represents the growth in the female game.

“Here in Waiheke we have a very strong women’s game. It represents what all clubs should be like in terms of their attitude towards women and girls rugby,” she says.

RWC21 tournament director Michelle Hooper and daughter Mia at the Waiheke Club Day. Photo: Suzanne McFadden. 

Hooper’s daughter, Mia, meets me off the ferry at Waiheke, and tells me proudly how she’s scored a brace of tries and a couple of rips in her game of rippa rugby earlier that morning for the mixed under-sixes team.

There’s a powerful female presence throughout the local club. Vanessa McTavish is chairwoman of the club, and in recent years, they’ve fielded a women’s premier team, Wāhine Toa o Waiheke, in the Auckland club competition, but not a men’s premier team.

Sixty of the club’s 170 registered players are female.

McTavish was responsible for drawing more girls to play a few years ago. “My daughter wanted to play under-sixes. A couple of the girls were quite shy about playing with the boys,” she says. “So I decided to coach a girls team and play in the boys’ grade.

“We lost every game, but the girls didn’t care. They had the best time out there. The next year all these girls turned up wanting to play with a female coach.

“Now we have five girls’ teams on the island. There’s a real momentum here, especially when girls find out they can play with their girl buddies.”

Girls are being gradually introduced to the technical skills of rugby, now that U11 rippa in Auckland includes scrums, lineouts and kicking.

“If they want to carry on into rugby, they just need to do a tackle clinic. Then it’s not so scary,” McTavish says.

There are a couple of girls playing alongside boys in the Waiheke U13 restricted tackle team on Club Day – one of them makes the best tackles in the side.

Harper Wood on the run for the Waiheke U13 girls rippa team against Waitakere. Photo: Peter Rees Photography.

Wāhine Toa O Waiheke women couldn’t field a side this season – only nine women signed up. A lot of the past players work in hospitality on the island, and since Covid restrictions eased, the weekends have become their busiest time.

“I hope we have a women’s team again soon. It’s just such a shame,” says junior club president and referee, Jimbo Bailey. “The women and girls’ game is growing so fast on the island.”

The trick, he says, is to get girls interested young. “We go to schools and kindies encouraging them to play,” he says.

They also changed the day the island’s netballers played – moving from playing in Howick on Saturdays to joining in the North Harbour competition mid-week – making a big difference to girls’ rugby numbers.

It works both ways, though. “Now we have some of our rugby boys playing netball too,” Bailey says.

It’s a different pathway than Maliepo followed not that long ago.

She started playing tackle at age nine, the only girl in an U12 boys’ team, but had to stop at intermediate age “because girls weren’t allowed to play,” she says.  “I was like ‘wow, just wow’. So I played other sports at school.”

When Maliepo started at Edgewater College, in east Auckland, she was “pumped” to discover they had a girls rugby team – and that there was a national women’s team.  

“All I saw were the All Blacks and that’s what I wanted to be, an All Black. Then in my early college years I found out there was a team called the Black Ferns,” she says.

Waiheke's Sapphire Singh tries to evade the clutches of her Waitakere opponents. Photo: Peter Rees Photography. 

She joined the Marist rugby club at 16 – the same year she made the Auckland Storm women, playing in the Farah Palmer Cup at first-five (she scored 78 points in that debut season). In 2020, she scored the first ever try in women’s Super Rugby, for the Blues against the Chiefs.

Maliepo made her Black Ferns debut in England last year, but missed this month’s Pacific Four Series, coming back from her head knock in club rugby. She’s quietly determined to make the World Cup team, very likely to play in next week's Black Ferns trial in Pukekohe. 

“It will be my first World Cup to have a crack at and I’m so excited,” she says. “I’m prepping myself every day, trying to be the best in my position, so come Rugby World Cup I’m in that team and I’m representing New Zealand doing what I love.”

101 Days to Go

There are now 101 days until the World Cup kicks off at Eden Park (albeit a year later than planned), opening with a triple-header that includes the Black Ferns against the Wallaroos.

The last release of tickets go on sale on Thursday, “the last piece of the ticketing jigsaw”, Hooper says.

So far, they’ve sold 10 percent of what they expect to eventually sell during the tournament, but Hooper knows the bulk of tickets will be snapped up between September and October.

There’s a concerted effort to convince fans to buy tickets now, rather than waiting for the tournament to start.

“The challenge is converting people’s interest in the tournament to tickets for the opening match day, so they’ll go to the World Cup more than once because they loved the experience,” Hooper says.

She still wants to set a world record for a crowd at a women’s rugby international – aiming for day one of the tournament. The existing record is just over 20,000 - set at the Stade Jean-Bouin in Paris, when England convincingly beat Canada in the 2014 Rugby World Cup final. The goal is for 45-48,000 to pack into Eden Park.

Black Ferns v Wallaroos in the pouring rain in Tauranga for the Pacific Series earlier this month. Photo: Getty Images. 

The Pacific Four series earlier this month, featuring the Black Ferns, Canada, Australia and the United States, gave Hooper plenty of encouragement.

“I’m encouraged that all the rain for the year fell out of the skies during that three-week period,” she laughs, after inclement weather struck the tournament.

“But I was also encouraged by the number of people who turned out in their gumboots, raincoats and umbrellas in monsoon conditions in Tauranga – where in places the crowd was five-deep - to watch these girls play.” They sold 2500 walk-up tickets on that gloomy day. 

It was only the second time tickets had been sold to stand-alone Black Ferns games (the first was in 2020).

The performance of the new-look Black Ferns side, who won every game in the series, also gave Hooper faith in the side defending their 2017 World Cup title.

“Sure they made a few mistakes, but they made lots of moments of gold,” she says. “There were so many signs of hope.”

Nothing would make Hooper happier than a successful world rugby tournament, with world record crowds, and a winning Black Ferns team. 

NRL trailblazer Honey calling the shots

As she did with an oval ball, Honey Hireme-Smiler is leading the way for women behind the mike - this time with league - as Sky Sport strives to make their on-screen voices more reflective of their audiences. Merryn Anderson reports.

Honey Hireme-Smiler is primed to make history this weekend, believed to be the first woman to commentate an NRL game when she takes the mic for the Warriors' first home match in almost three years.

Despite her vast knowledge of the game and expertise in front of a camera, the former Kiwi Ferns captain and NRLW player admits she's still a little nervous. 

“History tells us that within the industry, female commentators are often discriminated against and the credibility of females working in sports media is often questioned,” Hireme-Smiler says. 

“Some believe ‘female commentators don’t know what they are talking about’ - especially in male dominated sports.” 

But more and more female sports experts are proving that dubious assumption wrong on our television screens, with Sky pushing to include more women - especially Māori and Pacific Island - in their commentary and presenting teams.

Among the six-strong Sky crew covering the Commonwealth Games in Birmingham next month are five expert wāhine - Courtney Tairi, Storm Purvis, Rikki Swannell, Ravinder Hunia and Kristina Eddy (Karl Te Nana is the odd man out).

