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New spin guru has White Ferns in a whirl

The White Ferns have a new spin bowling coach heading into the T20 World Cup, who reckons their young spin attack could become world-leading. Merryn Anderson reports. 

As the White Ferns play their first home games since the Cricket World Cup back in April, they’ll be led into battle by two Aussies.

Head coach Ben Sawyer took over the reins in June, guiding the White Ferns to Commonwealth Games bronze a few months later, and then recruited fellow Australian Craig Howard to join the team as their specialist spin bowling coach. He immediately made a difference.

His first tour with the White Ferns was the recent West Indies series, where they won six of their eight games, and the spin group dominated their wicket tally. 

“Ben saw an opportunity in the spin area, with Melie [Kerr], and he saw a bit of promise with some of the other spin options around,” Howard explains. 

“He [Sawyer] saw it as an important part of their future development and winning games in the shortest form in particular, in T20s. That if they can get their spin strategy right, it’s going to help them win some games of cricket.” 

READ MORE:
*New head of women’s cricket far from Green
*Bronze turns White Ferns spinner’s 21st golden

Howard has quite a record in spin. He played 16 first-class games for Victoria in the 1990s, as a legspin bowler (his best figures 5/42 against South Africa), and went on to coach at Cricket Australia, developing some of the best spinners - both male and female - in the game. 

The White Ferns have a very young spin group. The eldest is Melie Kerr at 22, who despite her young age, has over 100 caps at international level and has played in leagues around the world. 

Two of the newest members of the spin group are Eden Carson and Fran Jonas. Carson made her debut at the Commonwealth Games, winning bronze the day before her 21st birthday, while Jonas is still only 18, but first played for New Zealand in 2021. 

Both young spinners excelled in the West Indies. Jonas played all three ODIs and five T20s, taking 10 wickets and consistently bowling at a low economy rate. 

“The pitches over there were really good for spin and it was exciting being able to bowl on them,” Jonas says. 

“It was a really good experience having Howie [Howard] there as well.” 

The White Ferns squad who toured the West Indies in September and October.

Carson played one ODI and four T20s in Antigua, taking three wickets in her ODI debut and six wickets across the T20s. 

“It was a great opportunity to go over to the West Indies where the conditions suit me as a spinner as well, and also having Craig there also helped a lot,” Carson says. 

Howard says the spin group were “terrific” on the Antigua tour. 

“There were a couple of games in the West Indies where we bowled 15 overs of spin in T20 cricket, which I don’t think they’ve ever done before," he says. 

“One of the games was 8/63 I think, off their 15 overs, and the other was 7/59. A couple of those performances were as good as you’ll see from a spin group anywhere, so I think they’ve got the opportunity to produce a really world-leading spin attack. 

“In the format we’re about to go to the World Cup in, it's incredibly important.” 

Howard’s appointment is on a tour-by-tour basis, with a home series against Bangladesh - starting on Friday at Hagley Oval in Christchurch - ahead of the T20 World Cup in South Africa in February. 

“There’s a real opportunity for success with this group because they’ve got some world-class T20 players in their side,” says Howard. 

“I think we’re going to be able to keep sides to pretty gettable scores and be able to defend some good totals as well, so I’m just really excited. I think about what the short-term and the long-term holds through this group, it’s a good time to be around.” 

At just 18 years old, Fran Jonas already brings a lot of maturity to the White Ferns. Photo: Getty Images

The long-term future of the spin group certainly looks promising, with a core group all born after the turn of the century. 

“Fran just plays with such maturity already. She’s so calm under pressure, even when she gets a wicket, she’s got a real ability to maintain composure,” Howard says. 

“That's going to be a real strong suit of hers and she’s already showing signs of being world class at what she’s doing, so I think that’s really exciting.

“Eden as well, when she got opportunities, she delivered too. She’s got raw ability in there and so much upside in what she can do. She’s a really good package as far as what she offers in the field too - a lot of energy and a lot of athleticism.” 

When Howard asked Sawyer if there were any other players who could bowl some part-time spin, to ensure the team had as many spin options as possible, Sawyer suggested veteran Suzie Bates. 

“It was a bit of a masterstroke cause she’s been involved in most of our meetings. And she’s been terrific - along with Melie - relaying to Sophie [captain Sophie Devine] on the ground exactly what we’re trying to achieve out there,” Howard says. 

Bates took a break from bowling while recovering from a shoulder injury, but recently returned, taking five wickets across two T20s in the West Indies. Her 281 caps of international experience comes alongside 130 wickets over her 16-year career. 

“Often it’s really difficult for young spinners like Eden and Fran to try and communicate what they’re trying to do to the captain,” Howard explains. 

“So having Suzie out there, there was hardly a ball where she missed what we were trying to do as far as having fielders in the right spots and angles. It’s been a real godsend to have her in our group." 

Otago Sparks Eden Carson (centre) and Suzie Bates (right) are an essential part of the White Ferns' spin group. Photo: Getty Images

The White Ferns face Bangladesh in three T20s and three ODIs from tomorrow. It’s their last scheduled series before the T20 World Cup in February, so Jonas and Carson are both keen to get some playing time under their belts. 

Jonas, who's based in Auckland, has her parents coming to all of the games, making the journey across the country with no games scheduled in her home city in this series. 

Her hopes for the series are simple: “Just some more experience, working on my bowling and getting some games in. We haven’t played in a wee while so it will be nice to get play on Friday. 

“Unfortunately we’ve had a few washouts with Auckland [Hearts] at the start of the season, but I'm definitely excited to get back into things over the New Zealand summer.” 

For Carson, these will be her first White Ferns games in New Zealand, and she also has her parents travelling to multiple games. 

“Because I’m from Dunedin, hopefully I’ll get picked to play in the Dunedin game or the Queenstown game,” says Carson, who also has friends and Otago Sparks teammates heading along to matches. Sunday's second T20 is at Dunedin's University Oval. 

Like Jonas, Carson hope to be chosen in the playing XI for game day and gain more experience. 

“Definitely, I'm just trying to get out on the park and showing the coaches, the selectors and other people, my family and friends, what I can do," she says. "For them to be able to watch me play, hopefully, in a home series would be great.”

Howard is thoroughly enjoying his time in the White Ferns environment so far, with the highest compliments paid to Sawyer and new batting coach - and former Black Cap - Dean Brownlie, as well as the Ferns spinners. 

“They’re an absolute pleasure to be honest, they’re so open-minded,” Howard says. 

“I’ve just found they’ve been incredibly grateful, they’ve got great work ethics, they’ve got real growth mindsets. And as a coach, when they have all that, you just want to keep investing in them. You just want the best for them.

“A really fun part of it is just how much they’ve taken it on, to the letter as far as what we’re trying to do in games. They’ve nailed it, and it’s been excellent.” 

*The White Ferns’ series against Bangladesh starts at Hagley Oval, Christchurch, on Friday at 7pm, with three T20s and three ODIs. Games will be live on SparkSport (with Sunday's game at 1.30pm also free-to-air on TVNZ.)

Where is she now? Sandra Edge

Former Silver Ferns captain Sandra Edge inspired a generation through her on-court exploits. Now, 27 years after hanging up her bib, she continues to make a difference from the sidelines. Jane Hunt writes.

White Fern wins health battle with Silver Fern's help

Bernadine Bezuidenhout was so sick while playing for the White Ferns, her body started to shut down. But now she’s back stronger, with the help of a Silver Ferns legend. And she tells Suzanne McFadden how she’s found balance in her life, helping at-risk youth through sport.

Bernadine Bezuidenhout remembers playing a T20 international against Australia and vomiting in the changing room.

It wasn’t nerves making the White Ferns cricketer ill. She simply couldn’t keep food in her body anymore.

“I was so sick, I couldn’t consume food. I’d eat it and it would just come back up,” she says. “My body had just started to shut down.”

That was three years ago, and Bezuidenhout was in the prime of her career. At 26, she’d played cricket for both South Africa and New Zealand. Outstanding with the bat, she was also back-up wicketkeeper to Katey Martin in the White Ferns line-up.

But she was seriously unwell. She weighed just 55kg. She was over-training (“I felt I was never doing enough”) then not eating enough to refuel her body.

Too often, she was fracturing fingers. She was constantly fatigued, agitated, and couldn’t sleep. And she hadn’t had her period in 10 years.  

It had taken Bezuidenhout a decade to realise she was suffering from RED-S – or Relative Energy Deficiency in Sport. It’s a syndrome afflicting many Kiwi athletes, especially females.

That was when New Zealand Cricket put Bezuidenhout in touch with national netball legend Dr Lesley Nicol. A Silver Ferns centurion, Nicol is now a sports and exercise physician in Christchurch.

“Dr Lesley said: ‘Okay Bernie this thing you have is called RED-S, and we’re going to get through this. But it’s going take a lot from you as well’,” Bezuidenhout recalls. “I knew it wouldn’t be easy. I’m an extremely driven person. I love exercise, and I love being healthy and fit.

“But I knew I couldn’t carry on like I was. So we’ve been on this journey together.”

Bezuidenhout took two years off cricket altogether, to focus on getting well and finding her love from the game again.

Ten days ago, she returned to the crease for Northern Districts in the opening weekend of the Hallyburton Johnstone Shield – the premier domestic one-day cricket competition – and scored 163 runs on two consecutive days against Otago. The second innings was her second A-class century: 101 runs off 95 balls, including nine boundaries.

