Rising star Oceana keen to become a voice for young women in rugby

We spoke to the 18-year-old Youth Unstoppable about her life in rugby, finding out Kendra Cocksedge was a fan and why she believes more women and girls should play the game.

The excitement Oceana felt at being nominated to become a Youth Unstoppable was topped only by the awe induced by the identity of the person who delivered the news.

Oceana and her parents, Pepi and Ricky, received an email earlier this year to explain how the young student had been selected as New Zealand’s representative in the campaign.

The correspondence had been sent by Black Ferns legend and two-time Rugby World Cup winner Kendra Cocksedge, who revealed she had been impressed with the now 18-year-old’s achievements as a player, coach and advocate for the women’s game.

“I was like, 'sorry?' A Black Fern, one of the best players in the whole entire world, is just casually emailing me,” Oceana told World Rugby. 

“She pretty much just told me that she'd heard my name a few times and her herself, she put me forward to be part of this.”

Still taking in the contents of the email, Oceana did not expect what happened next as her phone vibrated with a notification.

“It was crazy, and the next minute I see a follow request on my Instagram and I almost passed out,” she added.

“I was like, ‘I'm not prepared for this’. Emailing was all right, I was very excited but once I got the Instagram follow, I was like oh no, this is next level!”

Family tradition

Like Cocksedge, Oceana had begun playing rugby in early childhood having grown up in a family whose connection to the game stretches back generations.

Her parents first introduced her to rugby when she was only four years old, and although she was initially sceptical due to the cold weather, Oceana “fell in love” almost instantly.

“My family's a big influence on me in terms of rugby because they did give me that wee little push forward,” she said. 

“After my first game, the coach gave me Player of the Day because I scored a try, I made one rip and I just loved the game from there.

“It was just so exciting and so amazing.”

Oceana was the only girl on her team, but she found that gender was forgotten as soon as the players stepped over the white line.

“When the whistle blew, the boys would pass the ball to me and everyone was involved, the same camaraderie that you get in most teams,” she said. 

“It was just the enjoyment of being a part of a team and being a part of a family, and the fun and enjoyment you get from running around and scoring a try.”

That sense of togetherness has remained important to Oceana as she has developed as both a player and a coach in the intervening 14 years.

“Every sport has their own culture,” Oceana, who also plays basketball, volleyball and touch said. “But amongst all the rugby teams I've been in, every single time it's been like a family.

“Rugby becomes not just the game, it's also the off-field things and stuff like that, so I think it's the care that follows from rugby. 

“Also, the friends you make are for-life friends and rugby definitely builds a camaraderie that I feel other sports don't because you are literally putting your body on the line with the girls beside you.”

A voice for young women in rugby

On the pitch, Oceana’s fledgling career is in the ascendancy. She made her Farah Palmer Cup debut for Otago Spirit in July, aged 17, coming up against some of the best players in New Zealand and therefore, the world.

“It was crazy making it as a schoolgirl, it was a massive step up from under-18s,” she said. 

“That was really amazing. So, I was lucky enough to play against some of the Black Ferns.

“The knowledge and experience and resources that I was given throughout that time was amazing and definitely made me want, and see, my pathway more clearly. So, I’m definitely looking to keep pushing.”

Oceana harbours ambitions to play Super Rugby Aupiki and for the Black Ferns in the future, but her goals have never been focused solely on her own playing achievements.

She has long been driven by a desire to empower more women to play the game and feel the benefits of being part of a rugby team.

At Otago Girls’ High School, which counts Olympic gold medallist Kelly Brazier among its alumni, Oceana has served as a student co-ordinator for rugby sevens. She has also taken the game into local schools and worked with New Zealand Rugby (NZR) as a secondary schools representative.

Those experiences have only heightened Oceana’s determination to become a voice for young women in rugby and achieve her ultimate aim to become New Zealand Rugby CEO.

“It’s definitely a far-fetched dream,” she said. “But I'm looking to stay involved within the whole rugby community after the time I finish playing, so it definitely would be very cool to be a part of that. 

“It's amazing being a part of lots of different rugby boards that I'm on now. So, that is getting me through the doors and I'm understanding how different meetings and communities are working together in terms of the women's rugby scene. 

“Being on different boards with adults helps me see where rugby's looking to be in the next 10 to 20 years. So, it gives me a head start on the whole idea of where I want to be.”

Oceana will take her next step on the journey she hopes will lead her to the NZR offices when she begins a degree in sports exercise science at Otago University in 2022.

Next year is a busy one for the women’s game, and the 18-year-old believes hosting Rugby World Cup 2021 can have a huge impact on female participation in New Zealand.

“Us hosting makes it huge for New Zealand specifically, the girls here, being able to see the international teams come play down here,” she said.

“I feel that the more exposure there is to the rugby, the more girls are like, ‘Oh, that's actually pretty cool’. 

“And then, when they hear about the girls’ contracts and you actually can earn money playing the sport as well, it becomes just a huge factor in girls’ minds.”

Last updated: Apr 21, 2022, 6:38:09 AM
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