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21 from '21: A bizarre year in sport

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

Rugby's super sisters swept up by the Hurricanes

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

Keeping the faith - goalie couple fending off cancer

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

Double Olympic sevens champ Risi's on the rise

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

World's largest women’s sports summit delayed

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Brave cricketers find gold at the end of the rainbow

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Anderson sums it up perfectly.  

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

Littlejohn is NZ's new teen swimming sensation

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The call of the north pulls netballer Oceane Maihi

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“And life is bigger than netball.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Chance for Pasifika women to return to their roots

Changes to rugby’s eligibility laws could make a massive difference to the women’s game, with a host of Black Ferns able to return to their Pasifika roots, writes Alice Soper.

One of my favourite pieces of women's rugby trivia is the answer to the question - who has competed in more Rugby World Cups: Kazakhstan, Scotland or Samoa?

The answer, which surprises those less familiar with the women’s game, is Kazakhstan.

However, in late February, all three of these nations could potentially add to their appearance tally as they compete for the final spot for the 2022 World Cup at the repechage tournament in Dubai.

While much discussion has been had of the impact of the recent change to eligibility laws in the men’s game, the impact for the women’s may be more immediate, with a wealth of talent becoming available just in time for this tournament.

When the change comes in January 1, 2022, players who have stood down from international rugby for three years will be eligible to play for another country if they, their parents or grandparents were born there.

Come January 1, one of the Black Ferns’ most successful former captains and proud Samoan, Seiuli Fiao'o Fa'amausili, will have not played international rugby for three years, one month and 14 days.

Who also retired alongside her on November 18, 2018? Three-time World Cup winner and versatile backrower, Linda Itunu.

Samoa might also fancy recruiting the last World Cup-winning first five and recently signed Hurricane, Victoria Subritzky-Nafatali, who hasn’t featured for the Black Ferns since 2017.

Victoria Subritzky-Nafatali celebrates scoring for the Black Ferns in the 2017 World Cup final. Photo: Getty.

If you look back further on the Black Ferns roster, there’s still plenty of active talent who could be tempted into donning the royal blue.

Justine Lavea, won a World Cup in 2010, last played in the Super Series 2015 and is still active in Hong Kong rugby. Wellington stalwart, Sanita Levave, becomes available having last played for New Zealand in 2014.

Aotearoa “Katie” Matau’u has been carving her way onto the highlight reels in Portugal and becomes available largely due to the long period between test matches for the Black Ferns.

This talent, of course, would still have to earn their jersey from those currently playing for their home nation, but the timing makes for an interesting proposition with six experienced campaigners now available.

And beyond next year’s qualifier and World Cup in New Zealand, this changes the equation for rugby nations of the Pacific. Their daughters have long featured on the world stage, albeit for their nations of residency rather than their nations of origin. 

Up until next year’s tournament, Samoa will have been the only Pacific nation to have played in a World Cup. Fiji now join them and will be an exciting prospect after their stars shone brightly in sevens at the Tokyo Olympics.

O le ala i le pule, o le tautua - the pathway to leadership is through service

But what of the mighty Kingdom of Tonga? Anyone who's had the pleasure to play alongside a Tongan knows how proud they are of their heritage. Their spot in the changing shed will be decked out in red and a flag will appear at the final whistle to be draped around their shoulders.

This talent has been stifled back home though, as in 2018, the Ministry of Education banned the game for Tongan girls. This decision may have been quickly overturned, but the attitudes that led to it take more time to undo.

So as they continue to build a pathway through these negative perceptions, they could be supported by New Zealand-based talent.

Players like Doris Taufateau, a regular feature for the Auckland Storm, and Mele Hufanga, a Tongan rugby league international who was a member of the Moana Pasifika sevens, who beat the Black Ferns 15 invitational side at Takiwhitu Tūturu earlier this year.

Hufanga is yet another example of hamstrung talent, who, despite a tour with the Black Ferns 15s, was never given the opportunity to pull on the coveted black jersey.

This change comes at a pivotal moment in rugby. Where the disparities in men’s rugby are much more entrenched, women’s rugby is still largely amateur. Talent still carries large currency while resources are in short supply.