She immediately caught the eye of national selectors again, named in the New Zealand XI to play Bangladesh this week.   

Bezuidenhout, now 29, is feeling stronger and healthier than she ever has. She says she’s hitting the ball harder, has more focus with the bat and gloves and more energy, and her lateral movement behind the stumps is quicker and more explosive than before.

But she also has a new perspective on life. In those two years away from the game, she found balance – setting up the Epic Sports Project in Christchurch, which each week helps 400 kids from low socioeconomic communities to discover sport for free.

She also works with youth in Christchurch Men’s Prison, helping them find good role models.

“My priorities have changed,” Bezuidenhout says. “The young people I work with have given me a better perspective on life. I see there’s so much more to life than performance in sport.

“So I think I’ve found fulfilment away from the game, which is awesome. I have never been healthier, never been better. Happy days.”

But it’s taken her a long, often tortuous road to get there.

**

As a kid growing up in Kimberley, South Africa, Bezuidenhout stood out in a range of sports. At 17, she was hand-picked to play golf in an academy and offered a full scholarship to a US college. But she found it lonely on tour and missed team sport.

She was also a talented hockey player. But she gave both codes away to concentrate on a career in cricket.

In 2014, she made her debut for South Africa at the age of 20. She played four ODIs and seven T20Is, before deciding to up-sticks and move to a “safer, better life” in Christchurch.

Determined to continue her cricketing career, the then-Northern Spirit wicketkeeper had to serve a three-year stand-down period before she was eligible to be selected for the White Ferns. And her patience paid off in 2018, when she went on the Northern Hemisphere tour with the New Zealand squad.

During that tour, she claimed an international record-equalling five dismissals against Ireland. She later played at the T20 World Cup in the Caribbean.

But in the summer of 2019-20, Bezuidenhout’s constant illness and injury started to seriously take its toll on her body.

"I’m no longer tracking my food – I was a tracker of every calorie coming in" - Bernadine Bezuidenhout. 

From the age of 18, Bezuidenhout had been amenorrhoeic (no menstruation) - a red flag for RED-S.

(RED-S was originally called the Female Athlete Triad, for the interrelationship between bone mineral loss, disordered eating and a loss of menstruation in women athletes).

“It started after I left school, and I never really thought anything of it. Because when you’re amenorrhoeic, you think it’s amazing as an athlete – it’s one less thing to worry about,” she says.

“It wasn’t a discussion you had with your physio, because the support staff were so male dominant back in the day.”  

But three years ago, she “started to become really ill” with what she later learned was a type of eating disorder.

“You’re so over the top about what you’re putting into your body that there’s no bad food coming in,” she says. “And with the training schedule being five to six hours a day, every so often – more so than not – I’d do extra because I felt I was never doing enough.” Instead of four gym sessions a week, she’d do six.

“With that massive training schedule, I just wasn’t eating enough food. And it came to the point where I couldn’t digest any more food; my body started to shut down. And this was while I was playing for New Zealand.”

White Fern Bernadine Bezuidenhout sweeps against England in a 2018 T20 match in Bristol. Photo: Getty Images.

She played her last game for the White Ferns - against South Africa - in January 2020, and decided she needed help. So she sat down with Nicol.

“Dr Lesley said to me: ‘Bernie, you have two options. You play and you are at 30 percent capacity of what you can actually do physically. Or you can take a few years off, get healthy, and come back so much stronger’,” Bezuidenhout says.

“I asked what does a few years mean, and she said it could even be five years because I was amenorrhoeic for so long. I was in the prime of my career, and I’d already lost three years waiting to be able to play for New Zealand.

“But I knew I was so sick I couldn’t carry on.”

Bezuidenhout went on medication to help her to digest food, and then tried HRT (hormone replacement therapy), “but it made me feel absolutely horrendous – so I said let my body come right on its own.”

It was a tough time mentally for Bezuidenhout, too – fearing her career could be over, and questioning who she was if she wasn’t playing cricket.

“I took a long deep breath, and realised I needed to surround myself with really good people and I needed to find who I was as a person,” she says.  “I’m a Christian person, so my faith is tied into who I am.

“And I realised how I perform doesn’t mean I have less or more value as a human. It was cool to walk into a room and people say: ‘Hey Bernie, how are you?’ Not ‘How’s cricket going?’”

**

Almost three years down the track, Bezuidenhout admits her eating is still a work in progress. Which is quite funny, she says, because she’s a trained nutritionist.

“I still have a fear of gaining weight and getting fat, or not being happy with how I look,” she says. “I’m no longer tracking my food – I was a tracker of every calorie coming in. I now listen to my body – if I’m hungry I eat.

“I’m not quite where I need to be, but at least my team, and the people around me, are aware.”

She now has regular periods: “And I can conceive children again.” Her bone density is better, because of the weight training she’s done.

Bezuidenhout can now recognise the indicators when she’s fatigued: a lack of sleep and heavy legs. “In the high performance environment, there’s so much pressure to push through. But I won’t go down that path again because I now know what to look for,” she says.

Northern Districts Cricket have been “super supportive”,  Bezuidenhout says, in her comeback.

Ian Sandbrook, ND’s general manager of performance and talent, says they’re delighted to have her back in their playing group this season – especially after a typically explosive start with the bat.

“She's a class act both with the bat and gloves, and has already made a huge impact this season,” he says. “Not only does she bring her undoubted skill to our programme, but her experience, work ethic and competitive spirit adds so much to our group and helps develop our talented youngsters. We’re excited to see her impact in the coming Super Smash competition.”

Bernadine Bezuidenhout in one of her last games for Northern Spirit (now Brave) before she took a two-year break. Photo: Getty Images. 

Though Bezuidenhout has built a strong working partnership with the team’s trainer and physio, she admits talking about her menstrual health can still be awkward.

“I try to be as open about it as I can: ‘I’m on my period, I’m not feeling good, this isn’t a good workout for me today, can we adapt it?’” she says.

“If only more trainers could educate themselves in women’s sport – at school and high performance level. The conversation around our menstrual cycles needs to be more normalised.  Our young athletes need to know more about it, too.”

Bezuidenhout found it difficult watching the White Ferns play in a home World Cup earlier this year. “But it set the fire going again, and I’m ready to go now,” she says.

The opportunity to play for the New Zealand XI in Wednesday's second game against Bangladesh at Lincoln Oval puts Bezuidenhout back in the frame for the White Ferns. Is she ready for that?

“Right now, I just want to enjoy the game and take it one day at a time,” she says. “You always strive to be at your best, but I want to get through the season healthily, be in sync with my eating and make sure I’m looking after myself. And whatever comes with that, I’ll be more ready than ever before.”

**

Growing up “as a white person in a bubble of privilege”, Bezuidenhout was used to seeing poverty in South Africa. “Coming here to a first-world country, I didn’t expect there to be much need,” she says.  

“Because I played for the White Ferns, it opened doors of opportunity where I could go in and coach kids, speak to kids. And I was so shocked and humbled by the experience, and I thought, hang on, there’s such a need in communities around the corner from us that we’re not even aware of.”

With a passion for working with children, Bezuidenhout wanted to find a way where she could improve the lives of young people through sport.

“I started working in the Christchurch Men’s Prison and I met young men who were such talented athletes who lacked good role models in their lives. And I thought what can I do to prevent kids ending up in this space?” she says.

Kids learning hockey skills from Epic coaches at Haeta Community Campus in Christchurch.

She set up the Epic Sports Project charitable trust in Christchurch exactly two years ago, with the help of fellow South African and former Northern Spirit bowler, Carolyn Esterhuizen.

“In New Zealand, we all speak the language of sport. It brings people together,” Bezuidenhout says. “I can’t change their home situations, but I can give kids a sense of value. That’s what we do at Epic, we use sport as vehicle to connect our struggling youth with good role models.

“We’re working with 400 kids a week, running 16 sessions.  I’m going back to work with youth at Christchurch Men’s Prison as part of their weekly programme.

“It’s probably been the best two years of my life. I’ve got more out of this than anything. I’ve realised what is life if we’re not making a difference? If we’re just living for ourselves.”

The community has got on board, too. The Hornby Hockey Club donate the use of their turf every Monday so Epic can introduce kids to the game for free. Bezuidenhout, who played hockey for South African Schools, is thrilled the sport has taken off.

It’s her dream to have Epic operating in low socioeconomic communities throughout the country.

“Our mission is to inspire hope,” she says.  “Sometimes we forget about the little things we have. We see kids coming in who haven’t eaten, wearing ripped singlets and no shoes. It humbles you and makes you think you have nothing to complain about.”

Bezuidenhout believes so much good has come out of what was a dire situation in her life.  

“I’ve come through this such a better, stronger, healthier person. And I actually wouldn’t change it for the world because I found myself within the process, which is really cool.”

* The White Ferns start their series against Bangladesh - first 3 T20s, then 3 ODIs - this Friday at Hagley Oval in Christchurch.

Veteran Fern thrilled to return - as a Phoenix

Despite a tough start to the Phoenix's second season, evergreen Football Fern Betsy Hassett has no regrets returning to finally play professional football at home, she tells Merryn Anderson.

After 14 years playing in the United States, Germany, England, Norway, the Netherlands and Iceland, Betsy Hassett is finally home. 

