Risi Pouri-Lane: "It’s different leading a team full of legends"

The 23-year-old Black Ferns Sevens captain tells Rikki Swannell about taking over from the injured Sarah Hirini and how she’s growing into a role she did not expect to have so soon

New Zealand rugby has a history of captains best described as strong, silent types – “follow me” kind of leaders like Richie McCaw, Sam Cane, Scott Curry and, undoubtedly, Black Ferns Sevens' Sarah Hirini. 

They’re players who’ve led not with big, demonstrative personalities but with their actions and, as would be said in New Zealand, with mana. 

The young player now tasked with filling the boots of the Hirini for the Black Ferns Sevens is cut from the same cloth. 

At just 23, Risi Pouri-Lane was thrust into the captaincy after Hirini picked up an ACL injury suffered in Dubai. Her elevation to the leadership was a surprise to some, but the schoolgirl prodigy who’s now found her feet at the highest level has long been touted as a future captain. 

She’s come a long way from the mildly terrified teenager who roomed with Hirini at her first-ever training camp. Contracted straight out of high school as a 17-year-old, Pouri-Lane had packed up her life in Motueka, population 8,000, at the top of the South Island to move to the Black Ferns base in the upper North Island. 

She quickly found herself joining the Black Ferns Sevens' pre-Commonwealth Games camp in 2018 and in a room with the skipper. 

“I remember just freezing because I was like, ‘oh my gosh’, just in awe but so nervous as well,” she remembered. “But, yeah, I was kind of happy it was only one night because I don’t know how a whole week of trying to make small talk would have been.”

Leadership material

Even though Singapore will be Pouri-Lane’s 21st HSBC SVNS event, she is an established member of the New Zealand squad and has been part of the leadership group for the past season or so, she was surprised to be asked to take on the captaincy full time. 

She had stepped into the role following Hirini’s injury in Dubai, and stayed on in Cape Town, but had expected Tyla King to take over after returning from her stint in rugby league. 

“It wasn’t until after Christmas, when we came back after the break and I caught up with [coach] Cory [Sweeney], who asked if I’d take it on for the rest of the season. 

“At the time, I thought it was just for those two tournaments and then I didn’t really think too much further ahead until hearing Cory’s plan for what the rest of the season would look like

Pouri-Lane (whose full name is Risaleaana, by the way) said that she had to give it some thought.

“Not because I didn’t want to, but the responsibility wasn't something that I took lightly,” she reflected. “I asked Cory if I could have the rest of the weekend to call home, ask what they thought, let them know what was happening and they were super supportive. 

“Gossy [Hirini] reached out as well and said that she was always there if I needed anything which says a lot about her – knowing she was there for me while she’s going through her own stuff.”

Pouri-Lane has found that captaincy does not weigh heavily on her in terms of pressure and expectation, even as the team struggled through Cape Town and Perth. But she has had to find her own leadership style.

It’s something she is still working on. 

As seen on TV

“It is different leading a team that is full of legends of the game – Portia, Kelly, Michaela, Stacey, the girls that I'd watch on TV while I was in school,” she said. 

“I’ve captained age groups and schools but you’re all the same age and you’re on the same part of your journey, versus stepping into the Black Ferns Sevens captaincy, it just felt like a huge honour. 

“What’s been really helpful is catching up with Kylie, our mental skills coach, to check in with where I’m at and how I’m thinking. 

“At the start, I definitely did find myself thinking, ‘This is what Gossy does and it works, so maybe I'll try it’, but it wasn't me, so I’m figuring out how I want to approach the whole role without changing who I am.”

That’s where the strong silent type has had to find her voice. 

“A lot of the girls would agree I’m the kind of person that would just get on with things and get things done,” Pouri-Lane said. “But, obviously, there are times that I have to actually speak up, or be more staunch around certain parts of our game and have more of a voice.”

The Black Ferns Sevens are well known for being very player-led in their half-time huddles, where for years the coaches have simply circled around the outside and let the players do the talking. 

But there have been a few adjustments without Hirini in that space.

Difference in style

“We usually have one person that speaks about the defence, attack, and set-piece in general and so it’s usually Stacey [Waaka] or Mini [Michaela Blyde] from a set-piece point of view who’ve jumped in on what Gossy would bring, and I’ll have the last call on what’s being said or what needs to be done, which is quite different. 

“I’m used to being the kind of person who puts in my five cents but now I’ve had to change to the one to say, ‘This is what we’re going to do, jump in the waka [canoe] with me’.” 

Player of the final in Los Angeles, and one of the Dream Team in Cape Town, captaincy has had nothing but a positive impact on Pouri-Lane’s game, where her deceptive turn of pace, tenacious defence, ability over the ball and eyes-up style has been to the fore as the Black Ferns Sevens have gone on a three-tournament winning streak.

New Zealand arrive in Singapore ahead of Australia on points difference at the top of the series standings, after hunting their great rivals all season. 

After finishing fifth in Perth their watch words have been, "calm and composed", Pouri-Lane said.

Perhaps they’re also the words to describe the new skipper, who seems destined to take over the Hirini’s mantle well into the future. 

By Rikki Swannell

Last updated: Apr 30, 2024, 3:24:13 PM
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