Simply put, most programmes are still being developed and so Pacific Nations don’t have as much ground to make up. With World XV just around the corner, and with it, the promise of regular international fixtures, all women’s programmes are provided a tangible incentive to build better.

I’ve played virtually all my rugby here in Wellington, alongside many proud Pasifika women. They have taught me much about how to play this game, but more importantly how to carry myself through the world.

O le ala i le pule, o le tautua - the pathway to leadership is through service. The highest form of respect is to tautua, to serve. Our sport has survived so it can now thrive, off the backs of their contribution. They have long served and now is the time for their talent to take the lead and show us just what women’s rugby can be.

Amelia Kerr: My family saved my life

Amelia Kerr wants the world to understand the mental hell she's been through in the past 18 months. And the White Ferns wunderkind tells Kristy Havill how her family and those closest to her helped save her life. 

It was July 2020 when Amelia Kerr began to notice she wasn’t herself.

A habit had formed where the young White Fern would leave the house early in the morning to go to cricket training, fill her days with other errands and activities, before coming home later in the evening and going straight to bed.

Her biggest priority was keeping herself distracted to quieten the voices in her head.

As is often the case, Kerr, then 19, didn't share how she was feeling with her family or friends. She soldiered on for a while and battened down the hatches to deal with things herself.

Before too long, Kerr found herself turning to her personal development manager (or PDM), Lesley Elvidge, from the New Zealand Cricket Players’ Association for support to find a way forward.

Elvidge, who’s the PDM for the White Ferns as well as the Canterbury and Otago men’s domestic teams, is one of the key cogs in Kerr’s support network. She suggested, and then organised, for Kerr to begin seeing a psychologist.

“I was a bit apprehensive, and didn’t really think I needed to,” Kerr says. “At first it was only Lesley that knew I was seeing a psychologist, because I didn’t want my parents or my family to know.”

Keeping it a secret from her family – including her elder sister, Jess, also a White Fern – wasn’t simple. Especially when both her parents are heavily involved in cricket, too.

But when Kerr’s wellbeing reached its lowest ebb a year later – and she was seen by a mental health crisis team - it was her family, she says, who saved her life.

White Ferns Lauren Down, Amelia Kerr and Katey Martin celebrate taking the wicket of Australia's Beth Mooney at Eden Park in April. Photo: Getty Images.

Kerr stunned the cricketing world earlier this year when it was announced she wasn’t available for the White Ferns’ tour of England in September due to mental health reasons.

Many jumped to the conclusion it was cricket related or burnout, but in Kerr’s case cricket is her happy place. It was off the field she was struggling.

A key player firmly ensconced in the New Zealand team’s line-up and one of the biggest superstars in the women’s game globally, with a cricket CV already glittering with achievements and records, her withdrawal came as a surprise to many.

But should it have? After all, mental health doesn’t discriminate. Regardless of your profession, level of income, athletic performances or international titles to your name, it doesn’t stop the lonely and isolating place our brains can sometimes take us to.

This has been a significant year in the shifting of the tide that is the stigma around mental health. Gymnast Simone Biles is perhaps the most high-profile example, withdrawing herself from several events at the Tokyo Olympic after experiencing ‘the twisties’.

It threw an unprecedented amount of light on the subject, one that’s often talked about but very rarely resulting in action. Now, athletes like Biles, cricketers Ben Stokes and Sophie Devine, and the now 21-year-old Kerr are all practising what they preach and prioritising their mental health.

And for Kerr, her journey of inspiring and helping others as a result of her experience is only just beginning.

PART ONE

Kerr describes Lesley Elvidge as nothing short of a legend - someone she couldn’t have got through her struggles without.

The NZCPA have continuously increased their resources into personal development programmes over the last few years, allowing dedicated personnel like Elvidge to be used by players on a full-time basis.

It might be to help them with career or study advice, as an advocate for employee or cricketing commitments, or in Kerr’s case, being an ear to listen and a guide when they need it most.

The discretion afforded to players by their PDM really came to the fore when Kerr swore Elvidge to secrecy about what she was going through.

Kerr’s mum, Jo Murray, also works for the NZCPA – as the PDM for the Canterbury and Otago women, and the Central Districts and Wellington men.

“I didn’t want them to feel like they could’ve done more, because they couldn’t have.”