The 32-year-old Football Fern is one of the big names recruited for the Wellington Phoenix in their second season in the A-League Women’s competition. 

“I’ve always dreamt of having this team in New Zealand so I could come home and play and it’s taken years and years and years,” Hassett says. 

Hassett is the fourth most capped New Zealand football player of all time, with 137 internationals for the Football Ferns since making her debut in 2008, while she was in her final year at Auckland’s Avondale College. 

After graduating, she took up a football scholarship at the University of California, where she studied and played for four years. 

“After that, there was nowhere else to go and play really, besides overseas. I couldn’t come home if I wanted to improve, so just ended up staying overseas,” says Hassett, whose picked up experience at Manchester City, Ajax, Werder Bremen and Stjarnan - her club in Iceland for the last three seasons. 

Since 2017, Iceland has become Hassett’s second home, working at a kindergarten for the last two years alongside playing football. 

The kids at the kindergarten also help Hassett with her Icelandic - she’s not yet fluent, but can get by. 

Hassett brings 14 years of international experience to a youthful Wellington Phoenix side. Photo: Getty Images

The women’s Wellington Phoenix team were established last season, but spent the entire four-month season living in Australia, due to travel restrictions. 

It was a tough rookie season for the Phoenix, who won two, drew one and finished bottom of the table. This season they've been boosted by the signing of three experienced Ferns - Hassett, Paige Satchell and Emma Rolston. 

But with a few injuries to key players, including captain and goalkeeper Lily Alfeld, the Phoenix haven't had an ideal start, with a second 4-1 loss on Saturday against competition newcomers Western United. For the second time, they had been level-pegging at halftime, but struggled in the second half. 

A new season, though, has meant their first home games, with 5213 fans packing out Wellington’s Sky Stadium for their round one match - breaking the record for the biggest crowd at a standalone regular season match in the history of the women’s A League. 

“It was amazing, such an incredible experience, and an awesome crowd,” Hassett says.

The score was 0-0 at half-time, but a quick run of goals from Melbourne City saw them win 4-1 - a late goal from Ava Pritchard was a little consolation for the home side. 

Despite the loss, Hassett loved the experience of her first game in the yellow and black. 

“It was fantastic to have so much support around us," she says. "It was so much fun to play the first professional game for the Phoenix in New Zealand, I loved it. We created history. 

“A couple of my best friends came down from Gisborne and Tauranga and my boyfriend’s here from Iceland, and there were a lot of old friends, too." 

As one of the top 10 goalscorers in Football Ferns history (with 14 goals), Hassett is keen to find the back of the net for the Phoenix this season. Her experience is massive for this young team too - she's played in three Olympic Games, including scoring the Ferns’ sole goal in their 6-1 loss to the United States at the 2020 Tokyo Games. 

Hassett didn’t know a lot of the upcoming Kiwi stars in the Phoenix side, having been overseas for so long. “But I’m really enjoying getting to know the younger girls,” she says. 

“It’s really cool to get to play with them and hopefully inspire a lot of young girls in New Zealand, because they can now look up to us. Now there’s something for them to strive for, which is so exciting.” 

Hassett says it feels "weird" to be finally lining up in a Kiwi team, "but it's so much fun. It’s really nice to be home and be around the New Zealand food and Kiwi culture again.” 

Hassett's stats from the Phoenix's first game of the season. 

There are a handful of Football Ferns scattered around various A-League teams, and Hassett enjoyed the match-up against Kiwi Katie Bowen in their opening game against Melbourne City. 

“I think every game we’ll match up against someone else different on the Ferns," she says. "And it’s good to get connected with each other again and have some good battles out on the field - and it’s nice for us to all be a bit closer to home.” Especially with the home FIFA Women's World Cup on the near horizon. 

The Football Ferns have five friendlies scheduled at home in January and February next year, including two against world No.1, the US.

Their two games against Korea Republic earlier this month were their first games in New Zealand in four years, and Hassett is a firm believer in the home advantage. 

“I could even feel it at the Phoenix game last week. We had so much crowd support, and just hearing the crowd behind us gave super advantage to the home team,” she says. 

With the FIFA Women’s World Cup kicking off at Auckland’s Eden Park in July next year, home support is key for the Football Ferns, Hassett acknowledges.

Over 40,000 fans sold out Eden Park for the Black Ferns at the final of the Rugby World Cup, and Hassett believes the Football Ferns can garner the same interest. 

“We’re hoping we could have the same support with us next year,” she says. 

“I think having lots of games with the Football Ferns at home over the coming months, we can create that fan base behind us. That would be really awesome for us.” 

Hassett has played in three Olympic Games, but a home World Cup will be a career highlight. Photo: Getty Images

Hassett admits being overseas for 14 years, away from family and friends, has been incredibly difficult, but she’s grateful for the opportunities football has given her. 

“I’ve had such a good time though, travelling the world and seeing different places and meeting different people,” she says. 

“But it was hard at times, just being so far away and missing my family and friends and trying to figure out how to live a life away from home.” 

So that makes a home World Cup even more special for Hassett. 

“It’s incredible, I’m so happy that it’s able to happen in my career, I would never have dreamt of it," she says. "It’s the biggest event in the world, so it’s something that’s going to be really special and create lots of memories for a lifetime.” 

Kiwi whistler now world No.1

From not wanting to be left out in the cold to the world’s top hockey umpire, Amber Church has come a long way. Yet no matter where around the globe the sport takes her, the centre of her universe remains Tairāwhiti, Aiden McLaughlin discovers.

By day, she's a Gisborne schoolteacher. But in her other life, Amber Church is on top of the hockey umpiring world.

Named by the International Hockey Federation as the female umpire of the year for 2021-22, it’s the second major milestone for Church this year. The 34-year-old brought up a century of international appearances in May, during the women’s trans-Tasman series between the Black Sticks and Australia in Auckland.

Since then, she's been an on-field umpire in the finals of both the women’s World Cup, played in the Netherlands and Spain in July, and then the Commonwealth Games in Birmingham.

Starting with her first test match in 2009, between New Zealand and India in Nelson, Church’s tally of international appearances now stands at 111.

Amber Church called the shots in the 2022 Commonwealth Games final between England and Australia. Photo: WorldSportPics

It’s a journey that started at the age of 15 back in Tairāwhiti, Gisborne.

“My older brother had hockey training on Tuesday and Thursday nights and there just happened to be an umpiring course being run at the same time,” says Church.

“Only having one vehicle back in those days, we all had to come into town from Te Karaka and go home again at the same time, so it was either sit out in the cold and watch him train or go and learn some rules. So I went in with my twin brother and learnt some rules,” she says.

“At the end of it, you had to sit an exam to pass and I got one more mark than him. It was the first time in my life I’d ever beaten him at anything, so I thought I’d see how this goes.”

Church also played hockey back then - and still does, turning out regularly for her local team Paikea in Gisborne. But it was a lack of opportunity that accelerated her development as an umpire.

“When I was 15, there was no rep team for me to play in, being from Gisborne and it being such a small place,” she says. “But I still wanted to be involved. The rep team below me, the U13s, needed to take an umpire away and I was asked if I wanted to go.

“It seemed like a great way of staying in touch with the game and still going away to tournaments, so I jumped at the chance. That was how I got into the pathway of New Zealand hockey officiating.”

Church’s umpiring performances saw her progress through the age grades. Normally girls would umpire girls tournaments and boys would umpire boys tournaments, but being from a small town, she was able to get a special dispensation to umpire boys.

Amber Church umpiring the men's North v South match this year. Photo: BW Media.

When she started studying at Massey University in Palmerston North, Church worked out there was an opportunity for her to take her umpiring further than she had originally thought, but it wasn’t easy.

“Balancing full time study in Palmy and time off for a hockey umpire was tough, so I decided to go extramural with my study and move back home to Gisborne - and the rest is history. I jumped in and did what I could, and it’s taken me all over the world,” she says.

Church’s studies saw her enter teaching. She started at Te Hapara School in Gisborne where she worked for 10 years and during that time, she was presented with her first international opportunity.

“I was really fortunate my boss at the time, Kaye Griffin, was really supportive. She thought it was pretty exciting and pretty unique to have a hockey umpire on the staff,” says Church.

Since 2018, Church has been working at Gisborne Intermediate. As well as being a classroom teacher, she’s on their leadership team and is the health curriculum leader. The school - along with her partner Craig Christophers, a deputy principal at Lytton High School - are key to helping her continue to pursue her umpiring career.

“I’m really lucky to have a big support network around me that pick up the slack in other areas when I’m away,” says Church. “That really helps me to go away and focus on what it is that I’m doing.

“Not only do I work hard for them [the school], they work hard for me as well. It’s pretty cool to be able to teach children and then go off and experience something like the Commonwealth Games and come back and talk to them about my first-hand experiences of what they’ve seen on TV,” she says.

“They also get to see some of these people involved in these games are just your everyday people, and it’s hard work and a bit of perseverance and your support network around you that make it happen.”

Amber Church grew up going Māori hockey tournaments and still has strong connections. Photo: Hockey NZ

Although hockey has taken Church to all corners of the world, the sport back home remains a passion. Her father is Māori – their iwi is Te Aitanga-a-Māhaki - and she has strong connections with Māori hockey. She has just been named umpire/referee of the year at the 2022 Māori Sports Awards.