The move is reflective not only of the current audience for sport in New Zealand, but also who we see out on the field.  

Hireme-Smiler, who's also represented New Zealand in rugby union and sevens, will give her view of the Warriors vs Wests Tigers game on Sunday, alongside former Warriors player Adam Blair and commentator Glen Larmer on Sunday afternoon. 

Honey Hireme-Smiler (right) with Kiwi Ferns debutant Amy Turner after the Kiwi Ferns victory over Tonga. 

Last weekend she was part of the commentary team at Mt Smart Stadium for the Kiwi Ferns' decisive 50-12 victory over Mate Ma'a Tonga - her first time calling an international women's league game. 

Hireme-Smiler’s expertise in commentary comes from decades of experience - playing rugby league since the age of five in Pūtaruru, and going on to star in four Rugby League World Cups between 2003 and 2017. She also played for the St George Illawarra Dragons in the inaugural NRLW competition. 

“For me I approach [commentary] the same way I would if I were playing in a test match,” she says ahead of this weekend. 

“My preparation gives me the confidence to call what I see, to relay those messages so our viewers are interested, informed and hopefully excited and entertained.”

Having commentated on rugby and sevens, Hireme-Smiler hopes to bring her own spin to the league commentary box, balancing her passion for the game with her cool head. 

“I think it’s important for passionate fans and viewers to remember that in the intensity of an 80 minute footy game, these athletes are human too and to expect plenty of good moments alongside the bad ones," says Hireme-Smiler, who will be in the box for all of the Warriors' home games this season. 

“It’s my job as part of the commentary team to promote the game, the players and entertain our viewers.”

Sky Sport recently launched their ‘See the Possible’ campaign, a commitment to women in sport. 

The campaign is not only to promote and showcase more women’s sport, but also to support the wāhine telling those stories - writers, commentators, producers and presenters.

For some of the Sky team, it’s a representation of the direction Sky is moving in, with a steadily growing number of women working both on screen and behind the scenes. 

“It’s so cliche - if you can’t see it, you can’t be it - but it’s totally true,” says Taylah Johnson, one of Sky’s rugby commentators and presenters. 

Johnson is one of the increasing number of Māori and Pacific Island women working for Sky, who grew up watching rugby but never really seeing people who looked like her on coverage.  

“For a long time, sports media coverage around the world was really European. But we’re reflective of our audience, and of the playing teams as well. And I think that’s really important too,” she says. 

“More people are wanting to see people like them on screen, and we’re really reflective of the population in New Zealand.” 

All of Sky’s team are also highly qualified, with Johnson representing Samoa in rugby and sevens, and New Zealand in BMX.

Kirstie Stanway was part of Sky's on-screen team at the Tokyo Olympics last year. Photo: Sky Sport. 

Kirstie Stanway attended broadcasting school, and started an internship with Sky in 2015. She's been told that when she was six months old, her uncle put her on a beanbag in front of an All Blacks test - and that was the start of her love of all things sport. 

She works seven days a week, across television and radio (as host of SENZ's drivetime show, The Run Home, with Stephen Donald) but stresses her work never feels like a job. “It’s pretty full-on but we get to go and watch sport,” she says. 

“People pay to go and do that, we sit there and get paid to be on the sideline and talk to these athletes. It’s so amazing, it never feels like a chore. We’re so lucky at the end of the day to do what we do."

Former Silver Fern and current Sky employee Courtney Tairi agrees, saying she looks forward to Mondays, when all her friends complain about the start of the work week. 

Seeing women on screen has given a whole new group of people inspiration to pursue sports media, says Tairi, who joins fellow netballer Purvis in the Birmingham team.

“They can see it as an opportunity now, as an option for them,” Tairi, who's also a netball coach, says. “I know a lot of netball girls will ask me how I got into it, and they’re starting to think about it.” 

Courtney Tairi successfully transitioned from professional netball player to presenter, with the support of Sky Sport. Photo: Sky Sport

Johnson recalls a moment where a young woman approached her at a Super Rugby game she was working at. 

“She said ‘Can I take a photo?’ and I thought she was talking about the players and she was like ‘No, with you Taylah’,” she recalls. “She said ‘I’ve been following you for ages and I really like what you’re doing. As a brown girl myself it’s really cool to see you guys in these spaces and thriving in the space as well’.”

Sky also ensures all presenters and commentators are in a space where they are comfortable and knowledgeable - Tairi joking she had to ask to work on netball, after starting out hosting league, another of her passions. 

Johnson praises Sky for this, in line with her personal values. 

“I wouldn’t want to be on something I wouldn’t consider myself an expert on, because that would devalue the product,” she says. “I’m not going to sit there and pretend I know netball and I don’t think someone would do that for rugby.”

Taylah Johnson finds herself at home, presenting and commentating on rugby's sidelines. Photo: supplied. 

The trio commend women who've been trailblazers for them: Melodie Robinson, Jenny-May Clarkson, April Ieremia, Bernadine Oliver-Kerby and Swannell; all role models to any women wanting to pursue a career in sports media. 

Hireme-Smiler is also grateful to those who paved the way. 

“I’ve had the opportunity to work alongside and learn from some of the best female hosts and commentators in Aotearoa,” she says. 

“Sky continues to give current and past female athletes opportunities to give it a go and I really enjoy sharing and supporting them too. I enjoy hearing a wide range of commentary, expertise and opinions on sport across all codes from other women.

“Sky is invested in changing the face of what sports commentary looks like by taking a more diverse approach - more female voices will attract a wider audience.”

There’s no lack of women waiting in the wings either, Johnson saying all it takes is someone giving them the chance. 

“That’s the biggest thing, just actually opening the door," she says. "We’ve all been ready and waiting, but now we're actually making the effort to do it.” 

* The Warriors v West Tigers game at Mt Smart Stadium on Sunday is sold out, but coverage will be live on Sky Sport 4 from 3pm.

Cricketer Kelly swiftly finds her Irish heart

Within a month of touching down in Ireland for a change of scene, Auckland Hearts all-rounder Arlene Kelly was shocked to be called into the Irish cricket side to play six games against South Africa. She tells Kristy Havill what it meant to family both here and there.

At the end of New Zealand's cricketing summer, Arlene Kelly felt the winds of change in the air.

It had been her 10th season representing her beloved Auckland Hearts, and arguably the toughest of the lot - both the Hearts and Auckland Aces men’s team had endured a heavily Covid-interrupted summer.

Kelly was also in line for a promotion at work.

But deep down, she knew she was looking for something different instead of another winter juggling her constant work and cricket commitments.

So she had a chat with her Northern Districts opponent, Ireland international Eimear Richardson in March about going over to play a season in the Emerald Isle. Then Kelly’s mind was made up.

The 28-year-old has an Irish passport, as her mother and all four grandparents are from Ireland, so it was an ideal opportunity to go over and connect more with family she hasn’t spent a lot of time with (or even met before). And she could play a bit of cricket at the same time.

