Michaela Blyde is enjoying her 10th year as a member of the Black Ferns Sevens squad, but she has good reason to protest that she is “not one of the old girls yet!”
The two-time World Rugby Women’s Sevens Player of the Year made her international debut in October 2013, when she was only 17 years old.
Her HSBC World Rugby Sevens Series bow came four months later in Atlanta, and she has gone on to score 151 tries in 139 matches on the circuit.
In that time, Blyde has been part of five Series-winning squads and has a full set of Rugby World Cup Sevens, Olympic Games and Commonwealth Games gold medals.
However, it was not until 2016, having missed out on selection for the Rio Games, that she became a guaranteed starter for New Zealand. And it is that experience she is now drawing on to help the younger players coming into the set-up.
“Obviously, I've been in the environment since I was a teenager and I've grown myself as a rugby player and as a woman,” Blyde told World Rugby.
“I like to be that middle ground for the young girls to understand what it means and what it takes to play at a World Series tournament because I've been on both sides of the fence where one, I was one of the girls who never got selected, wasn't good enough, you know, had to continuously stay home.
“But then I've also been on the other side of the fence where I have worked my butt off to be in a place where I've been a starting player on the field. So, I know exactly what it feels like to be in both positions.
“And so, I guess with that kind of experience and that knowledge, I like to remind the young girls that just because you make this team it doesn't mean it's a given that you're going to get game time.
“It's about earning and respecting the right to be able to get given that game time in the black jersey and they all know that 100 per cent.
“I'm really excited to see how much this team can grow because we've still got so much more potential in us.”
New Zealand head into their home tournament in Hamilton this weekend tied with Australia at the top of the standings, having amassed 38 points from the opening two tournaments of the 2023 Series.
Reaching the final in both Dubai and Cape Town, and winning the latter, was no mean feat when you consider the squad was without Rugby World Cup 2021 winners Stacey Fluhler, Sarah Hirini, Ruby Tui and Portia Woodman-Wickliffe.
But as Blyde suggested, the players who came in – Tysha Ikenasio, Jorja Miller, Manaia Nuku and Kelsey Teneti each made their Series debut in Dubai – proved they can play at the highest level.
“It's been great having our World Cup girls back and obviously with them winning the World Cup last year, it's an incredible achievement and we're really proud of them. But that was last year,” Blyde said.
“For them to come into our environment and just bring their leadership and their experience, I guess lifts the environment up a little bit more.
“We weren't lacking leadership in Dubai and Cape Town, but we definitely had a lot of young girls who were debuting and had never felt the pressure of playing in a World Series final, and they played absolutely amazing.
“We had every single girl really step up in Dubai and Cape Town and so, now that the 15s girls have come back in, their spots are definitely not secured.
“That's the healthy competition that we want in our environment. We don't want it to be an easy decision for our coach to select the team.
“We want it to be as hard as possible for him so then come our World Series tournaments, we've got our best team on the field playing for the black jersey.
“So, it's great, I love it. I love how our young girls have really stepped up. I love how our leadership are being challenged a little bit more because then the trial games that we have against each other are even more brutal and more ruthless and more physical because we've got girls that obviously don't want to miss out.”
Those trial matches will have intensified in the weeks leading up to Hamilton as every member of Cory Sweeney’s squad vied for selection for their first home Series tournament in three years.
“Obviously, it's been a long time since we have played at home and of course it's obviously our favourite tournament of the season, to be able to play in front of our family and friends,” Blyde said.
“This time it's going to be a little bit of a different feeling with it being our last time playing at home. So, we want to be able to definitely put on a show for everyone who comes to watch and make sure that the last time that we play at home is the best one.”
Blyde scored nine tries as the hosts won gold at FMG Stadium in 2020, but despite racking up 16 already this season, she insists she is focused solely on helping the team rather than improving on her remarkable strike rate.
“That’s just part of my role being the speedster on the sideline, all of our tries that we score are very good team tries,” she said.
“I still visualise myself doing my role the best that I can, and if I can do my role the best that I can, then hopefully the team can do their roles as well.
“So, by individually making sure that I'm prepared and visualising myself doing my role the best that I can then hopefully we can get some points on the scoreboard. Otherwise, I'll just defend my edge the best that I can.”
Fiji, Great Britain and invitation side Papua New Guinea – New Zealand’s Pool A opponents in Hamilton – have been warned.