“Something I wholeheartedly believe in is the Māori whakataukī  ‘Ehara taku toa i te toa takitahi, engari he toa takitini’. My success is not the work of only myself, but the work of many - my whanau, friends and our community are a massive part of it,” says Church.

“I’ve always identified really strongly with Māori. I grew up going to Māori tournaments. I’m really passionate about people understanding that there’s a different pathway in sport and that anyone can do it.

“There’s a huge population of Māori in Gisborne who play hockey and so it’s cool to see the fact that not only do I identify as Māori, but they’re also really proud of me and what I do as well.”

Umpiring local hockey is important to her, too.

“All hockey is good hockey and it’s important for the locals to see I’m really passionate about what we have here. Every hockey game is really important to different people for different reasons,” Church says.

With so many international games behind her, Church has been involved in numerous major tournaments, including the last two Olympic Games.

“You can never go past an Olympic Games. It’s incredibly special,” says Church.

Amber Church on being named FIH female umpire of the year.

The 2016 Rio Games held extra significance for Church. She obtained her international badge in 2010 in Rio de Janeiro and so being appointed to the Olympic Games there represented a full circle for her.

“The location of the hockey pitch was built on top of where my first international tournament was and you could see how the community had really changed and developed to support those Olympic Games,” she says.

Where Rio provided familiar surroundings, last year’s Olympics in Tokyo presented uncertainty for all involved, including questions as to whether or not they would even take place.

“It was quite difficult to prepare for something that may not happen, but with umpiring, there’s so many things that you can’t control,” Church says. “So I just went there with the approach of control what I can control and forget what I can’t.

“I could control how mentally and physically prepared I was, so I put my focus and attention into preparing myself,” she says.

Apart from the major tournaments, some of Church’s career highlights are the people who she’s met across the world along the way.

But wherever those people are from, home is where her heart is and she’s proud that a young woman from Gisborne has been able to progress through domestic and international pathways and scale the heights of her sport.

“People see that location is not necessarily a barrier. If you want it bad enough, and you’ve got the drive and support, anything is possible.”

Dibb wings her way to a world trampoline title

In lockdown, one of our star trampolinists couldn't train so took up top-level rugby - but she came back to land herself a world title

One week before becoming a world trampoline champion, Bronwyn Dibb was streaming the Black Ferns’ World Cup triumph in between training bounces in Bulgaria. 

She loves the game so much, Dibb dreams of adding a rugby world champion's title to her historic world trampoline gold medal.

The 25-year-old from Christchurch took out the double mini trampoline event in Sofia last week, and soon will trade the leotard for her rugby boots - beginning the rugby pre-season in a few weeks. 

The multi-talented athlete manages to balance trampolining, rugby and a part-time job and after some setbacks during lockdown, is on top of the world for the first time. 

Even with her first world title, Dibb is still working towards a goal of becoming a Black Fern. 

“The plan is to keep doing both for as long as I can until I guess I have to make that tough decision,” says Dibb, who played for national champions Canterbury in last season’s Farah Palmer Cup. 

Dibb playing for Canterbury in the 2021 Farah Palmer Cup. Photo: Getty Images

Dibb was the first New Zealander in 24 years to win a double mini world trampoline title, and a day later, her team-mate Olympic bronze medallist Dylan Schmidt also claimed gold in the men’s trampoline.

Dibb was feeling confident coming into the world champs, with a silver at the World Games in July. 

“I was feeling really good, I had a really good build up, training had been going well,” she says. 

The top eight competitors make the final, and Dibb’s first pass had an 8.4 difficulty score - 0.1 off the women’s difficulty world record for the double mini. 

“I did a full-in half-out straight, which is a double somersault with a full twist in the first somersault and a half twist in the second somersault into a full full straight, which is a full twist in the first somersault and a full twist in the second somersault,” she describes. 

Dibb scored a 27.2, the highest score of the competition, moving her into the top four who then compete in a second pass, which has to be different from their first. 

“I did a full-in half-out pike in a different position into a back full which is a double back straight with a full twist in the last somersault,” says Dibb. 

“The pass didn’t quite go as well as I hoped, so only ended up scoring a 24.9. 'Cause I was the first one up, we just sat back and watched and hoped it was enough, and it ended up being enough, which was awesome.” 

She was 0.1 points clear of the USA’s Tristan van Natta, with Cheyanna Robinson from Australia collecting bronze. 

“I’ve been so close over the last few years, I’ve got a few silvers and have been in and around that top four so to finally come away with a gold, it was just a dream come true,” Dibb says. Her silver at the world championships in 2019 was New Zealand's first medal in 21 years. 

“All the hard work, sacrifices, time and effort that not only me, but my parents and my coaches and everyone else that has taken part on my journey, all that was worth it in the end.” 

Dibb spots her landing on the way to her gold medal. Photo: International Gymnastics Federation

Dibb has been in gymnastics since she was three, when her family moved from South Africa to New Zealand. She started trampolining when she was nine, and immediately loved it. 

“It’s just so much fun, every kid loves jumping on the trampoline and then learning how to do all the somersaults and all that. Now I’m competing, just that adrenaline and feeling of flying through the air is really cool,” she says. 

Being with the same coaches since she was nine, her commitment to the trampoline meant other sports were out of the question while she was competing. 

“I’ve always loved rugby and always wanted to play but obviously I didn’t because I didn’t want to risk getting injured for trampolining,” Dibb says. 

During New Zealand’s Covid lockdowns, Dibb found it especially difficult to train for her specialty event - “you don’t really have one of those trampolines in your backyard” - she jokes. 

As the rest of the world started to open up, Dibb was still stuck at home, struggling for an MIQ space while her rivals from other countries were competing. 

“That was tough, but it only makes you stronger, so it’s good to be through the other side of it,” she says. 

“But then during lockdown when we couldn’t travel for trampolining, I was like I’m going to give rugby a go because I had a few friends who were playing, and then gave it a go, loved it.” 

Dibb's first pass at the world championships finals was the highest score of the competition. Photo: International Gymnastics Federation

Dibb made the Canterbury Farah Palmer Cup team as a winger, and says her strength and speed from trampolining help with rugby, as well as knowing how to perform under pressure. 

“I didn’t expect to progress that fast but they’re all such lovely girls, the environment’s really cool, all the coaching staff are really supportive and knew I was really new to the sport, but have really helped me and guided me along the way so it’s been really good.” 

She hopes to continue both sports for as long as possible, while also working part-time at the North Canterbury Sports and Rec Trust, visiting primary schools to do sports coaching and teach cycle safety. 

Dibb has been with the same coaches since she was nine - Nigel and Vicki Humphreys and John Howe, currently at Ice Trampoline and Gymnastics North Canterbury. 

Nigel Humphreys coached New Zealand’s last double mini world champ - Kylie Walker, who won gold in 1998, one year after Dibb was born. 

While Dibb hasn’t met Walker, who now lives in Wales, she’s spoken to her a few times and hopes to meet our other history-making athlete. 

Walker won double mini gold at the 1992, 1994 and 1998 world championships, and won 10 senior world championship medals in her career. 

Dibb (bottom row, second from right) and the New Zealand team at the trampoline world championships. 
 

New Zealand had never had two individual gold medallists at a world champs, so with Tokyo bronze medallist Dylan Schmidt winning the individual men’s trampoline event, the Kiwis made history. 

“It was really cool, our whole New Zealand team did so well, I don’t think we could have asked for better results,” Dibb says, who also competed in the synchronised trampoline competition with Madaline Davidson. 

“We had five athletes go to the world championships and we made four world championship finals, which is just incredible. And having me and Dylan both become a world champion is pretty special.” 

Rowing champion leading mum revolution

Our top women rowers have, until now, been lost to the sport once they start a family. But Olympic silver medallist Lucy Spoors is leading a revolution in a rigid system to ensure athlete mums can return to the boat. Suzanne McFadden writes.

Lucy Spoors remembers her worst days out on Lake Karapiro; the “miserable sessions” as they've come to be known.

On Wednesdays and Saturdays, New Zealand’s elite rowers do ‘squad pieces’ – where everyone in the squad races each other. Competitive as hell. Sapping at the best of times. 

But even worse when you have severe morning sickness. 

“We put ourselves in a position where we’re only going out to win,” Olympic eights silver medallist Spoors says. “But I got on the water already feeling sick.

“I remember regretting every time I stopped in between the pieces – that’s when the nausea and vomiting hit me like a ton of bricks. It was like being out at sea.”

Spoors was in the second trimester of her pregnancy, and determined to race and train as long as she physically could – with the guidance, of course, of Rowing NZ’s performance support team. But the all-day morning sickness was really testing her resolve – vomiting up to 10 times a day well into her pregnancy. 

“In between pieces, I was out there swallowing down vomit, and trying to figure out what I could eat to hold down for the next race,” the former world champion says.

“Normally on the water I have gels, but they weren’t an option. One day I took out a full packet of digestive biscuits and white bread peanut butter sandwiches. There was lots of experimenting.”

Spoors is now in the final weeks of her pregnancy, and ready for her son to arrive any day. “I’m looking forward to being on the other side,” she laughs.

On the “other side”, she hopes to be both a mum and a competitive rower, with the 2024 Paris Olympics her goal. That will, obviously, all depend on what motherhood brings.

