Farah Palmer Cup: New Zealand's women players line up for rugby's return

As the Farah Palmer Cup kicks off next week, we meet some of the stars ready to return to the pitch in the country’s highest level domestic competition.

The last time Black Ferns Sevens captain Sarah Hirini played a competitive match of 15s, she walked away with the Rugby World Cup title.

Since that 2017 RWC final she’s turned her speed and skill to her first love, rugby sevens, picking off a Commonwealth games gold medal and the Rugby World Cup Sevens title in 2018. The Black Ferns Sevens side was also given the kudos they deserved, being named team of the year at New Zealand’s Halberg awards 2018.

Ever humble, Hirini is thrilled to pull on a green and white jersey this Farah Palmer Cup season and play for her home side Manawatu.

“I am really excited to be given an opportunity to go back home and give back to the Manawatu and be able to play alongside a lot of the girls who I started with; it is really special.

“It is massive for us sevens girls to be able to go home and represent our provinces again.”

The 2020 Farah Palmer Cup kicks off on August 22 and is a tournament like no other. While much of the rugby world is still on pause due to the pandemic, this will be the most star-studded line up the competition has ever seen.

Black Ferns Sevens names like Hirini, Stacey Fluhler, Portia Woodman, Michaela Blyde, Tyla Nathan Wong and Ruby Tui will all kit up to play for their provincial home sides. The competition should also gain more media interest than previous years, given it is one of few sport tournaments able to continue through the pandemic.

“It feels awesome. For me to be able to come back to Palmerston North, to be able to play for the green and white jersey, which I never get to do,” says Hirini.

The last time she played for her home province was 2013, and she admits it’ll do her some good to get back to grass roots rugby.

“Just to come back to an amateur environment, see how much the girls love it and how hard they train. They get up for the gym at 6am, they work full time and then train in the evening. It has been a big eye opener to see all the girls do that.

“Every time you see these girls, they are upbeat and ready to train. Sometimes I don’t know how they do it.”

A chance to make your name for 2021

The Black Ferns Sevens captain was disappointed not to get a run at this year’s planned Tokyo Olympics after its postponement; the world stage is always her focus and it will remain so.

“That’s the plan. At the moment I would love to play at the Olympic Games (in 2021) and then go on to play the world cup in New Zealand. That’s why I want to play the 15s, to prove my game in the 15s to the coaches.

“I would definitely put my hand up for that opportunity. To be able to represent our country at home.

“The Olympics is the one thing I focus on every day and hopefully something we get to be a part of next year. I will work as hard as I can to be sevens fit, the Olympics is the main goal and then closely behind that is the rugby world cup.”

Black Ferns Sevens teammate and one of the Unstoppables in World Rugby’s ‘Try and Stop Us’ campaign, Stacey Fluhler (nee Waaka) agrees that a performance during the FPC is crucial to being selected in coach Glen Moores’s Black Ferns squad – she is aiming for her second 15s world cup. Given the border closure remains and could for sometime, women will have less opportunity to play at an international level before the world cup in September 2021.

“He knows we are interested, but whether or not we are good enough.”

Her apprehension for a place in the Black Ferns 15s is warranted, given many of her talented teammates in the sevens squad are likely to be made available. The Olympics is scheduled to run just eight weeks prior to the Rugby World Cup played on New Zealand soil.

“We will jump at the opportunity, the world cup is at home, what better way to play a world cup than in front of your whanau and your home country? If we are able to do it, I am 100 percent there.

“I hold a special place for 15s in my heart because I debuted in the 15s jersey before I got selected for sevens.”

The last time Fluhler played in the Black Ferns 15s jersey was when they lost to France in the 2018 end of year tour. She wants redemption and to back up her first Rugby World Cup 2017 title.

This won’t be her last Rugby World Cup. “I want to go for another one to be honest.”

Reaching a new audience

First thing’s first though: the destructive centre will once again throw on her Waikato jersey, where it all began.

Fluhler had only played one or two matches for Waikato in 2014 before being picked up by the sevens coaches. Six years in a paid professional career with the oval ball and she is now one of the seniors of the squad.

As she admits, she feels like one of the “old girls” in the sevens environment. “I am close to 25 now, so I am one of the seniors now. I feel it when they are eight years younger than me.”

But her teammates keep her young, she says.

“100 percent. I love what they get up to, they keep us on our toes for sure.”

The average age in sevens is a giant contrast to the 15s bracket where newcomer Black Fern Grace Brooker is already 21 and halfback maestro and international phenomenon, Kendra Cocksedge is 31 and hitting her peak.

There is an element of competition between the women who specialise in each form of the game, but overall, the sevens sisters are welcome, says Fluhler.

“They are super welcoming all the time. I know for them when we come into the 15s environment, they are thinking these girls are fast as and fit as, but we are not any higher than them.”

Fluhler has buried her Olympic dream for now and is refocused on the Farah Palmer Cup. She says it is women players’ best opportunity to broaden their audience and prove they have the goods.

“I know some people in New Zealand don’t particularly agree on women’s rugby. So hopefully we can change their minds and play some good rugby and showcase it in New Zealand. We are bloody good at what we do.”

Read more: Flying the flag for women’s rugby: Babalwa Latsha, the first African women’s player to go professional >>

Last updated: Aug 26, 2020 8:25:24 PM
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