Last weekend on New Zealand’s North Island, Northland battled back from a 10-point half-time deficit to beat Counties Manukau 32-20, recording a statement victory for the team and its coaching staff.
It was Northland’s first win of the current Farah Palmer Cup campaign, following narrow defeats to Waikato and Auckland in rounds one and two. That it came against a team that reached the FPC Premiership semi-finals 11 months ago only made it more impressive.
The result would have pleased head coach Cheryl Smith, who felt her side had let results slip from their grasp in those opening two matches as they faced Premiership opposition for the first time.
Rugby World Cup winner, Smith took charge of Northland ahead of the team’s debut FPC Championship season in 2019 and guided the Whangarei-based team to the play-offs alongside assistant coach, and former Black Ferns team-mate, Susan Dawson.
Developing female coaches
Smith and Dawson are part of a growing contingent of female coaches and team managers working in the FPC.
Two-time Rugby World Cup winner, Mel Bosman is head coach of Tasman, who are currently fifth in the FPC’s South Pool. Meanwhile, World Rugby Hall of Fame inductee, Anna Richards is an assistant coach at Auckland, former Black Ferns captain Melissa Ruscoe and Whitney Hansen are on the coaching staff at Canterbury and Aimee Sutorius, another ex-New Zealand international, is an assistant with Otago.
A further seven FPC sides have female team managers, while former England scrum-half, La Toya Mason is employed as a High Performance Manager at Taranaki.
According to Dawson, who was part of New Zealand’s RWC 2002 winning squad, the FPC is “hugely important for the development of women coaches”.
“As a pathway, it would be a lot more challenging for a woman to aspire to be a men’s Super [Rugby] or Mitre 10 coach than an FPC coach,” she told World Rugby.
“However, it’s only useful if the women are given the opportunity to actually grow into those roles through the grades. If the women aren’t developed to high performance, there won’t be women ready to step into these roles as the best applicant for the position.
“I do see now that there is a big move to develop women coaches, and I am a keen participant!”
Both Dawson and Smith, who in 2005 became the first woman in Northland to coach a senior men’s team, have plenty of knowledge and experience to share with a squad that includes Tyla Nathan-Wong, Victoria Subritzky-Nafatali and Portia Woodman.
Smith sees it as her role to “develop and grow players into leaders and give them the pathway and tools to achieve their goals in life and sport”.
But, she admits that the transference of information has not all been one way. “You aren’t just a coach,” she said.
“You are more of a mentor, you are always learning from players within your group.”
Opportunity to grow the game
Dawson had been out of the game for 15 years when the opportunity arose to coach a Northland development team in 2018.
She subsequently attended coaching courses and Black Ferns training camps in order to “get as much information on board as I could”. Her approach has also been influenced by the work of author, Simon Sinek.
“I want to create an environment that takes the player as far as they want to go. Whether it be club, FPC or Black Fern,” Dawson explained.
“Development is at the core of how I work. This means giving them the tools they need technically and tactically, and an expectation of high personal standards, all within a psychologically safe and growth culture.
“If we put the work in today to be better than we were yesterday, we will achieve our long-term goals as a union, club and individual. We can then apply this infinite mindset to assist individuals to succeed in whatever they then decide to do in the future.”
Northland will finish their FPC North Pool campaign with matches against North Harbour, Taranaki and Bay of Plenty.
With those matches bringing Smith and Dawson into contact with the likes of Renee Wickliffe, Pia Tapsell and Alena Saili, it is only natural that thoughts will drift towards RWC 2021.
And both Northland coaches are excited about what awaits in less than 12 months’ time. “I can’t wait,” Dawson concluded.
“International teams and Black Ferns all at our doorstep… what an opportunity to grow the game here in NZ! As well as the World Rugby initiative to assign a developing [female] coach to each of the teams for the year – that’s amazing!”