Rowing NZ call Spoors a trailblazer – their first elite athlete to continue training and racing during her pregnancy. And the sport hopes she won’t be the last.

Friends and boat-mates Emma Twigg (left) and Lucy Spoors will soon have even more in common. Photo: @artofrowing.nz

They realise the importance of keeping women at the peak of their rowing careers still involved in the sport if they decide to have a family. And they want to support those rowers on either side of their pregnancy, especially as they prepare to get back out on the water.

Caroline MacManus, an exercise physiologist who’s now Rowing NZ’s head of athletic performance, says change is welcome in a system that’s been “rigid for so long”.

“While it’s been successful, it doesn’t mean it can’t be done another way. That we can’t embrace mothers at the same time,” she says.

“It’s a very centralised programme that's never catered for anything outside the centralised model. But we’re in a world now where we have to look at change.

“Lucy had no desire to stop, so why stop? I do think we’ve probably lost some women who’ve left the programme at the peak of their physical and mental racing condition, because it wasn’t an option for them. So it’s an exciting time to change that.”

MacManus has worked closely with Spoors throughout her pregnancy, helping her get to Europe back in June and row at the Henley Royal Regatta when she was 17 weeks pregnant.

She was then ready to race in the World Cup in Lucerne, in the double scull with Olympic single sculls champion Emma Twigg. But it was Twigg who was unable to row, coming down with Covid.  

Working with Rowing NZ’s health lead, Dr Stu Armstrong, nutritionist Christel Dunshea-Mooij, strength and conditioning specialist Caleb Dobbs and MacManus, Spoors was able to set her own pace for training once she returned home.  

“It’s something we always came back to, as we said to Lucy ‘Remember what your body has always been used to’.  It makes most of it safe, even the racing,” she says.

Emma Twigg (right) has been a huge help to Lucy Spoors during her pregnancy. Photo: supplied. 

But MacManus admits she doesn’t know how Spoors kept going at times when the nausea and vomiting left her drained. 

“But you had the goal of the World Cups so you got out there,” MacManus says to Spoors during a video call. “But you’ve really had some miserable sessions out on the water.”

Looking back, Spoors also wonders how she managed it. “How did I put myself through that many hours a week in that state?” she says. “But at the time I was excited to be out there. I was like ‘This is so cool I have an opportunity to keep being me, and keep doing what I love with all my team-mates’.

***

Renowned for being fiercely competitive, Spoors was part of the New Zealand women’s eight who made history at the world championships in 2019, winning gold for the first time. At the Tokyo Olympics, she and her younger sister Phoebe were in the eights squad who won silver.

Straight after those Games, Lucy Spoors and her partner, Olympic men’s coxless pair rower Brook Robertson, decided to start a family. She wanted to be pregnant as soon as possible so she could have “a longer runway leading into Paris”.

She had an early miscarriage and then took longer to become pregnant again. “As athletes we’re used to asking our body to do something and it responding,” Spoors says.

“Initially I made two decisions. I didn’t want to end my rowing career, I didn’t feel I was done with rowing. I also didn’t want to be in a position whereas a woman I was making a choice to step away from my sport to start a family.

“The second decision was to be active through my pregnancy, but it wasn’t till I met with the doctor that I realised there was still a possibility of racing. It surprised me.”

She was around eight weeks pregnant when she sat down with Dr Stu Armstrong to figure out whether her training would decrease or continue towards the World Cup then 10 weeks away.

“He just said to me ‘Do you want to go?’ And of course I was like ‘If I can, yes’,” Spoors says.

“It was less adjustment in training than I thought. Everything was very safe. Probably most of the adjustment came because I was vomiting.”  She worked on improving her pelvic floor strength and avoided weight-bearing exercises on her back. 

Lucy Spoors at 18 weeks pregnant rowing in Switzerland

Spoors then hopped in a double scull with Twigg – who was also one of her best friends, and a new mum to son, Thomas, with her wife, Charlotte. She admits they talked a lot about pregnancy while they were training.

“I was so excited to be going on tour with Emma. I can’t imagine having done it without her – the support of a best friend and a new mum. It would have been very different without her there,” Spoors says.

***

Before the Tokyo Olympics, Rowing NZ’s general manager of performance, Judith Hamilton, took MacManus aside and said: “We really need to support women who want to start a family”.

“There’s a real organisational desire to make this work,” says MacManus. “To make touring easy with a family. That’s why Lucy is a trailblazer.”   

MacManus worked with athlete mums while she was the performance scientist for Ireland’s national rowing team, but says she's always learning.

“I’ve worked with athletes who have had multiple babies in Ireland, but everyone is different. That’s the hard part for athletes too. You can’t plan too far ahead because things might change.

“The birth might change your return. Then there’s breastfeeding, and sleep.  It’s very different for each woman and we have to respond to the individual athlete.

“We have to figure out how much training is enough, while allowing a lifestyle to embrace being a parent as well. It’s doable, and it’s going to be an education – not just for us, but for the coaches as well."

All of Rowing NZ's elite coaches are men, and while most are parents, it's still a big learning curve for them, MacManus says: "Especially in a programme where it’s never been the norm, or even an opportunity. Though we have plenty of male parents.” Sharing what she’s learning through the last eight months with the coaches is something Spoors is enjoying.

Lucy Spoors (centre) training with the women's eight before the Tokyo Olympics. Photo: @artofrowing.nz

At 29 weeks, Spoors was still suffering from nausea, so she cut back her plan of training 10-12 hours a week on the rowing erg or stationary bike and switched to walking.

“We set 10-12 hours as a limit, not a target,” MacManus says. “Because there was no expectation of Lucy to be training. It’s her motivation to be active and have a health pregnancy. And your body is going to tell you how much you can do.”

Spoors has a return to fitness plan for the first three months after the birth of her baby boy. 

“She may be ready earlier, or we might push it out a bit,” says MacManus. “The reassurance is that you can do that and get to a point in a few months of being internationally world class again.

“The first six weeks are all about bonding with your baby, and the generic advice is not to train then - a lot of that’s around the pelvic floor. We need to get a sign-off from specialists and then you can add to it bit by bit.

“I worked with an athlete in Ireland who was training three weeks after her fourth child because the Olympics weren’t far away. And she was able to do it.”

***

Spoors isn’t the only Olympic rowing medallist who's considering a return to the top of the sport with a baby in tow. Brooke Donoghue (now Francis, who won silver in the double scull in Tokyo) had daughter, Keira, 10 weeks ago. She and Spoors chat regularly.

“Everyone wants Brooke back into the programme, but we also want to give new mums the space to enjoy their time, and adjust to such a life-changing event,” MacManus says.

Brooke Donoghue (left) and Hannah Osborne after winning silver at the Tokyo Olympics. Photo: supplied. 

Spoors is also part of a Facebook group with other top Kiwi athletes who’ve recently had babies. “There’s heaps of information sharing, and no shortage of people to call on,” Spoors says. “It’s great to talk to women from other sports - the netballers do it so well.”

With an aim to be back racing in time for the rowing world championships in Belgrade next September, Spoors isn’t afraid of being a test case for both pregnant rowers and competitive mums. “It’s why I’ve been open about. We’re a sport where there’s room to move in this space. I’ve been trying to share so the younger generation can see it’s a possibility,” she says.

“I hope others will. The programme is big now, and women are coming in at a really young age. It took me 10 years of being in this high performance system to get to an Olympics. The reality is people are peaking around 30 years old.

“I don’t want anyone to feel like they’re making a sacrifice - whether it’s family or rowing.”

She’s already had younger rowers ask her questions about having trouble conceiving. “It’s been important for me to answer honestly because one in four women will suffer a miscarriage and that’s so many women in this programme," she says. 

“I don’t want to just show them the good bits. You know, take a photo with the bump and say it’s all going well. Because the reality is, it’s been much harder, and they’ve seen me feeling awfully sick.”

The Best in Black Awards

After a fantastic year for the world champion Black Ferns, and one that finished with six consecutive wins and a draw for the All Blacks, Jim Kayes looks at who performed the best in black.

Black Ferns Top 5

Ruahei Demant

Demant is my MVP for the Black Ferns. And that was backed up yesterday when she won the top award at the World Rugby Awards in Monaco, ahead of a tough field that included Portia Woodman and her record-breaking try scoring feats.

Cool, calm, collected and classy, the Black Ferns co-captain was all of that and more as she led her team to their sixth World Cup title. She improved as the tournament unfolded, adding a kick-pass element to her game and showing some superb passing skills. She's just signed up for another Super Rugby Aupiki season with the Blues.

Wayne Smith, named world coach of the year for his efforts with the Black Ferns, says Demant is more than just a great rugby player.

“She’s one of the best leaders I’ve ever had in a team; she’s led this team phenomenally,” he says. “She’s played a phenomenal brand of rugby. She’s been consistently the best player on the field and I give her all the credit. She’s been outstanding.”

It is a double burden when you’re captain and the main driver of the team, but Demant handled both superbly. Given time, she has the ability and mana to become one of the Black Ferns’ greatest players.

Ruby Tui receives a special, unexpected award at the World Rugby Awards on Monday.

Ruby Tui

Seriously, what can’t this woman do? She’s written a best-selling book, won a World Cup, given her medal away, got another one as a replacement, and been named World Rugby’s breakthrough player of the year.