A couple of phone calls later she was locked in to play for Malahide Cricket Club. So she resigned from her job as a key account manager with a human resources company and packed her bags.

When she boarded a flight to Dublin at the beginning of May, Kelly had no idea how much her world was about to change.

Fast forward one month, and Kelly cuts an excited, but relaxed and somewhat disbelieving figure chatting to LockerRoom.

“I’m still wrapping my head around it all to be honest,” Kelly says, a huge grin on her face.

Just two days before our chat, Kelly was awarded her debut T20 cap for Ireland for the first match of a three-game home series against South Africa.

Arlene Kelly impressed Irish selectors in her first game for the Dragons in the Super Series. Photo: Getty Images. 

Her day only got better from there, as she took two wickets in Ireland’s victory over the Proteas.

“It was unreal, a very special day” she says. “It was only the second time we’d beaten South Africa in a T20.

“The coolest part for me to see coming in fresh was the belief the team had from the get-go. We stayed in it throughout, which gives everyone a lot of confidence.”

It had never crossed Kelly’s mind to head over to Ireland sooner in her career and try to crack the national side.

Kelly has been a mainstay in a very successful Auckland team since making her debut in 2012, winning four one-day competitions and one T20 title.

Her best bowling figures in either format for the women in blue is 4-28 in a T20 match against the Central Hinds, while she also holds the honour of scoring 110 against the Northern Spirit.

Making the White Ferns was always an aspiration, having spent time in training camps with the New Zealand side over the years.

“But then again, I’d tried to never have any expectations around selection – I’ll go out and give it my best shot, and if that meant I got selected for New Zealand then that’s great,” she says.

“The special thing is wherever I’m meant to be, I can take what I learned through that experience and pathway, and come and share that here.”

Her words reflect her calm and collected approach to life, and she had the same mindset when it came to donning the Ireland shirt.

“There was no expectation, nor any pressure to play for Ireland,” she says. “I knew I was eligible, but cricket teaches you a lot over the years that you can never expect anything in sport.”

So just exactly how did she go from not even being on the Ireland selectors’ radar, to becoming a frontline member of their bowling attack so rapidly?

Auckland Hearts allrounder Arlene Kelly has played both T20 and ODIs for Ireland this month. Photo: Photosport NZ.

Within a week of landing, Kelly was suiting up for the Dragons in the 2022 Super Series, Ireland’s domestic competition.

Against her first opponents, the Typhoons, in a 50-over match, Kelly scored 60 runs and took three wickets. Understandably she had the Irish selectors’ sitting up a little straighter in their seats.

While the head honchos at Cricket Ireland would have preferred her to settle in a little longer and get some more cricket under her belt before bringing her into the fold, injuries to other players and a busy exam period meant Kelly got an unexpected phone call.

A week later, she was in camp with Ireland, and a few days after that was receiving her first international cap.

Kelly can be forgiven for still trying to wrap her head around the whirlwind she finds herself enveloped in. Needless to say, it was a special day for Kelly and her family when she made her debut at Pembroke.

Her parents and brothers eagerly watched the livestream back home in New Zealand in the early hours of the morning, proud as punch as Kelly was rewarded for the years of hard work and dedication with an international cap.

“They know how much this means to me and how excited I was for the opportunity, and were just stoked to see me get a chance to play the sport I love and have been working on for far too long now,” she says.

When asked if her Irish family contingent turned up in force to watch in person, Kelly chuckles heartily.

“The family here are still wrapping their head around what cricket actually is,” Kelly laughs.

“It’s obviously not as prevalent here as what it is down in New Zealand, but the family WhatsApp group was definitely pinging - one of my cousins came and watched though.”

Arlene Kelly's best bowling figures for Auckland Hearts are 4-28. Photo: Phototek NZ

Having grown up with the strains of God Defend New Zealand drummed into her, there was the tricky prospect of the Ireland national anthem to negotiate. Kelly knew it, but had to turn to a reliable source to make sure she had it down-pat before game day.

“There’s a lot of rugby back home where the Ireland national anthem gets played, so I was familiar enough with it,” she explains.

“Did I spend the odd time listening to it on Spotify to make sure I knew the words? Of course I did.”

Ireland went on to lose the T20 series 1-2, as the South Africans got out of second gear and hit their stride. Kelly played in each of the three matches, taking another wicket in the second T20.

But the good news kept coming. Kelly was then rewarded for her promising T20 series with her debut one-day international (ODI) cap in the first of the three ODI matches against South Africa that followed.

She played in all the ODIs (South Africa won all three) and now has her first ODI wickets, taking 2-40 in one game.

The ODI series marked Ireland’s first matches after being announced as one of the two new teams (Bangladesh the other) in the 2022-2025 edition of the ICC Women’s Championship (IWC). That's qualifying tournament running from now until 2025 to determine automatic qualification for the ICC Women’s Cricket World Cup that year.

Teams who finish in the top five of the ICC Women’s Championship secure their spot for the World Cup straight away, while a sixth spot is reserved for the hosts. The other four teams are then determined in the ICC Women’s Cricket World Cup qualifier.

While the Irish may be at outside odds to clinch one of the top five spots, it’s the promise for regular cricket against high quality opposition that’s exciting the players.

Each team in the championship is guaranteed to play eight three-match series over the next three years – four at home, and four away.

It’s a lot more than Ireland will have played in the same period of time throughout their history, and provides frequent opportunities to pit themselves against the world-class teams and players.

As well as currently hosting South Africa, they will also welcome England, Australia and Sri Lanka to their shores, and will travel to Pakistan, India, Bangladesh and the West Indies for their away series.

Couple that with Cricket Ireland investing €1.5m (NZ$2.5m) into the women’s game in 2022 - tripled from pre-pandemic years - including 20 contracts for the players and more full-time coaching resource, and you get the feeling the future for Ireland on the world stage is bright.

“The girls are really looking forward to the opportunities that lie ahead,” Kelly says.

“They’re a professional unit now, they want to learn and want to develop and this will be their chance to do that.”

Kelly’s stint in Ireland is scheduled to go through until September, but her plans at to return to New Zealand for another domestic summer are still not set in stone. It could, of course, depend on how things pan out with her new national team.

Ireland host a T20 tri-series at home with Australia and Pakistan next month, which may provide her with another opportunity to cement itself in Ireland’s future plans.

When asked if she’ll be home in time to suit up in blue again and add to her tally of over 150 matches for the Auckland Hearts, she’s very emphatic: “Your guess is as good as mine.

“I would love to follow the sun around for a bit, but we’ll just see what happens. The way it’s all worked out, I’m here for it.”]

*The Cricket World Cup in New Zealand earlier this year has smashed viewer records - becoming the most viewed women's cricket competition in history. It racked up 1.64 billion video views - the third most digitally engaged ICC event ever, behind the ICC men's World Cup in 2019 and the 2021 men's T20 World Cup.  Those figures were 16 times higher than the last 50-over women's World Cup in England in 2017. 