Elvidge and Murray are close friends and colleagues. Kerr concedes it was a tough ask for Elvidge not to share Kerr’s struggles with one of the people who loves her most.

Call it a mother’s intuition, but it was Murray who initiated the tough conversation with Kerr after noticing her daughter hadn’t been her usual self.

“It had made Mum quite upset, because I’d changed how I was acting around home and I was avoiding home,” Kerr reveals.

“I broke down in tears because I’d been upsetting my mum, who I have a great relationship with. When I told her I’d been seeing a psychologist, she was so supportive and also relieved I’d opened up about how I was feeling; she’s amazing.

“But it took her to recognise it and bring it up with me rather than me being able to approach it and tell her first.”

Parents are known for doing everything they can to protect their children, but for Kerr it was a matter of shielding her parents from her grief and struggles.

“I didn’t want them to think I was feeling the way I was because of something they’d done,” Kerr shares. “I didn’t want them to feel like they could’ve done more, because they couldn’t have.”

The idea of being a burden to those she loves was frightening for Kerr, and although she’s someone who implores friends and family to come to her if they’re struggling, she found herself unable to do the same.

“I didn’t want to make the people around me sad because I was,” Kerr says. “It’s crazy how your brain is wired, because if my friend was doing that, I’d want them to come to me – and they have. But on the other hand, I couldn’t do that for so long.”

With her family now aware of her mental health battle and firmly in her corner, Kerr went on the White Ferns tour of Australia in September 2020 - the first time touring in a bubble because of Covid-19. She was also one of the many Kiwis playing in the Women’s Big Bash League, also held under strict bubble restrictions.

All up, it was three months of solace on the field for Kerr with her New Zealand and Brisbane Heat teammates - and complete disarray off it.

Struggling to sleep and experiencing panic attacks, there were several times Kerr nearly pulled the pin and left the tour and the WBBL.

Kerr recalls ringing her parents on multiple occasions in the middle of the night when she was at her worst. She knows how hard it would have been for them on the other end of the phone, unable to fly over and be with her because of bubble and MIQ restrictions.

One of her biggest supporters in the Big Bash bubble was her long-time Wellington and New Zealand team-mate Maddy Green, also playing for Brisbane. Kerr says Green was a significant help getting her through those tough few months.

Close Wellington Blaze team-mates Amelia Kerr and Maddy Green celebrate a wicket. Photo: Getty Images. 

As were family nearby - especially Kerr’s aunt, Susie, who lives an hour out of Sydney. Kerr would call her often and stayed with her before heading home. “She’s very experienced in the mental health area and always knows the right thing to say. She’s been a key part throughout my mental health journey.”

With a lot of support on either side of the Tasman, Kerr was able to navigate through the tricky period, until the Heat bowed out in the semifinals and she could return home.

Kerr stopped seeing her psychologist throughout last summer as she felt better. She represented the Wellington Blaze in the Dream11 Super Smash, then turned her attention to battling England and Australia with the White Ferns.  

It turned out to be a lengthy summer of cricket – September through to April. Most players would welcome time to rest with open arms, but for Kerr, it was the start of a tumultuous six months.

PART TWO

Continuing her fitness during their team leave period, Kerr was itching to get back with the White Ferns and into her cricket ‘safe space’. But it wasn’t able to protect her as well this time around.

“It hit me again in May this year,” Kerr says. “I remember saying when I’d got back from Australia: ‘I’m so glad I went through what I did because I learnt so much about myself, but I hope I never have to go through that again’.

“And then I went through it again this time and it was a thousand times worse.”

Even though her parents were an immense support to her, Kerr again wanted to protect them, and didn’t share with them she was on her way downhill again.

“Only Maddy and Lesley knew, and I think that was tough on them as they’re both close with my parents and my family,” Kerr admits.

“But they both knew they couldn’t break my trust, otherwise I’d stop telling them what I was feeling. And that’s a dangerous place.

“It was difficult for them, but I couldn't have two better people in Lesley and Maddy to go to when I needed. Once my family stepped in that’s exactly what I needed -even though I didn’t want it at the time.”

Kerr was struggling to catch a break – until she suffered a break in a catch, and things went from bad to worse. A catching drill in late May went awry when Kerr copped a ball to her right ring finger - her key spinning finger as a leg spin bowler.