It seems odd that someone with such a storied sevens career could win such an award. I mean, Tui has an Olympic gold medal and a World Cup sevens gold medal. She’d been a sevens specialist till this year when she opted out of that programme and focused fully on XVs.

And it worked. She was superb on the field for the Black Ferns with her high work rate, a defensive attitude that belies her small stature, and a nose for the try line.

Off the field, she is just sensational. The public can’t get enough of her and rugby needs more characters like Tui. She’s not been named back in the Chiefs Manawa Super Rugby Aupiki squad so is there a question about her playing career?

Sarah Hirini

What a year for the openside flanker who captained the Black Fern Sevens to bronze at the Commonwealth Games and silver at the Sevens World Cup, then capped it with a superb RWC at home.

Hirini is everything you want in an openside. She has a huge work rate, is sound on defence, strong over the ball and an option in the lineout. She is also calm under pressure and the perfect pack leader for Demant to rely on. Hirini will focus on sevens again next year.

The ever-beaming Stacey Fluhler dots down against France at the RWC2021. Photo: Hagen Hopkins/World Rugby

Stacey Fluhler

Her stunning try in the final capped an outstanding tournament. She has so much pace, great vision and the confidence to attack on the outside, as she showed in the final. The fans love her and that beaming smile shows how much she enjoys playing. Together with Theresa Fitzpatrick, Fluhler was part of a midfield combination that must rank as one of the best New Zealand has produced.

Theresa Fitzpatrick/Portia Woodman

It is easy to ignore Fitzpatrick in a backline glittering with sevens stars, but she was the reason the likes of Fluhler, Woodman and Tui got to shine. Strong defensively and with the ball, her astute play and good passing opened up the defences and the Black Ferns attack. She was crucial to everything they did.

This is a mild cop-out, but Woodman has to be included in a top five so I’ve bracketed her with Fitzpatrick. She is a classy wing whose seven tries took her World Cup tally to 20 - more than any other player, male or female. And yes, that includes Jonah Lomu!

Both Fitzpatrick and Woodman were named in the World Rugby women’s XVs Dream Team of the Year, along with Demant and Tui.

Portia Woodman showing the skills that make her the top tryscorer in RWC history. Photo: Fiona Goodall/World Rugby

The All Blacks

Ardie Savea

How on earth was he not among the finalists for World Rugby’s men's player of the year? The man has been immense for the All Blacks, a standout player in victory and defeat.

He has a tremendous work rate and phenomenal leg drive that makes him incredibly tough to stop. Though many still see Savea as an openside, he really has made No.8 his home and with Dalton Papali’i playing well at seven, there’s no need for him to shift.

Samisoni Taukei'aho

The human wrecking ball. Taukei’aho can sniff out a try, has an accurate throw to the lineout and is sound on defence. But it’s what he does with the ball that stands out. The bloke is punishing.

Taukei’aho has played in 12 of the 13 tests this year and started in eight, and it’s mystifying why All Blacks coach Ian Foster doesn’t want his impact from the opening minute. Along with Savea, Taukei’aho is key to the All Blacks’ hopes next year as together they get the team on the front foot.

Samisoni Taukei'aho on his way to scoring a try for the All Blacks against the Wallabies. Photo: Getty Images.

Scott Barrett

It was a tough call between Scott and Jordie Barrett here, but Scott has been consistently good while Jordie has had only a few chances at second five (more on him soon). In a pack that includes Sam Whitelock and Brodie Retallick, Scott Barrett has established himself as vital to the All Blacks to the point where room is made for him at blindside if the other two start at lock.

He has a big engine that helps him play like a loose forward even when he is at lock. His try saving tackle on Scotland fullback Stuart Hogg was a stand-out moment in a season that also saw much better discipline from Barrett.

Jordie Barrett

Barrett started in all but the Japan test and has been subbed only once, and though he has worn No.15 most of the time, it’s clear now that he’s the All Blacks best option at second five. Surely there is now no debate about that.

He is strong, fast, has a great kicking game, is an excellent defender and his height helps with the off-load in tackles, and fielding kick-passes for tries. When teamed with Rieko Ioane, the All Blacks have a midfield that is big, strong and fast. They are not yet of the Ma’a Nonu-Conrad Smith standard, but it also took those two time to find their groove. At least we now know that Barrett is a 12 - surely.

Retallick and Whitelock are now the world's most capped locking pair with 64 tests together.

Sam Whitelock

This was a tough call. Especially as Papali’i has made the most of his late season games and Ioane has combined well with Barrett in the midfield. But Whitelock never plays poorly for the All Blacks and has captained them astutely on their November series and may do again next year now Papali’i is a genuine contender at openside. Whitelock is likely to retire after the World Cup and may go past Richie McCaw’s record of 148 tests (he’s played 143).

His durability is impressive, his discipline excellent, he remains a huge presence around the field and in the lineout, and his mana within the team is unsurpassed.

* A public event celebrating the Black Ferns’ Rugby World Cup win will be held on Parliament’s lawn on Tuesday, December 13. 

** Jim Kayes writes more on the Black Ferns' incredible success in the December issue of NZ Rugby World magazine.

New head of women's cricket far from Green

In a new role created to help future generations of White Ferns, double international Liz Green wants to ensure cricket continues the upswing of momentum for women's sport in NZ, she tells Merryn Anderson. 

Liz Green's new role at New Zealand Cricket fits her like a glove. 

She's played for both the White Ferns and the Black Sticks, has five years' experience running a sporting organisation, played cricket at the domestic level for 18 years, and she's married to a current White Fern. 

It's all experience that sets her up perfectly for her new job as head of women's high performance at NZ Cricket - a newly-established role to help develop future White Ferns and keep the team competitive. 

“Part of the attraction to the role is building that long-term sustainable success, and putting pathways and programmes in place to make sure that at the top end, with regards to the White Ferns, we’re successful on the world stage,” Green says. 

“That cuts across everything from the strategic development of development programmes and getting coaches into the system, to the support of players - but with the end goal of making sure we’re a competitive team.” 

Green played 48 matches for the White Ferns between 2010 and 2017, and then became the general manager of Cricket Wellington. She also has three caps for the Black Sticks, making her international hockey debut in 2009 at the same time as current White Ferns captain Sophie Devine. 

In 2019, Green (née Perry) married Maddy Green, who made her international debut in 2012 and now has over 120 White Ferns caps. 

Liz (right) and Maddy Green at their wedding in 2019. 

The creation of Green’s new role comes months after NZ Cricket and their players’ association announced a new pay agreement - where women would receive the same match fees as men. 

“It indicates New Zealand Cricket’s continued investment into the women’s game,” Green explains. 

“Certainly for the White Ferns, it means they can be full-time professional athletes…the equality of match payments really does elevate the ability for these players to be full-time professional athletes. 

“The big development further down the line is the investment into the domestic women’s programmes in terms of match payments there and the continuation of contracts as well so players are now getting remunerated for their time and involvement at that amateur domestic level as well.” 

The White Ferns are coming off winning a bronze medal at the Birmingham Commonwealth Games in the T20 format, and they have the T20 World Cup in South Africa in February, as well as the very first U19 edition a month earlier. 

A New Zealand development squad have just arrived in India for matches against Indian and West Indies teams. It's New Zealand's very first women’s development tour. 

“That signals New Zealand Cricket’s intent to invest in programmes and teams and players just below that White Ferns level,” says Green. 

Two contracted White Ferns players will be going on the tour - young wicketkeeper Izzy Gaze and currently uncapped off-spinner Nensi Patel. 

“The opportunity to go to India and play some cricket will be critical for the development of these players to play on different wickets and in different environments and different pressure cookers as well,” Green explains. 

Liz Green (right) played for the Wellington Blaze, and later became general manager of Cricket Wellington. Photo: Getty Images

The White Ferns only have one series at home this summer - three T20s and three ODIs against Bangladesh next month - so the domestic summer is key to preparing players for the World Cup. 

Seven Kiwi cricketers have played in the WBBL (the Australian domestic competition) this year, which leaves plenty of room for other players to make their mark back home. The Hallyburton Johnstone Shield competition started on Saturday, with one month until the start of the Super Smash. 

Green says the development of these players is something she’s passionate about tackling in her role. 

“The investment is great first and foremost, but the investment’s going to fall to the wayside if we don’t have the systems and structures in place," she says.

“The domestic summer is shaping up as a key part for players to really embrace what the master agreement offers them, but also what cricket can do as a network." 

Green played three seasons for Central Districts, before spending 15 seasons at the Wellington Blaze, winning six Super Smash titles and captaining the team for four seasons. 

“We want players to be putting their hands up and really putting their name forward to be selected for higher honours. Now that we’ve got opportunities throughout the pathway for them to do that, I think they should be really excited for what’s in place and what opportunities are in front of them.” 

With more women’s cricketers able to pursue cricket full-time, Green also feels a responsibility to look after their professional athletes. 

“That’s why I put my hand up for this role, to make sure the investment goes to the right places and a development pathway is put in place,” she says. 

“But the big thing for me is the care and support for the players and coaches as well in that transition from an amateur era into a professional era for the White Ferns. And navigating that semi-professional era at the domestic level. 

“For me, the investment’s a starting point but it really is making sure everything sitting in behind that investment is in place and we’re really working towards being a world-class team.” 

Green believes having programmes specifically for women in cricket is very important, but the Black Caps’ recent success is also inspiring for the women’s game. 