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

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

It was a living hell.

Just as she’d reached the prime of her career, Tall Fern Samara Gallaher could no longer walk into a basketball stadium.

The bright lights, the roar of the crowd, the repeated hammering of balls on the hardwood floors. All those things she loved about her game were suddenly too much for her muddled brain to handle.  

For 16 months, the Dunedin-born basketballer best known as Sammy suffered through constant migraines, fatigue and over-sensitivity to light and noise.

“I spent a lot of that time in bed resting, sitting there literally doing nothing for weeks on end,” Gallaher says. That was tough for a player renowned for diving on loose ball, fully committing to a lay-up, never afraid to put her body on the line.

She put a dot on her bedroom wall in Melbourne to stare at every day until she didn’t get a headache.

All because she’d banged her head too many times.

It was an accumulation of collisions and head smacks onto the court that finally stopped Gallaher in her tracks six years ago. And it came just as she was on the verge of breaking into Australia’s WNBL and tour Europe with a Tall Ferns side trying to qualify for the Rio Olympics. A tour she'd been building towards for two years. 

But it was her ninth – and last – concussion Gallagher will never forget.

Samara Gallaher (centre) wins the hustle in the Hoiho's preseason game with Mainland Pouākai. Photo: Angela Ruske.

“It was a huge one. I went for a lay-up and I got tunnelled - someone took my legs out from under me and pushed me. An unsportsmanlike foul,” the 29-year-old says.

“I flipped back and landed on my head. You could hear the crack on the court, and everyone went ‘Oooh’. I sat up and laughed it off because, hey, I was always hitting my head.

“But this time I went ‘woah’,” she wobbles her head, “and I went straight back down. That one really rolled me.”

Gallaher was forced to make herself unavailable for the Tall Ferns, and realised she had to take concussion seriously.

She went through almost a year-and-a-half of intense rehabilitation for her brain, before she was given advice no athlete ever wants to hear.

She was told she should never play again.

“I got myself in a really bad hole,” she says. “On top of all the symptoms I had to deal with was the realisation I couldn’t play basketball, I had to give up my livelihood. It was the toughest thing I’d ever had to deal with. And I wouldn’t talk about how I was dealing with it, either.”

When Gallaher came home to live with her family last year, she’d finally made peace with the fact she wouldn’t take the court again.

She’d found a new way to stay involved in the sport and to give back – becoming Basketball Otago’s ambassador for the women’s and girls’ game; making sure young girls got the same support on and off the court as she’d had growing up.

But then when she least expected it, a band of Kiwi medical specialists - headed by the All Blacks' physiotherapist - offered to help her get back on the court again.

And on Wednesday, Gallaher will suit up for the Southern Hoiho to play Mainland Pouākai in the very first game of Tauihi Basketball Aotearoa – the new women’s professional league.

Players from the inaugural Tauihi league pose with Warbirds (from left) Jacinta Beckley, Sharne Pupuke-Robati, Sammy Gallaher, Mary Goulding and Micaela Cocks. Photo: Suzanne McFadden.

“Honestly, it sounds cheesy, but it’s like a dream come true. I never thought this day would come again,” she says.

“For the first time in five years, I feel balanced and where I’m supposed to be. And it’s about way more than me, or basketball, now.”

The first knock

Micaela Cocks, the most capped Tall Fern in history, will turn out for Northern Kāhu in the new league – the first time in 15 years she’s played a professional season at home.

She remembers Gallaher as a fresh-faced 16-year-old coming into her first Tall Ferns squad. “She was young but she had so much skill. I remember thinking ‘This is so good for women’s basketball to see such young talent coming through’,” Cocks says.  

“So to see her back on court, in the new league, after her time away dealing with all her concussions, it feels really good. I know it’s been a tough time for her.”

Gallaher remembers her first experience with the Tall Ferns for a different reason.

As a kid, she was torn between two loves – basketball and rugby. She did everything she could to emulate her brothers while at St Joseph’s Cathedral School in Dunedin. When she reached Kavanagh College, there was no girls rugby team, so she played in a club boys’ side until she was 15 (“Then Mum didn’t want me getting injured”).

Playing for Kavanagh and the Otago Gold Rush at the team's inception in the New Zealand women’s basketball championship (WBC), the young guard was picked out for national age-group sides and the Junior Tall Ferns.

'I’ll just play smarter. I’m never going to skimp on effort or hustle' - Sammy Gallaher.

Two days before her first Tall Ferns trial, she suffered her first concussion.

“I was playing WBC and I stupidly tried to go up against [Tall Fern legend] Jody Cameron for a rebound, and I vividly remembered being in the air competing with her and thinking ‘What am I doing?’ I came down and hit my head on the ground,” Gallaher says.

“I thought I was a hero after the doctors said: ‘If you feel all right you can go back and play’. Concussion protocol wasn’t a massive thing back then. So I played the next day, and got taken out by [Tall Fern] Charmian Purcell. Same thing again, a 16-year-old who thought she could take on the big guns – and couldn’t.

“So I went to the Tall Ferns trial the next day and told them.” Fortunately, she was sent home.

She remembers struggling to focus in the classroom after those initial head knocks, but “just got on with life”.

Although she was in the Tall Ferns environment for the next few years, she didn’t make her debut - against Australia - until she was 21.

“A lot of it was me just not being ready, but also the incredible calibre of players in New Zealand,” she says. “But that wait helped blood me into the team.”

Hoiho guard Samara Gallaher at the free-throw line. Photo: Angela Ruske. 

Gallaher, who's iwi is Ngāti Raukawa, took up a US college scholarship at Southwest Baptist University in Missouri, majoring in psychology, and was there for almost two years before homesickness got the better of her. “I’m really close to my family and it was before Skype and Facetime,” she says.

Back home she enrolled at the University of Otago’s physical education school and returned to the Gold Rush, where she won several championship titles and was often selected in the league's All Star 5.

Then in 2014, she got a phone call out of the blue from a coach in Melbourne inviting her join the Hume City Broncos in the highly-regarded Big V championship. She “dropped everything” to start a week later.

In her four seasons with the Broncos, she won a couple of championships and fell in love with Melbourne. She’d cemented her place in the Tall Ferns, too.

But in the back of her head, trouble was brewing.

Bringing new value

Concussion remains a major problem in New Zealand sport, especially for women. Global research reveals female athletes are at almost twice the risk of suffering concussion than male athletes, and women and girls take longer to recover from a head injury.

“Concussion had been an issue for me ever since that first one,” Gallaher says. “The knowledge around it at the time wasn’t great. I was supported, but the seriousness of it wasn’t reinforced as it is now. The protocol was to take two weeks off, and I’d still have symptoms but I just keep playing.

“I’d never really recover and then I’d take another hit. Even a wee knock would stir things up.”

