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11 April 2023
new zealand black ferns training session
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How proud are you to be the 10th head coach of the Black Ferns?

I’m blessed and honoured. I’m purposedriven, finding the potential in something and bringing it to life. I’m in the right place with what’s happening at the moment with women’s rugby.

Was this a role you coveted for some time, having coached the Chiefs Manawa and then been involved with the Black Ferns in 2022? Did the idea crystallise during that Rugby World Cup time?

I don’t really think too far ahead. When I finished with the Black Ferns Sevens, I wanted to step over to the 15s game. I didn’t know what that was or how that looked. I usually put my head into one role and don’t think too far ahead and then when I come out of that something comes up. That’s always been my philosophy. I learned a lot at Manawa. I was with the Chiefs men’s fulltime too, so I learned a lot off that experience too, working with Clayt (Clayton McMillan), Gats (Warren Gatland), Hilly (David Hill) and Rog (Roger Randle). Then obviously Smithy (Wayne Smith) gave me a call and asked if I could lend a hand. I thought that was an amazing opportunity for my own growth to be with him, Ted (Graham Henry) and Crono (Mike Cron). It was a learning curve for me.

What does the director of rugby role entail other than the selecting and coaching of the Black Ferns?

Oh, it’s overseeing the whole programme and trying to build a pathway for the Black Ferns. I look at this way: we have our young ladies sitting at school and what do they see? They see the Black Ferns more often now. There’s Aupiki growing, there’s Farah Palmer Cup. It’s an exciting, realistic pathway for them. There have been special stories from around the country in that growth of women’s rugby. I think of Kaiapoi near Christchurch, where they expected 10 to turn up (for a women’s team muster) and about 36 turned up. These stories are happening through the country, so it’s important for these ladies to jump in and give rugby a go.

What were your early impressions of Super Rugby Aupiki after the 2022 edition was disrupted by Covid-19?

It’s definitely a step up; having our top players together in another competition is great. There is room for improvement in our competitions and we’d like to see that over the next couple of years.

I’m sure you’d like to see Aupiki expanded in some way from 2024?

Yes, having more time together as teams to prepare would be good too.

Aupiki is a bit like the men’s NPC in that you have fulltime pros joining with semi-pro players. Would you like to see a lot more fulltime pros amongst our women’s rugby elite?

Yes. At the moment we are picking Black Ferns that are new to professionalism. It feels like we are building professionals at the Black Ferns level. It would be great to have a real foundation and base of professional and semi-pro players, so we are putting icing on the cake rather than building the cake.

Wayne Smith told me last year that there were about 50 women who were good enough to play for the Black Ferns in 2022, but he had to whittle that number back for RWC selection. Is that number still applicable in 2023 for those with the ability to play for this team?

Oh yeah, there’s 50, but maybe even more. We’re blessed with talent in this country. Everyone’s dad, uncle, grandfather used to play rugby. It’s in our blood. These ladies just need somewhere to play and support. I’m here to build depth in our people, not just our players but our support. That will drive the top.

Have you had talks with Ruby Tui? Do you think it’s likely she will be a Black Fern in 2023?

I know Ruby well and talk to her often. She’s put a lot of energy into women’s rugby. At the moment, she just needs to go and fill her cup and fill her spirit and I know she will be back at some stage.

Is it more likely she will be back later in the year, given your first Test match is down for June? I’ll leave that over to her, but it’s probably likely to be the last part of the year. So what’s the plan now until June for our elite women? I imagine it will be a diet of club rugby and training camps?

Yeah, we’ll have three camps through that period and we’ll be working through our hubs, making sure they have the right support. They’ll be involved with their clubs if that’s best for them, and then we’ll come together to play Aussie for that first Test and then off to Canada for a couple of Tests.

When do you expect to name your first squad for the Pac Four series?

We’ll probably name our squad after the second camp (May). The last camp will be over in Aussie.

I know that NZR has done all it can. We are just waiting on World Rugby. It’s looking very likely. I’m sure the comms lines are open with your good mate Cory Sweeney, and we saw Tenika Willison playing Aupiki for the Manawa, but is it likely that we won’t see many of the Black Ferns Sevens in this team until Rugby World Cup year in 2025?

Cory has been busy and away so looking forward to catching up with him. Their priority in 2024 will be the Olympics, so if he sees an opportunity for some of the sevens ladies to come over and play 15s, then we are definitely open to that.

Last year the Black Ferns used Ruahei Demant and Kennedy Simon as cocaptains. Will you be doing something similar in 2023 or are you yet to reach a decision on the captaincy?

They did an amazing job. Lu did an amazing job on and off the field and Kennedy supported her really well. She had a tough year with injury but her resilience and perseverance showed through, and how she made it back on the field and contributed so well was outstanding. It’s highly likely that won’t change, but with our leadership group we’ll see.

So of those who played for the Black Ferns in 2022, we take out the retired Kendra Cocksedge and Renee Wickliffe, the pregnant Chelsea Semple, and five sevens players. Everyone else is on board and available?

That’s right. Everyone else is there.

How much will you draw on 2022 with your experience as the cultural lead? Will you pass on that mantle or still draw on elements of that with your coaching?

That’s my strength and something that I will oversee, but we’ll have a new management group. We’ll have new ideas and connect with our leadership group to make sure we are all aligned.

Your coaching philosophy with the Black Ferns Sevens was about player empowerment. Are we going to see you talking much at halftime huddles with the Black Ferns?

It’s a little bit different with the 15s. You go into a changing room at halftime. My coaching philosophy is about bringing out the potential in people until one day you are not needed. Empowering these ladies and giving them responsibility to help them grow is important. You can support them and guide them around that, but building self-reliant athletes is where we want to end up.

The Black Ferns played a very open, expansive style of rugby in 2022 and it worked. Will we see much departure from that in 2023?

Definitely not. The philosophy that Smithy brought in was something that we believed in with the sevens too. The biggest challenge around women’s rugby is vision: looking up and seeing opportunities. It’s about building skillsets to find that space as soon as possible. It’s not just in kicking areas, though we did get ourselves in the crap at times (in 2022). The profile of our players was to be attacking, so I don’t think we’ll have much luck in changing that because they loved it so much. We made it through and Smithy did an amazing job in taking the side from where they were after that northern tour (2021), but there is a lot of work still to be done around our skills, our kicking game, our physicality and controlling momentum better.

Do you like versatility in your squads, say in the back three and in loosies who can play lock?

Set-piece is key in the forwards. You need to be able to get the ball. We want athletes to play a game of speed. We never put someone in a box.

How much did you learn from Smith and Henry in 2022, with their vast experience?

Oh, a massive amount. Smithy knows human beings really well, built relationships and just drove the game relentlessly that we needed to get to. You could write a book on just that.

Your contract is through to Rugby World Cup 2025, and that’s the end goal. Winning is important given this team’s legacy, but how do you see it through the next two years in terms of building towards that?

You’re always expected to win, and that comes with the role. But underneath that we do need to grow depth. We need to give younger players experience, but we definitely want to win every time we take the field.

Lastly, just a word on your old Black Ferns Sevens team. They had a challenging 2022 year, but have hit back hard and you must be impressed with how they are going and what Cory is doing with the team?

They did go through a tough year in 2022 but it was like my first year with them in 2017. Several players went to the 15s Rugby World Cup. The younger ones then blossom and when the older ones see that, it lifts them too. That’s what’s happening now, so they are definitely in the right place and heading in the right direction.

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