“That team and that programme’s had continued success on that world stage and there are a lot of lessons to be learnt from what they’ve done,” she says. 

“But we do need to do things slightly differently in the female space. We don’t quite have that investment at the domestic level in terms of domestic contracts for the female players like they do for the men’s. 

“I think having a slightly different lens being put in front of the women’s game, and rightfully so, is the correct way forward.” 

Liz Green (left) receiving her Black Ferns cap from former NZ Cricket president Debbie Hockley. 

Green and NZ Cricket have been inspired by recent sporting successes, including the Black Ferns and Kiwi Ferns both making their World Cup finals. 

“It’s unavoidable now to consume women’s sport in general and I think people want to consume it, too. It’s really putting pressure back on national  and regional organisations to front up and I think we need to keep the momentum going,” Green says. 

“Having a sold-out Eden Park [for the Rugby World Cup] was testament to the fact we can’t just have women’s sport secondary to the men’s game anymore. It’s hitting us square in the face. 

“We’ve got responsibility as administrators and leaders in the game to make sure we continue that momentum so women’s sport in this country continues with that positive momentum as well.” 

Green has been well supported by NZ Cricket CEO David White and the board, and describes the next few years as “a line in the sand moment for New Zealand Cricket”. 

“They’ve come to the party in terms of making sure there’s a voice for women’s cricket around the table," she says. "New Zealand Cricket are really taking it seriously. 

“That’s why I’m really excited about my role but also for women and girls participating in sport in general. It’s going to be an exciting time coming up. 

“It’s the responsibility of those in the system to make sure that we honour women in sport.” 

From Manurewa to Manchester, Kiwi Ferns go hard

Can the Kiwi Ferns replicate the Black Ferns' World Cup victory this weekend? Trailblazing league and rugby player Karla Matua reckons they can, with the help of her Manurewa Marlins stars, she tells Suzanne McFadden.

In the space of just eight days, New Zealand could have two World Cup women’s champions – first the Black Ferns, then the Kiwi Ferns.

And somewhere in Manurewa before dawn on Sunday, Karla Matua - who has close ties to both teams - will be screaming the house down if the unique double becomes a reality in the ‘Theatre of Dreams’, Old Trafford.

Matua is the proud chair of the Manurewa Marlins Rugby League Club, which has two players in tomorrow morning’s Rugby League World Cup grand final - Krystal Rota captaining the Kiwi Ferns, and Christyl Stowers on the interchange bench.

(A third Marlin, Kararaina Wira-Kohu, injured her calf just as the team were about to leave for England and had to stay at home).

Manurewa Marlins and Kiwi Ferns team-mates, Christyl Stowers carrying Krystal Rota at the home of Manchester United. Photo: Kiwi Ferns/via Facebook.

As the excited Kiwi Ferns prepare for their encounter with Australia’s Jillaroos, Matua knows just what the team is going through, having played in a rugby league World Cup final – for New Zealand Māori against the Kiwi Ferns back in 2003.

But she also has a special link to the Black Ferns. Whangārei-born and a promising netballer, Matua (nee Clay) ended up playing rugby union when she moved to Darwin, and represented Australia in their first rugby test against New Zealand in 1994.

In fact, playing at prop, Matua will always be known as Wallaroo #1 – the first woman to be capped as an Australian rugby player. (She remembers being told off for singing God Defend New Zealand before the game).

The connections don’t end there, either. Matua’s husband, Rusty, is a former Kiwi Ferns coach who’s been at this World Cup coaching the Cook Island Moanas. Their twin nieces, Kere and Tere Matua, played in the side and both scored points in the Moanas’ historic win over France at the tournament.

Rusty’s back home now, and the couple will be up early on Sunday - for the 2.15am kick-off - to cheer on the Kiwi Ferns, especially their Marlins.

“When you watch them all season, and see what they’ve been going through on a day-to-day basis, you can’t be anything but proud,” Matua says. “All the effort and sacrifice they’ve made to get to this stage.

“You’ve got Krystal Rota, whose daughter is unwell, and Christyl Stowers who has rheumatoid arthritis.”

A year ago, Rota wasn’t going to play at this World Cup. Her eight-year-old daughter, Nikayla, has a rare kidney disorder (she received a transplanted kidney from her father when she was a year old) and Rota has been especially vigilant of her daughter’s health during the Covid pandemic.

But now Nikayla will be in the stands at Old Trafford, the home of the Manchester United football team, to watch her mum lead the Kiwi Ferns into another grand final.

Krystal Rota hugs daughter Nikayla at the Rugby League World Cup in England.

Matua says both Rota and Stowers have been incredible role models in the community.

“Krystal is born and bred Manurewa, she’s always lived here and went through school here,” says Matua. “When you pop out at the other end as a product of your community, it’s the stuff that dreams are made of. I can take her anywhere in our community and she understands the girls because she’s lived that life.”

When she looks across the World Cup, Matua counts 15 former or current Marlins who’ve played in either the men’s and women’s championships over the past few weeks. There are Manurewa players in the New Zealand, Samoa, Tonga, Fiji, Cook Islands and French teams.

“I’m really proud of our women but behind them, supporting them, are our men. It’s great that our kids can see these women up there and see a potential pathway for themselves,” Matua says.

She’s confident the Kiwi Ferns can flip the result of their last clash with the Jillaroos in pool play, where they lost 10-8. They just need to bring their “A game”.

“They showed in their semifinal [a 20-18 victory over England) that skill-wise, physically and mentally they’ve got it. They can match the Jillaroos,” she says.  

“They just have to keep their errors down and absorb the pressure of a World Cup grand final game. But I think they’ve got it.”

Kiwi Ferns coach Ricky Henry is on the same page. He reckons the Ferns will have gained an advantage from their tough semifinal, while the Australians (who’ve only conceded eight points – all to New Zealand - at this tournament) had an easy ride in their 82-0 semis victory over Papua New Guinea.

Henry’s side gained a lot of confidence from their narrow loss to the Jillaroos in pool play, and he singled out two areas they’ve been working to improve on.

“The main things for us were our execution in a lot of our attack play. We’ve created enough opportunities – we just haven’t been able to get to polish on completing them,” Henry says.

“From a defensive point of view, a lot of those early carries out of our own half, Australia really pinned us in and made us work to get out of our own end.

“We’re going to have to be really good this week to get a win over Australia.”

Karla Matua (crouching) playing rugby union for Counties Manukau Heat in the NPC in 2000. Photo: Getty Images. 

Matua says Rota is a “beautiful leader”, but she’s been impressed with the number of Kiwi Ferns who’ve stepped up to help lead at this World Cup, especially those who’ve played across the Tasman in the NRLW.

“Ten years ago, you would have become a Kiwi Fern straight from your club; that was the pathway. But it’s expanded and the girls are becoming better equipped from being in a professional environment,” she says.

“You have 20-year-old Mya Hill-Moana, who’s a born leader, but traditionally she would have had to wait her time. 

“There’s nothing more powerful than bringing these women together on a journey – calling on their superpowers in their collective, united waka. Their confidence has grown every day they’re together.”

But Matua knows the Kiwi Ferns’ success on this world stage will come at a cost to community rugby league back at home.

“As the profile of our women is lifted, players are already been approached to play in Australia in the NRLW. It’s inevitable we’re going to lose quality players from the New Zealand rugby league system,” she says.

“That won’t happen to rugby. But for league, our girls will have to go offshore which means losing our leaders and role models for our girls. It’s been happening the last couple of years, but after this league World Cup, even more will be siphoned off.

“Girls rugby league in Auckland is amazing. We are a huge girls’ club, right through the age groups. The wonderful thing is they always recognise their clubs, they never disconnect from their roots.”

The programme for the first Black Ferns v Wallaroos in 1994 featuring Karla Matua (nee Clay). Photo: supplied. 

Matua has witnessed first-hand how far rugby league has come in the past three decades. After playing in the 2003 World Cup final – on the receiving end of a 58-0 drubbing from the Kiwi Ferns – she moved into helping run the women’s game in New Zealand. She worked with Christine Panapa, who was the president of NZ Women’s Rugby League, fighting to become an affiliate of NZ Rugby League.

“For 10 to 15 years, the Kiwi Ferns team was driven by a group of women,” she says. “A group of volunteers with no money, and no resources from a national body. We couldn’t even get a set of jerseys for them; we had to fundraise for them to play overseas, through raffle tickets and art sales.

“But we kept women’s rugby league afloat. The progression to today has been amazing.”

Rugby still holds a special place in Matua’s heart. She played for both the Auckland Storm and the Counties Manukau Heat, and was with the Manurewa Rugby Club for 15 years.

“I’d play rugby on Saturday and league on Sunday. I was a hybrid,” she laughs.

She’s especially passionate about Māori rugby – sitting on the board of Te Hiku o Te Ika Māori Rugby Council, covering the northern region.

She went to every Black Ferns game during the World Cup in New Zealand: “They did us so proud."   The Kiwi Ferns had a 'watch party' in their team room last Saturday to see the Black Ferns beat England to successfully defend their World Cup title. 

“The Kiwi Ferns will absolutely take strength from the Black Ferns’ victory, and I think Australia will be aware of that influence. But they will be feeding of the success of their men [who play Samoa in the grand final Sunday morning]," Matua says.

“Two world champion teams in a week. Wouldn’t that be unbelievable? Especially for female sport in traditionally male codes.”