Then she took the biggest hit in 2016, and spent six weeks resting before returning home to the Tall Ferns trial for Rio Olympics qualification. “I’d been building up to that for two years," Gallaher says. "But I stood there watching the girls train and my head hurt too much. I had to go and tell [head coach] Kennedy Kereama: ‘Sorry I can’t be available for this tour’. It was the hardest thing I’d ever had to do.

“I then had the realisation I wasn’t okay, that I had to get my head right. I saw psychologists, physiologists, concussion specialists, physios, anyone who could help. It was a long 16 months.

“At the end of it, my concussion guy sat me down and said 'I don’t think you’ll have any ongoing issues, but my recommendation is that you shouldn’t play basketball again. I don’t want you to lose another 16 months of your life'. But I’m very stubborn.”

She tried to train again, but always left the gym with a migraine. “So I fully walked away from the game,” she says.

“It took me a few years to find out who I am without basketball, and where I can now bring value to the world. Then it was okay not to play.”

Gallaher returned to coaching and working with the basketball community around how to grow the women’s game.

Otago Nuggets boss Angela Ruske cuts down her piece of net after her team won the 2020 Sal's NBL men's championship. Photo: supplied.

Angela Ruske, the Otago Nuggets general manager, remembers Gallaher approaching her when she returned to Dunedin and offering to help.

“She said ‘What are we doing for the next generation?’” says Ruske, who also heads the Hoiho. “She knew how much effort and time people had put into her career, and she wanted to give back. It’s not every player who thinks like that.”

So Gallaher took on the ambassadorship of the women’s game: “It felt right to help make sure the girls’ game wasn’t falling behind.”

She was delighted, then, when word got round that the revamped national women’s league would give the country’s leading female players equal pay to the men in the NBL, and create a pathway for girls to aspire to. She just didn’t picture herself playing in it.

Concussion Girl

A random conversation with All Blacks physio Peter Gallagher gave her new hope. “He said ‘You’re that concussion girl, aren’t you? I reckon I could get you back on court’,” Gallaher says. So she started a year-long journey to strengthen her neck and see if she could play again.

“I hadn’t thought about the neck tension, support and stability," she says. "Seeing it from another angle was incredible. And now I’ve done some amazing work with physios and chiropractors.

“Today there are excellent concussion protocols, lots of support and experts who know how to treat it. If I’d been given that help early, I may not have had such a terrible journey with concussions. But it was just the way it was.”

Gallaher got a little court-time for the Gold Rush at the end of last season, and slowly built her confidence back up to play professional basketball again.

“You live in a little pocket of fear, and you play it incredibly safe. But I was given huge confidence from the people around me who said I could do it,” Gallaher says.

“When it was finally announced I'd play [for Hoiho], the support was overwhelming; I didn’t realise I had so many people in my corner. I walked into training that night and burst into tears.

“It was a five-year journey - going away, getting lost and finally finding my way back.”

A huddle of penguins: the 2022 Southern Hoiho line-up. Photo: Angela Ruske. 

Ruske is thrilled to have Gallaher’s strength and leadership in Hoiho. “It’s amazing not just because she’s such a talented basketballer. It’s what she brings to the team – her charismatic, bubbly personality, her work ethic, her leadership by example. She’s an amazing role model, not just for her team-mates, but the young girls who are coming up through the game.”

And Gallaher can also help by finally opening up about her concussion history. 

"I’ve had multiple girls come up to me saying they’ve had concussion too and want to know how I’ve worked my way through it," she says. "At first, I didn’t want concussion to be my story; to be that girl who played for New Zealand but then got concussed. But by holding on to that story, I couldn't help someone else. So I’m grateful for that opportunity too."

Gallaher admits she’s had a few taps to the head in training – “Don’t tell Mum” – but she’s come away feeling fine.

Will all that she’s been through change her full-throttle game? “If you’d asked me six months ago, I would’ve said 100 percent. But after last week’s preseason game, I’d say nope,” Gallaher laughs. “I almost forgot I’d had a concussion journey.

“But I’ll just play smarter. I’m never going to skimp on effort or hustle, but if there’s a 50-50 ball, I probably won’t go in for it.

“I’ve lived in worry and fear for five years. But I could walk down the street and walk into a pole; you never know what’s round the corner. I’ve been given this opportunity to play again and I’m taking it.”

She'd actually returned to live in Melbourne when she got the call to join Hoiho. “I realised Tauihi was a beautiful opportunity, a blank canvas. We can make this into something everyone can come home to," she says.

“Yes, we’re doing this on court, but what we’re going to do off the court – for the next generation - now that gets me going.”

* The first game of Tauihi Basketball Aotearoa - Southern Hoiho v Mainland Pouākai - tips off on Wednesday, with live coverage on Sky Sport 3 from 7pm.

Suzie Bates' surprising rugby career

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

Suzie Bates is a rare breed.

She’s played basketball at the Olympics and is about to play cricket at the Commonwealth Games. But did she come close to playing rugby at those lofty heights, too?

At Otago Girls' High School, a sports-mad Bates threw herself into every code that had a tournament to travel to - her prerequisite before she’d sign up.

Those sports included cricket and basketball, volleyball and touch. And then there was rugby, where she played in the school backline alongside Black Ferns Sevens Olympic champion Kelly Brazier.

“I don’t know if sevens would have been for me - I wasn’t quite quick enough,” Bates says. Even though she’s hailed as one of the best fielders in international cricket, holding the record for most catches in a series (20, incidentally).

“But I loved rugby. I was a big girl for my age, so I charged through the midfield. I always wondered later in life, when I was fitter, how I’d go playing rugby again. But there’s always the fear of being injured.”

Her rugby career ended prematurely when she broke her collarbone – playing basketball – and she never picked up an oval ball again. “So my mum was really happy,” laughs Bates, Otago Girls’ High head girl in 2005.

But she’s stayed in touch with Brazier, Otago Girls' 13th Olympian, following her dazzling career closely.

“Every time we play cricket at the Mount, she brings a few of the Black Ferns Sevens girls along,” Bates says. “It would be awesome to play at the same tournament as Kelly for the first time.”

When the Black Ferns Sevens team for the Commonwealth Games is named next week, Brazier – a Black Fern for 13 years and a four-time World Cup winner - is almost certain to be among them.

Who could forget the 2018 Commonwealth Games sevens final on the Gold Coast, where Brazier scored an 80-metre runaway try in extra time to secure gold for her Black Ferns Sevens sisters.

Black Fern Kelly Brazier on her way to scoring the winning try in the 2018 Comm Games sevens final. Photo: Getty Images.

Bates’ sporting career could have branched off in any direction.

“But it’s just that opportunities presented themselves which kind of directed my career,” the former White Ferns captain says. “Who would have thought cricket and basketball would provide these opportunities for me?”

Well, definitely not Bates’ science teacher.

“She told me to keep working hard because sport wasn’t a career,” she recalls.