“The good thing about breaking your finger over a different injury is I could still run and go to the gym, which definitely helped,” Kerr says.

“But the break also took away my safe space. It gave me more time to think about other things again.”

Although she was seeing her psychologist again, and talking to Green and Elvidge, everything reached a tipping point at another White Ferns camp at the beginning of July.

Amid concerns for her mental health and welfare, Kerr was sent home early from the camp by coaching and management staff. Green accompanied her back to Wellington to help keep her safe, before Kerr’s family wrapped their support around her.

“Sometimes you’re not in the right place to make the best decisions for yourself, and I needed decisions to be made for me. And that’s where my whole extended family was incredible,” Kerr says.

White Ferns sisters Amelia and Jess Kerr. Photo: Photosport.

While she told her parents it was her decision to return home, she now knows they were informed of the true circumstances. Since cricket has always been Kerr’s happy place, it was a warning sign to her family.

What happened the following day was a deeply personal and harrowing experience for them all. But Kerr knows sharing it could potentially prompt others to take action.

“The next day, Mum and Dad took me to the [hospital] emergency department and to the crisis team, as I needed to get into the system as soon as possible,” Kerr recalls.

“We waited eight hours, but I’m so glad I had my family; I would have never gone by myself. It reminded me how important having support is. Without the support I had, I’d still be suffering.”

Kerr spent 90 minutes talking to the crisis team and a psychiatrist at the hospital.

“And everyone in that room cried. It was a blur and a surreal experience. The process I went through was so scary and so hard, but it was what I needed and I wouldn’t have been able to do it without my family.

“My family saved my life.”

Kerr then began seeing a psychiatrist, who was able to prescribe her medication, which she was initially apprehensive about taking. But it’s now a topic she’s happy to talk about, because she wants to let people know it is okay to take medication if it’s required.

“I thought it may affect my trainings and I didn’t want to become reliant on them,” Kerr says. “But I knew it was for the best - that to get better, medication was going to help as well as therapy.

“I now don’t worry about how long I’ll have to be on them for, if they help me feel happier and help my mind to relax.”

Kerr pays credit to the White Ferns staff and NZ Cricket for their understanding and allowing her to do what’s best for her health. While it was a difficult decision to withdraw from the tour to England in September this year, in reality, it was the only decision Kerr could make.

“You don’t want to feel like you’re letting the team down, but with the place I was in, I was letting the team down if I went and wasn’t in the best place mentally.”

Amelia Kerr (left) with spin bowler Fran Jonas, who made her White Ferns debut earlier this year, aged 16. Photo: NZ Cricket.

Kerr also nods to her skipper, Devine, for taking a two-month break from the game, and laying a platform for mental health to become more of a priority in the White Ferns side.

“For Sophie to do what she did showed a lot of courage,” says Kerr. “So for me to not be the first person to pull out of a tour and seeing some else do it, you know that it’s okay and that you can come back from it.

“Sophie’s been amazing. When she was in the UK she would always check in, and before she went away, she’d hang out with me and see how I was going. It was nice to be able to talk to someone who can relate about missing tours. She just said it’s what she needed to do as well.

“I think mental health will be talked about a whole lot more now.”

It was a proud moment for Kerr, her family and her teammates when she took the field for Wellington in their opening Hallyburton Johnstone Shield 50-over match against the Canterbury Magicians in Rangiora at the end of October.

“I’m more me than I’ve ever been. I’m more human, because of it all."

She looked like she’d never been away, as she snared two five-wicket bags in two days, then followed that up with a match-winning performance for the Blaze in their Super Smash opener against the same opposition at Hagley Oval.

Most important of all, she looked like she was enjoying herself going about her business.

One thing she’s especially looking forward to is reuniting on the field with her big sister, Jess, who’s been going through an injury lay-off of her own in the past month.

The White Ferns’ tour of England was the first time the elder sister had toured and played for the national side without her younger sibling lining up alongside her - which was difficult for them both.

PART THREE

A home World Cup and Commonwealth Games in 2022, offers from franchise leagues around the world, as well as the prospect of test cricket and a Women’s IPL on the horizon, Kerr is excited about what her future holds in the sport she loves.