* The Women’s Rugby League World Cup grand final between New Zealand vs Australia kicks off at 2.15am on Sunday, live on Spark Sport. The men's final, Australia vs Samoa, starts at 5am.

Are we ready to be brave?

WATCH: Outstanding young Kiwi leader Arizona Leger challenges her generation globally to be brave and make change for the future of women in sport.

As we reach a monumental era for women in sport, the world's eyes are trained on New Zealand and the future leaders of sport in our country.

And one passionate and ingenious young woman from Aotearoa is ready for the challenge.

Arizona Leger (Te Rarawa and Whakatōhea) was the final keynote speaker at the IWG Women & Sport world conference in Auckland this week, and spoke of the inspiration she takes from her ancestors, and the importance of having more indigenous women sitting at the table.

“Even when my voice shakes and nobody speaks, looks or sounds like me, take that as a sign that you need to be there,” she shared.

Leger, 26, is a photographer, a director on the Counties Manukau Rugby Union board and was a content and communications specialist at the Rugby World Cup 2021.

Arizona Leger (centre) chats with IWG Women & Sport conference participants. Photo: Suzanne McFadden

“It’s time to be brave," she said on the fourth and final day of the conference yesterday. "We are the people we have been waiting for. We are the people that our ancestors have been waiting for.

"And better yet, we get the opportunity to challenge ourselves to be the people that enable our young people to drive change, and understand how our privileges can be used to manoeuvre and create space for those whom the systems were designed to restrict, silence and erase.

"The biggest move we can make is resource the next generation, ask them how we can help, and then move out of the way as they unleash their potential."

Watch Leger’s presentation above to hear about her work to make spaces more welcoming for indigenous women, and how to welcome the next generation of women in sport.

Women grab 1 in 4 sports headlines

Big events have helped boost coverage of women's sport in New Zealand media to an all-time high of 25 percent, but can that be maintained? Suzanne McFadden asks.

For the first time, one in four stories across sports media in New Zealand are now about female athletes and issues involving women’s sport.

It's the latest leap in women's coverage that a decade ago, had languished at 11 percent. But women in sport here and globally say the challenge still remains to achieve equal coverage - and the issue of TV scheduling (like we witnessed during the Rugby World Cup) remains one of the biggest hurdles for women’s sport.

The new update from the Sport NZ-Isentia study, part of the government’s women and girls in sport and active recreation strategy, shows women’s sport coverage has risen to 25 percent in the six months from January to June this year.

In the past 18 months, the percentage of women’s sports coverage has surged by 10 percent – growing from 15 percent in December 2020, to 21 percent at the end of last year.  

Media content has been elevated by big events on New Zealand’s sporting calendar in the first half of this year – the Cricket World Cup at home, and the Winter Olympic and Paralympic Games in Beijing, where Zoi Sadowski-Synnott had an historic haul of gold and silver medals.

Phil Clark, who leads the ongoing study for Sport NZ, says a leap of four percent in the last six months is “extremely encouraging” and much stronger growth than had been expected.

“It reflects a lot of great work across the sector from sports and media. I think we have more to come in the second half of the year, too,” he says.

The next six months of statistics will include New Zealand’s coverage of the Black Ferns’ triumph at a home Rugby World Cup over the past six weeks, and the Commonwealth Games in Birmingham, where Kiwi women won 23 medals of 49, and seven were gold.

“We’ve seen how strongly New Zealand media got behind the Rugby World Cup, so all indications are that it will continue on an impressive and exciting trajectory,” Clark says.

Michelle Hooper, fresh from her role as tournament director of the Rugby World Cup 2021, was impressed with the media coverage the tournament garnered.  

“In the context of the rest of the world being at around 4.5 percent, and New Zealand now at 25 percent, I think that’s showing incredible growth. We’ve been through a period of amazing events and I think the challenge is still to just keep driving it up," she says.

“I think we can be better… and we can be the best in the world.”

It's difficult to compare where New Zealand ranks in global terms, with few nations carrying out similar media studies in recent years. But we're often dubbed 'world leading'.

At the IWG Women & Sport world conference in Auckland this week, we asked women heavily involved in sport what they thought of the latest media figure. 

South Africa's golden woman of sports administration, Muditambi Ravele. Photo: Suzanne McFadden.

Muditambi Ravele, from the South African Women and Sport Foundation, says women's sports coverage in her country is “still very low”, but hosting two major women’s World Cup events next year brings the opportunity for more media attention.

“We are now negotiating with our broadcasters for pay TV to have more women’s sports channels and also have a woman’s magazine programme,” she says. “We’ve achieved a lot with our broadcaster, so that now during a football game we can have a full team of women producing the coverage,” she says.  

“Next year when we have the T20 Cricket World Cup and the Netball World Cup, they have promised us they’ll bring in a women’s team to cover that.  It’s not enough [coverage yet]; we still have to see more women on television.”

But Ravele, regarded as the “golden woman of sports administration” in South Africa, is surprised by New Zealand’s landmark 25 percent. “I thought it would be more than that,” she says.

“Your netball team is doing quite well, and your rugby team did very well. I wish that from now onwards we will see those numbers improving,” she says.

Free-to-air, 1.2 million Kiwis watched the Black Ferns beat England in the RWC21 final last weekend. Photo: Hagen Hopkins/World Rugby

Through a young lens, Troy Han - a founder of the NXT Gen Network, young professionals interested in the sports sector in Aotearoa – sees this increase as just the beginning.

“I think we can exceed the 25 percent of media coverage currently in New Zealand because we have such amazing young women coming through the industry who are super passionate about women’s sport, and who are going to ensure we get as much coverage for the women’s game as possible,” she says.

“[Women’s coverage] definitely can’t be centred around our major events. We need to do more to make sure we profile and tell the stories of our amazing young athletes.”

Former sports journalist now media coverage researcher Professor Toni Bruce says it’s almost unbelievable how quickly the increase in coverage has come over the last few years.

“It shows the importance of working with media, talking to them, showing what they can do. The investment the government has put into having this annual media survey is the reason, in large part, we’re getting these changes,” she says.

“There’s something to be said about the blips you get from major events like the women’s Cricket World Cup and the Winter Olympics and Paralympics, but you don’t get to 25 percent with just blips. They generate excitement, but there’s got to be something deeper going on.”

Professor Sarah Leberman, co-chair of Women in Sport Aotearoa, says she wants to see a day when improving coverage of women’s sport become normalised not celebrated.

“For me the key thing is when we get past the next World Cup [the FIFA Women’s World Cup next year], whether that momentum and that traction keeps going. [Coverage] always goes up during the Olympics, the Commonwealth Games and big events, but for me it’s about normalising this,” she says.

Kiwi sports photographer Alisha Lovrich has shot at Olympics and World Cups. Photo: supplied. 

Speakers at this week’s women and sport conference have outlined the major barriers they see for women’s sport becoming more visible.

Former Olympic media operations official, Englishman Anthony Edgar, says a lack of women working in sports media is one of the main hurdles. Women represent only 12 to 20 percent of the press accreditations allocated at major sports events like the Olympics and World Cups.

“I know cases of major events where top 10 countries have gone to the Olympic Games without one member of the written press as a woman and without one photographer who’s a woman,” Edgar says.  

“If 90 percent of the photographers at sports events are male, might it not have a significant impact on how sport is covered? It is something that needs to be addressed.”

China is “by far the most equal” nation in terms of gender equality in sports media, he says: “In part because the West has too much baggage that they’re still taking with them”.

But he believes scheduling has the most significant impact on the visibility of women’s sport. And that was only too evident when the Black Ferns’ quarterfinal at the Rugby World Cup was played at almost the same time as the All Blacks friendly with Japan.

Former Black Fern captain and NZ Rugby Board member Farah Palmer says while NZ Rugby apologised for the oversight, there was a positive that came from it.

“In the [Black Ferns] quarterfinal, there was 673,000 viewers, while the All Blacks only had 439,500,” she says. “That was a nice comparison to show we definitely do have a market for the Black Ferns.”

Free-to-air viewing of the World Cup final last Saturday showed 73 percent of all New Zealanders aged over five watched the game – a record prime-time audience for Three.

“We will try to avoid clashes in the future,” Palmer says. “But there’s definitely a television market for women in sport.”

Former Football Fern now women's sport director Rebecca Sowden says there's also been confusion around where to put women's sport - free-to-air or pay TV, primetime or off-peak, even what position it gets in the news bulletin.

"We recently saw the final of the women's national soccer league in the US moved from an off-peak afternoon slot to an evening peak-time slot. What do you know? It resulted in record viewership of over 900,000 people tuning in. And a massive 71 percent increase in viewership year on year," she says.

Changes are already being made in scheduling at the Olympics, which will be 50-50 female and male athletes in Paris in 2024.

“Ten years ago, the scheduling at the Olympic Games was significantly biased towards male athletes… especially male medal events,” Edgar says. “Women’s finals were usually in the morning, men’s were in prime-time evenings. Women’s finals often doubled with other sports at exactly the same schedule.”

The International Olympic Committee has been working on ensuring the marquee events are now treated equally. "In Tokyo [2021], the women’s 100m was the last event of the competition, the night before the men’s at exactly the same time," Edgar says. "In Paris 2024, the women’s marathon is going to be held on the final day.”

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