“I was very fond of her, and to be fair at the time, the sports I was playing didn’t have a career path. She just wanted to make sure I still used my brain and got through high school and university.”

Which Bates did, with a Bachelor of Physical Education from the University of Otago, "which only took me six years."

But she’s grateful to the teachers and lecturers who kept her at her studies, while she was “distracted” by sport.

***

Inside the gymnasium at Otago Girls’ High, four massive banners hang along one wall. Each bears a word exemplifying the school’s malaga (Samoan for journey), and below it, the image of a former student who went on to sporting greatness.

The Otago Girls' High gym with three of its most famous sporting alumni. Photo: supplied. 

Dame Yvette Williams, Olympic gold medallist in the long jump and multiple Commonwealth Games medallist, represents 'Empower'.

“The cornerstone of our school is Yvette Williams,” says the acting head of physical education, Marcelle Clements. “She wasn’t our first Olympian [swimmer Kathleen Miller was in 1928] but Yvette was our first Olympic medallist.”

Kelly Brazier, Olympic and Commonwealth gold medallist, is 'Inspire'. “She was a very quiet, humble student here," Clements says. "But we just love her confidence on the field, and she's the embodiment of an inspiration to a wealth of girls."

Anna Frost, exceptional ultramarathon runner and Skyrunner world champion, is 'Dream'. She returned to the school as a relief teacher when Covid stopped her competing offshore. “We love Anna’s story, and her life-long journey in a not-traditional sport,” Clements says.

And Suzannah Bates, 2008 Olympian in basketball and undeniably one of the world’s best cricketers, wields the willow beneath the word 'Challenge'.  

Bates, now 34, laughs whenever she sees her first name spelled out in full: “No one’s called me that in a long time.”

Still living in Dunedin, Bates visits the school often, invited back to talk to students. “I say: ‘Surely they’re sick of my voice’,” she says. “But they tell me there are new girls starting every year who haven’t heard from me yet.”

One day last week, she walked into the school gym where a Year 10 class was doing PE. “Two of the kids – who aren’t our sporty kids – asked ‘Oh my god, is that Suzie Bates?’” says Clements. “They were like ‘Wow she’s actually here!’

“She’s a role model, and was even when she was in the classroom, without actively seeking leadership. That’s why we chose her for our gym wall.

“She has a ripple effect across every walk of life in our school – it’s not just our top sporting athletes. At yesterday’s library day we had to dress up as our Matariki future stars, but there was one kid with her Suzie Bates-signed cricket T-shirt on and her cap looking just like Suzie.”

Suzie Bates with her banner in the Otago Girls' High School gym. Photo: supplied. 

Bates knows so well the importance of young women meeting their role models, who were once schoolgirls like them.

There’s the famous story of Bates in Year 9 at Otago Girls', meeting Olympic gold medallist cyclist Sarah Ulmer when she came to the school as part of the New Zealand Olympic Committee’s ambassador programme – and the lasting effect it had on the young Bates.

“She was so cool and down-to-earth with us - she seemed so normal,” she says of Ulmer. “She got us to write down really big goals. To dream big and not be ashamed of those dreams.”

Bates wrote that she wanted to play cricket and basketball for New Zealand. Today she’s an NZOC ambassador.

“I always remember that moment when I go back into schools, that you have the potential to do that for some young sporty kids. It’s pretty cool I’m on the other side now,” she says.  

Bates shares the love around other schools in Dunedin. Last year, she was at Kavanagh College to announce student Erika Fairweather was going to swim at the Olympics. And she’s helped to coach the First XI cricket team at St Hilda’s Collegiate School.

“I get a bit of stick for helping out St Hilda’s, but they have a very strong cricket team, and my arm was twisted,” she says. “They’ve produced a lot of [Otago] Sparks and now a White Fern in Eden Carson.”

Carson, who’s 20, is one of two rookies named in the White Ferns to play T20 at the Commonwealth Games next month.  Bates also coached her in the Otago U15s for two years and knew straight off the bat the spinner was something special.

“I always remember she had a bit about her when she bowled 10 overs into the wind on a really windy day - and she was the most competitive player in our team by far,” Bates says.

“She’s from Ranfurly and my dad was born in Ranfurly, so there’s a nice connection. And I’m so stoked for her.”

White Ferns on their way to Birmingham (from left) Eden Carson, Suzie Bates and Hayley Jensen. Photo: Getty Images. 

Bates still has a “great connection” with Otago Girls. She goes out for coffee with the school’s sports co-ordinator, Colleen Hokianga, whose daughter played basketball with Bates.

“I remember the little girl with pigtails who started here. She was so cute,” Hokianga says.

The school’s philosophy around getting girls playing sport and being active is having to constantly evolve, Hokianga says. “We know these are challenging times for our students, so we're listening to them more to see what they want from sport. We no longer push just the traditional sports, we have to embrace what they want to do," she says.

“It’s getting harder to encourage them to celebrate their successes, some are a bit shy about that. And we try to get them away from their cellphones and encourage them into physical activity. We’re understanding girls want to be active but in different ways than they ever have before.”

It's obvious the school – and the rest of Otago - are succeeding. For the second year running, the region came out top in the national census of secondary school sport participation in 2021. Otago’s participation rate for teenagers is 63 percent compared to the national average of 49 percent, and those figures are virtually the same for Otago girls involved in sport.

Otago Girls’ offers 32 sports to their 700 students – including fencing and curling. “We were national curling champions a few years ago – not bad for a city school near the beach,” Clements says.  

One of the most popular sports at the moment is badminton – the school has 11 teams in the Otago competition and another six who stay after schools on Friday for social games.

“We’re now taking away the word ‘trial’ which is a barrier for some girls who don’t want to be competitive and just want to play in a team with their friends,” Hokianga says. “Enjoyment is a huge part of it.”

Otago Girls' High senior A volleyball team won their local championship last season.  

There is no high performance programme at Otago Girls'. “I don’t like academies,” says Hokianga. “They’re school kids - let them enjoy what they do without putting immense pressure on them. They get enough of that with NCEA.

“Our top athletes can apply to the Otago Academy of Sport which has a high performance programme. This year has been a bumper year – we have six girls in the programme.”

***

If Bates had taken up a basketball scholarship to an American college straight out of high school, she would have had a very different path – and would probably have ended up teaching back at Otago Girls’.  

American basketballer Leonard King, who was playing for the Otago Nuggets, helped mould a young Bates’ game and put her in touch with some US colleges.

But White Ferns coach Steve Jenkin got wind of her plans and immediately selected her for the White Ferns at just 18. “He got me in the team a bit earlier than planned,” she says. “Once I played international cricket, I was hooked. But had Steve not picked me I could have never played cricket again.”

But the decision to stay home actually worked out well for her basketball career.  

“By not going to America I stayed in the New Zealand basketball system, so I was really lucky to be in the selectors faces when the Beijing Olympics opportunity came around,” Bates says.  