The idea she could still be rolling the arm over at the age of 32 when Brisbane hosts the 2032 Olympics - with cricket touted as a potential new sport – makes her eyes light up. She’d love to become an Olympian at one of her adopted home grounds, the Gabba.

But it’s not just on the field Kerr has lofty ambitions. Studying her way through a Bachelor of Arts majoring in education and sociology through Massey University, Kerr has also spent time working as a teacher aide with primary school kids with behavioural issues.

“I loved that, I’ve always loved helping people,” Kerr explains. “I think it’s definitely something I’d like to work in when I finish cricket.

“I’d love to go into low-decile schools and provide kids with more opportunity and be a mentor to them.”

Just a teen herself, Amelia Kerr was mobbed by young girls and boys in the West Indies. Photo: NZ Cricket.

Kerr is also passionate about being involved in mental health advocacy and initiatives in the future.

In the meantime, one of her priorities is sharing her mental health experiences far and wide in a bid to help as many people as possible.

“It’s about turning my pain into my passion, and that’s why I wanted to be honest about why I didn’t go to England,” Kerr says. “Hopefully I’ll be able to help someone out there to know it’s okay to struggle and it will pass.”

Hindsight is a wonderful thing, and having weathered another storm, Kerr can now reflect on her growth over the past 18 months.

“I’m more me than I’ve ever been,” Kerr says.

“I’m more human, because of it all. Fully accepting it all is massive because trying to hide away from it is tough. And doing it all alone is too tough.”

She’s acutely aware how lucky she was to see a psychologist almost immediately last year, with support from NZCPA, and knows it isn’t possible for many New Zealanders experiencing long wait-list times.

“It’s so tough that the wait is so long to get into someone,” Kerr admits. “There’s always someone that you can talk to and you can ask for help from. Your own GP is a good starting point as they can also connect you with the support you need.

"Even if it’s not a professional, there’s somebody who wants to listen, who no matter what, will drop everything to be there for you. It’s really hard, but if you do it once, it gets easier and easier.

“Whatever you’re going through, it will pass, and there are people who want you here. Everybody has mental health struggles, just on a different level. If you’re struggling, please don’t be afraid to ask for help.”

Where to get help:

1737, Need to talk? Free call or text 1737 any time for support from a trained counsellor

Lifeline – 0800 543 354 or (09) 5222 999 within Auckland

Samaritans – 0800 726 666

Suicide Crisis Helpline – 0508 828 865 (0508 TAUTOKO)

thelowdown.co.nz – or email team@thelowdown.co.nz or free text 5626

Anxiety New Zealand - 0800 ANXIETY (0800 269 4389)

Supporting Families in Mental Illness - 0800 732 825

New basketball league scores with equal pay

A new national league for women’s basketball - with equal pay to the men’s league – will give a giant boost to the sport’s development on home soil and lure Kiwis home, Merryn Anderson writes. 

Zoe Richards manages to fit in a phone call after a full day’s work as an early childhood teacher in Dunedin, changing nappies and staying late after a busy day. She doesn’t have the night off though, heading to basketball training later in the evening, yet she still keeps a happy face.  

The 24-year-old played college basketball in the United States for four years on a basketball scholarship straight out of high school, and this year spent a season with the Rockingham Flames in Australia before returning home to New Zealand.  

Her full-time job is a necessity without a basketball contract, but Richards has to remain flexible when it comes to her basketball commitments, especially as part of the Tall Ferns squad.  

“That’s been a huge struggle for me, just trying to balance that,” says Richards. “Because I’m not on a contract for a team at the moment, I’ve had to come home and find a job and work.” 

Starting in July next year, the eight-week women’s National Basketball League (NBL) season will provide a new salary system for players, ensuring they can make basketball their main priority.  

For the first time in the NBL, player payments will be equal between the men’s and women’s leagues – an initiative Basketball New Zealand (BBNZ) hopes will lure Kiwis honing their craft overseas to return home to play.  

Expressions of interest are now open for potential owners of the five new franchises to make up the 2022 women's National Basketball League. Photo: Photosport NZ. 

Tipping off in July 2022, the new league will consist of five teams representing regions North, Mid-North, Central, Upper South and Lower South.  

The five women’s franchises will have brand new identities, and won’t be linked to the men’s league, starting in April.  

The partnership between BBNZ and Sky is a five-year deal designed to increase visibility and accessibility of home games and ultimately lift New Zealand basketball on a global scale.  

The new league will be a gamechanger for not only Richards and other players in New Zealand, but for those Kiwi women playing basketball overseas to have something tangible to come home to. 

There are currently 64 Kiwi women playing collegiate basketball in the United States and Canada; 28 play in the NCAA Division I - that’s more than Kiwi men, who have 16 in the top-tier collegiate competition. 

With players like sisters Charlisse and Krystal Leger-Walker playing Division I, and Penina Davidson and Chevannah Paalvast starring in Australia’s WNBL, the Tall Ferns struggle to find time to train together as a team and hone their connections.  

The Tall Ferns (including Zoe Richards in white) face difficulty assembling for camps, with a lot of homegrown talent pursuing contracts overseas. Photo: Photosport NZ. 

Richards travelled to Jordan with the Tall Ferns for the FIBA Women’s Asia Cup in September, where the team came fifth overall - just missing out on automatic qualification for the 2022 World Cup.  

It was far from a vacation for the squad, with young mum Tessa Boagni taking her one-year-old son Noah with her, and some of the team continuing to work remotely during their time in Asia, without the luxury of being able to take time off.  

While the team was full of talent, the lack of time spent playing together in preparation may have hurt the Tall Ferns, struggling with putting out consistent team performances.   

“It takes a while to find that spark with each player or find what different people do quite well,” says Richards.  

“Having this league and getting players to come back will mean we can train more often as a team. We’ll be able to develop more on working together as a team and understanding what each player’s skills are and how they help the team. 

“Connections don’t happen just like that, so building the connections with different players and doing that really does help, it helps the team a lot.” 

The scheduling for the women’s league looks to lead into a Tall Ferns series, says former NBL general manager Justin Nelson, now Sky’s head of commercial and events.  

It’s hoped the schedule will encourage Tall Ferns players to return home and play in the league before combining for national duties.  

“In putting this concept together, it was really important for basketball to provide an opportunity for all of the talented Kiwis overseas to come home and play. And to do it in a way that’s supporting their career,” says Nelson.  

Each team will play 12 games over eight weeks as part of the regular season, with each team having six home games, encouraged to be spread around their region.  

Imports are welcome in the new league, and BBNZ hope the pay equality will draw some big names.  

“It’s what we’ve been missing here in New Zealand for women’s basketball,” says Nelson. “We’ve had a competition, but it just hasn’t effectively underpinned the Tall Ferns because the best players are forced to live and play overseas.” 

Richards agrees. “Having all the best players coming back and wanting to play in New Zealand, that will build the whole basketball level up immensely and will then be a flow-on effect to the Tall Ferns,” she says. 

“Because a lot of players will come back and play, they’ll play together or against each other, everyone will value the New Zealand league so much more - and then hopefully we’ll perform better on the national stage.” 

Basketball NZ has committed to ensuring Kiwi women can play basketball professionally, something that Zoe Richards (shooting) applauds. Photo: Photosport NZ. 

Richards felt playing overseas this year was a necessity for her to develop as a player, in a semi-professional league where she knew the commitment levels of her teammates and coaches.  

“That’s what’s really exciting about the new league - because they’re going to be paying players, it’s going to be a professional league now,” explains Richards.  

“That’s going to lift the professionalism of the clubs and everyone’s commitment to playing the game and going to practices. Everything’s going to lift immensely.” 

The partnership between Sky and BBNZ will see over 300 games broadcast live alongside free-to-air coverage, providing access for the whole country to watch.  

Richards believes the new league is a game-changer for the sport in New Zealand, seeing what can be achieved with the commitment to the women’s game.  

“Getting more girls and the younger generation involved and hoping to inspire them I think is the huge key for the development and the future of women’s basketball in New Zealand,” she says.  

“Now that they’re going to be paying players, it will really take the stress out of the players worrying about income and it really just means that basketball for women is taken more seriously, showing that they value women’s basketball, it’s not just a side thing. 

“There is a career in basketball, and it’s also showing that to the younger girls as well, that you can play professionally. Basketball New Zealand is really pushing for it, there is a pathway for that career.” 

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