Suzie Bates shoots for the Tall Ferns against Japan in 2009. Photo: Photosport. 

It was also a deviation from her path to becoming a PE teacher. “I couldn’t commit to a whole year of study. So it kept being put on the back burner which was a shame,” she says.

“I’m going to talk to Eden [Carson] because she’s in her final year of vet study. I know a [fulltime] cricket contract is exciting, but I have my wiser hat on, and I’m going to tell her to get her studies done now because it’s really hard to go back to.”

Bates’ sister, Olivia (who played netball for Southern Steel), is a school teacher in Dunedin. “Maybe when I don’t have sport to play it might be an option too,” the elder Bates says.

While Clements has encouraged Bates to join her in teaching, she’s now had second thoughts. “She could potentially be wasted as a teacher because her vision and ability to lead is much more global than that,” Clements says. “Her talents lie in her ability to get a collective of people together for the benefit and wellbeing of all women. Internationally.”

But neither of those options are on her near horizon. Bates isn’t ready to stop playing cricket at the highest level yet.

She’s not calling it ‘unfinished business’. Yes, this year’s World Cup was devastating, and she still has “bipolar feelings” about it – from the joy of playing on home soil to the heartbreak of narrowly missing the semifinals.

“A memory I’ll never forget was at Eden Park against England when we got the ninth wicket runout - we sprinted across the field and the crowd was going absolutely nuts. And I genuinely thought we were going to win it,” Bates says.

“It was one of the greatest games of cricket I’ve been a part of. But having lost and knowing our World Cup was over was hard to believe.

“We had three close games that went to the last over and under pressure, we weren’t good enough. But I think what I’ll remember looking back in time was the genuine support from the whole of New Zealand. I don’t feel like I’ve ever been so supported as a White Ferns cricketer. And people genuinely enjoyed the cricket.”

Bates was always going to reassess her career after the World Cup. “And with the Comm Games being so close, I thought ‘Why not get amongst it?’

“With the young players and a new coach I feel invigorated again. I had a big break with my shoulder injury and then Covid, and I know once I’m done, I’m a long time retired. I still love it as much as ever and my body is still doing the right things.

“And there are so many exciting things coming up I can’t say no to them right now.”

Fling open rugby's clubroom doors to trans players

As sports release their rules around transgender athletes, veteran rugby player Alice Soper wants New Zealand Rugby to commit to including trans players at grassroots - while making the sport safe for everyone. 

This year marks my 20th season playing club rugby. I was recruited, as an enthusiastic 13-year-old, to play for the Johnsonville women’s side.

This was an open grade and my slight frame was up against fully grown adults, some of who were international representatives. My teammates and coaches did their best to equip me with skills I needed to keep me safe.

And that paid off when I made the Wellington Women’s Sevens team that year alongside my school’s sports coordinator. 

Local newspapers wrote excitedly about my inclusion. I was a school kid playing women’s rugby which was seemingly no cause for concern. But 20 years later, I am now being told to be afraid of playing women.

Our sport prides itself on being a space where every body type is welcomed and celebrated. It is the combination of our unique shapes and skills that build a team.

The full array of that diversity is on display each weekend at your local club match, where powerfully built front-rowers and lively halfbacks tip each end of the scale. Women’s rugby, while now requiring dispensation for ambitious youngsters, is still an open season. It’s not unusual to see crushing contact between players of vastly different sizes.

So too, given our playing numbers, do you frequently see first-timers stepping on to the pitch with Black Ferns.

There is a look you see in a player’s eyes when they realise they’ve found themselves in a mismatch. A fullback lining up a flanker on the break, a prop realising they are going to have to chase down that winger, a halfback digging in the ruck with no protection. You could argue these moments are what our game was designed for.

But does this all feel safe? Well, we’re not playing tiddlywinks here, mate.

Since 2019, there have been eight requests for dispensation from trans rugby players in New Zealand.

When women first played rugby in Aotearoa in 1888, it was under modified rules to ensure it was “free from all elements of roughness”. Those in charge were convinced that “the female frame cannot stand such a game.”

Those attitudes grew louder in the 1920s when various doctors were recruited to condemn women’s participation. Multiple column inches given to dubious medical opinions that barely masked their misogyny. 

This does not feel far off current declarations being made about the risk trans women pose to cis women. Trans men, meanwhile, are seemingly invisible. If male puberty was the lethal threat that it is built up to be, you would think there would be greater concern from administrators for the trans man playing in a league of cis men.

However the erasure of trans men’s participation speaks to sports' long history of policing women’s bodies while encouraging men no matter the risk. 

 Wellington Pride hooker Alice Soper scores a try against Counties Manukau in the Farah Palmer Cup. Photo: David Brownlie.

Those sexist attitudes, held by those in positions of power, are still the biggest threat to the women’s game. So forgive me if I find the sudden concern for my welfare disingenuous.

Where were you when your women’s team was moved to the potholed pitch in order for the men to train? Where were you when your women’s team was overlooked again at the award ceremony?

Where were you when complaints were made about that coach's conduct? And why are you here now, to defend me from a minority, when you are seemingly so comfortable with this day-to-day reality?

In 2020, World Rugby issued their guidelines barring transgender women from playing rugby internationally because of "player welfare issues". Now it's up to New Zealand Rugby to lay down its guidelines for the grassroots game, with a draft regulation coming out for consultation in the next few weeks. 

Since 2019, there have been eight requests for dispensation from trans rugby players in New Zealand. Despite my obsession with our game, it seems it just isn't that popular with the trans community. And given how they see rugby treats women, queer folk and players who are not of Pākehā decent, I do not blame them.

However, I do welcome them.

For us to make our sport safe for trans men, trans women and non-binary participation, we will need to pull these issues of diversity and inclusion to the fore. We will need to start having real conversations about modernising spaces, diversifying all positions and think hard about what it means to prioritise player welfare both on and off the field.

Simply put, rugby that is safe for trans players is safe for everyone.

Trans folks' existence challenges binary thinking. There will be no one policy that will capture all the shades of difference and concern held by those who play rugby.

However, a commitment to inclusion throws the clubroom doors open to whomever may wish to enjoy our game. The same game that was built to celebrate the full spectrum of bodies after all.

Hard knocks can't rock exciting Magic middie

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

The odds were stacked against Simmon Wilbore this year.  

After playing a full game for the Magic in the opening round of the ANZ Premiership, and making quite an impact, Wilbore was then absent until round 10 - more than two months later.  

A broken finger, Covid, a sprained ankle and a tummy bug all threatened to put a halt to Wilbore’s season, but the cool-headed midcourter refused to let anything stop her return to court.  

Wilbore was a standout for the Magic in her first game this year, a victory over the defending champions, the Mystics. She had the most feeds, goal assists and centre pass receives in her 60 minutes at wing attack. She also had four pick-ups - the most from either team that game.  

But in training for their second game, Wilbore felt a crack in her finger after a minor bump while defending. She hoped it was just a sprain.  

It turned out to be a spiral fracture, and the 28-year-old had to undergo surgery two days later. The surgeon estimated the healing process would take 12 weeks, essentially ruling Wilbore out of the entire season.  

“I said ‘We’ll aim for six weeks’,” recalls Wilbore, who then worked with sports doctors and a hand therapist to push to get back playing.  

Then she caught Covid two days after surgery, and had to look after her young son with the illness and a big cast on her finger.  

“I had made a decision that even if I wasn’t cleared, I was still going to play,” she says.  

“I needed to be back on court. I wasn’t going to end the season by just doing nothing, this was my opportunity, and I needed to take it.”  

Initially, her bone wasn’t healing well, but after eight weeks, she was given the all clear to return to the court.  

But at her very first training back, she sprained her ankle, ruling her out of that week’s game.  

Round 10 was set to be her return, a re-match of the Magic’s opening game (and only win at that stage) against the Mystics, but a stomach bug the day before put her in doubt.  

“Nothing was going my way,” Wilbore admits. “But I ended up getting out on court, and we got the win, so that was awesome.”  

Simone Wilbore helped Magic to a handful of wins at the end of their season. Photo: Michael Bradley Photography

Wilbore (who was Simmon Howe) had a traditional journey through netball, starting at the age of five in Ōpōtiki; her sporty family supporting her to play netball, touch and basketball.  

She played for Waiariki, the Bay of Plenty Māori team, from the age of 12. That’s where she met current Magic coach Mary-Jane Araroa, whose family was involved in running the team. Wilbore also played Bay of Plenty representative netball from the U15 level and moved to Hamilton when she was 18 to study at the University of Waikato.  

Receiving a Sir Edmund Hillary scholarship, Wilbore studied sports and leisure, with a one-year postgraduate diploma in teaching. Now she’s a PE teacher at Hamilton’s Fraser High School, also teaching core subjects in the junior school.  

Wilbore was the player of the year in the National Netball League (NNL, formally known as Beko) in 2018, and captained the Waikato Bay of Plenty team. The following year, she received her first Magic contract, chosen as one of four training partners, but was elevated to a fully contracted player partway through the season.  

“That was my debut season and first time playing at that level, and I loved it,” says Wilbore.  

“But I was also still working full-time. I’d literally go to the gym at 5.30am, go to work, go to training, repeat, go on the weekend to games and go back to work. It was way too hard.” 

After the 2019 season, she married Te Amo Wilbore, and in September 2020, they welcomed their first child.  

She smiles when asked about her son. “He is amazing, he’s such a good boy. His name is Te Amo Amo Wilbore, he’s named after his dad.”  

“You couldn’t even make up what happened to us this season, so hopefully Covid doesn’t impact us like this heading into 2023.”  

After taking the 2021 season off and slowly returning to the game via club netball, Wilbore decided she was ready for her next challenge, and let now Magic coach Araroa know she would be keen to play NNL in 2022.  

“One morning I got a phone call from her, literally at like 7.45am when I’m getting me and my son ready,” Wilbore recalls. “She asked if I was interested in being a training partner for Magic.”  

Wilbore’s initial reaction was shock, but after talking it through with her husband and family, she decided to take the opportunity. Having found herself stretched thin back in 2019, so she decided to fully commit to netball this season, taking leave from teaching to focus fully on netball.  

When Silver Fern Katrina Rore announced her pregnancy before she got to play a game for the Magic, Wilbore had the chance to step up from training partner to fully contracted team member.  

“As a training partner, you feel like you’re in the team, you’ve trained with them all pre-season and then when it’s time to go, you get quite sad because you feel like that’s your team,” Wilbore says. “So it was amazing that I was given that opportunity.” 

Simmon Wilbore (right) with close friends Ariana Cable-Dixon (left) and Ngawai Hawera and their babies. Photo: supplied

With the support of her husband, who plays rugby in Ōtorohanga, Wilbore manages to balance the busy life of netball and mum, Te Amo Amo turning two in three months’ time. 

“Prior to him, netball was everything and I would have done anything for netball, my number one priority. Whereas now, obviously he is,” Wilbore says.  

“Netball is still important, but at the end of the day it’s not everything. I think it also makes me enjoy it a bit more cause I’m not as focused or stressed.” 

Wilbore has a strong community around her, including friends and fellow netballers Ariana Cable-Dixon and Ngawai Hawera - two players who filled in for the Magic’s midcourt when Wilbore was away.  

The trio are very close, Cable-Dixon and Hawera were bridesmaids at Wilbore’s wedding and all three had babies within nine months of each other. “They’re forced best friends,” Wilbore jokes.  

“Even though we’re kind of competition in netball, we’ve never let that affect us. We’re really supportive of each other and I couldn’t be more stoked that anybody else got that opportunity to come in than them.”  

The netball skills run in the family too - Mystics and Silver Ferns shooter Monica Falkner is her cousin.  

“It’s funny in the family when we play each other, everyone just goes for both teams,” Wilbore says, playfully pointing out the Magic won both times she was on court against the Mystics.  

Balancing being a mum and netballer meant pausing her teaching career this year to focus on the Magic. Photo: Michael Bradley Photography

When the Magic’s 2022 roster was announced, there was some scrutiny from Magic fans, noticing none of their 10 contracted players were specialist wing attacks. Georgie Edgecombe made the shift from wing defence to wing attack, having a lot of court time in Wilbore’s absence.  

“She’s unreal, she is so fit, so strong, so athletic,” Wilbore says of 21-year-old Edgecombe. “She’s just like a sponge, she just takes it all in and you couldn’t ask for anybody better to learn a new position. 

“I think people kind of underestimate how important wing attack is, and actually how hard it is. They’re the leaders down the attacking end.” 

Covid was harsh on the Magic this season. It wasn’t until round 12 they had all of their 10 contracted players available to play. They finished their final three games with two wins and one loss - a glimpse of what could have been if they’d had a full-strength team all season.  

“Obviously on paper, the results haven’t been that great. But we’re a new team, with lots of changes, and we’ve had a rollercoaster of a season,” Wilbore says. “We’ve got such a good connection and culture off-court, it’s just building it on-court."

Wilbore hopes to continue playing next season and be offered a contract with the Magic again.  

“That was the other thing why it was important for me to try and come back,” she says. “I’d been given this opportunity and I had something to prove.  

“I’ve been given a decent amount of court time, which I’m very grateful for, so hopefully I’ve shown enough. But I’ve loved every chance I’ve had.”  

Mya's medley on song for Birmingham

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

She questioned why she was still in the sport.

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

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

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

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

The move has paid dividends.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

She believes she can do it.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Burger's down but not defeated by unlucky break

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Nana and Tui help Black Ferns wing love rugby again

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And then there’s been the arrival of Tui.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The irrepressible Ruby Tui. Photo: Sky TV

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

On your marks: Gymnast clears her highest bar

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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