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Kiwi baseball catcher proves her doubters wrong

Standing up to those who told her there was no place for a girl on the baseball diamond, Sharysse Kjestrup-Caudwell continues to make waves in the sport, as the first Kiwi invited to a girls' global tournament. 

The rejuvenation and return of Bailey Mes

Bailey Mes wasn't banking on playing for the Silver Ferns again, but a change of attitude from the veteran shooter has seen her reclaim her mojo and a ticket to the Commonwealth Games. Suzanne McFadden reports. 

Waiheke Island - the global epicentre of women's rugby?

With 101 days till kick-off in the Women's Rugby World Cup, Suzanne McFadden spends a day at the Waiheke Island Rugby Club and discovers how the tight-knit community could be the nerve centre of the tournament.

NRL trailblazer Honey calling the shots

Oval ball legend Honey Hireme-Smiler is primed to make history this weekend, believed to be the first woman to commentate an NRL game, calling the Warriors' first home match in almost three years.

Cricketer Kelly swiftly finds her Irish heart

Within a month of touching down in Ireland for a change of scene, Auckland Hearts all-rounder Arlene Kelly was shocked to be called into the Irish cricket side to play six games against South Africa. She tells Kristy Havill what it meant to family both here and there.

At the end of New Zealand's cricketing summer, Arlene Kelly felt the winds of change in the air.

It had been her 10th season representing her beloved Auckland Hearts, and arguably the toughest of the lot - both the Hearts and Auckland Aces men’s team had endured a heavily Covid-interrupted summer.

Kelly was also in line for a promotion at work.

But deep down, she knew she was looking for something different instead of another winter juggling her constant work and cricket commitments.

So she had a chat with her Northern Districts opponent, Ireland international Eimear Richardson in March about going over to play a season in the Emerald Isle. Then Kelly’s mind was made up.

The 28-year-old has an Irish passport, as her mother and all four grandparents are from Ireland, so it was an ideal opportunity to go over and connect more with family she hasn’t spent a lot of time with (or even met before). And she could play a bit of cricket at the same time.

A couple of phone calls later she was locked in to play for Malahide Cricket Club. So she resigned from her job as a key account manager with a human resources company and packed her bags.

When she boarded a flight to Dublin at the beginning of May, Kelly had no idea how much her world was about to change.

Fast forward one month, and Kelly cuts an excited, but relaxed and somewhat disbelieving figure chatting to LockerRoom.

“I’m still wrapping my head around it all to be honest,” Kelly says, a huge grin on her face.

Just two days before our chat, Kelly was awarded her debut T20 cap for Ireland for the first match of a three-game home series against South Africa.

Arlene Kelly impressed Irish selectors in her first game for the Dragons in the Super Series. Photo: Getty Images. 

Her day only got better from there, as she took two wickets in Ireland’s victory over the Proteas.

“It was unreal, a very special day” she says. “It was only the second time we’d beaten South Africa in a T20.

“The coolest part for me to see coming in fresh was the belief the team had from the get-go. We stayed in it throughout, which gives everyone a lot of confidence.”

It had never crossed Kelly’s mind to head over to Ireland sooner in her career and try to crack the national side.

Kelly has been a mainstay in a very successful Auckland team since making her debut in 2012, winning four one-day competitions and one T20 title.

Her best bowling figures in either format for the women in blue is 4-28 in a T20 match against the Central Hinds, while she also holds the honour of scoring 110 against the Northern Spirit.

Making the White Ferns was always an aspiration, having spent time in training camps with the New Zealand side over the years.

“But then again, I’d tried to never have any expectations around selection – I’ll go out and give it my best shot, and if that meant I got selected for New Zealand then that’s great,” she says.

“The special thing is wherever I’m meant to be, I can take what I learned through that experience and pathway, and come and share that here.”

Her words reflect her calm and collected approach to life, and she had the same mindset when it came to donning the Ireland shirt.

“There was no expectation, nor any pressure to play for Ireland,” she says. “I knew I was eligible, but cricket teaches you a lot over the years that you can never expect anything in sport.”

So just exactly how did she go from not even being on the Ireland selectors’ radar, to becoming a frontline member of their bowling attack so rapidly?

Auckland Hearts allrounder Arlene Kelly has played both T20 and ODIs for Ireland this month. Photo: Photosport NZ.

Within a week of landing, Kelly was suiting up for the Dragons in the 2022 Super Series, Ireland’s domestic competition.

Against her first opponents, the Typhoons, in a 50-over match, Kelly scored 60 runs and took three wickets. Understandably she had the Irish selectors’ sitting up a little straighter in their seats.

While the head honchos at Cricket Ireland would have preferred her to settle in a little longer and get some more cricket under her belt before bringing her into the fold, injuries to other players and a busy exam period meant Kelly got an unexpected phone call.

A week later, she was in camp with Ireland, and a few days after that was receiving her first international cap.

Kelly can be forgiven for still trying to wrap her head around the whirlwind she finds herself enveloped in. Needless to say, it was a special day for Kelly and her family when she made her debut at Pembroke.

Her parents and brothers eagerly watched the livestream back home in New Zealand in the early hours of the morning, proud as punch as Kelly was rewarded for the years of hard work and dedication with an international cap.

“They know how much this means to me and how excited I was for the opportunity, and were just stoked to see me get a chance to play the sport I love and have been working on for far too long now,” she says.

When asked if her Irish family contingent turned up in force to watch in person, Kelly chuckles heartily.

“The family here are still wrapping their head around what cricket actually is,” Kelly laughs.

“It’s obviously not as prevalent here as what it is down in New Zealand, but the family WhatsApp group was definitely pinging - one of my cousins came and watched though.”

Arlene Kelly's best bowling figures for Auckland Hearts are 4-28. Photo: Phototek NZ

Having grown up with the strains of God Defend New Zealand drummed into her, there was the tricky prospect of the Ireland national anthem to negotiate. Kelly knew it, but had to turn to a reliable source to make sure she had it down-pat before game day.

“There’s a lot of rugby back home where the Ireland national anthem gets played, so I was familiar enough with it,” she explains.

“Did I spend the odd time listening to it on Spotify to make sure I knew the words? Of course I did.”

Ireland went on to lose the T20 series 1-2, as the South Africans got out of second gear and hit their stride. Kelly played in each of the three matches, taking another wicket in the second T20.

But the good news kept coming. Kelly was then rewarded for her promising T20 series with her debut one-day international (ODI) cap in the first of the three ODI matches against South Africa that followed.

She played in all the ODIs (South Africa won all three) and now has her first ODI wickets, taking 2-40 in one game.

The ODI series marked Ireland’s first matches after being announced as one of the two new teams (Bangladesh the other) in the 2022-2025 edition of the ICC Women’s Championship (IWC). That's qualifying tournament running from now until 2025 to determine automatic qualification for the ICC Women’s Cricket World Cup that year.

Teams who finish in the top five of the ICC Women’s Championship secure their spot for the World Cup straight away, while a sixth spot is reserved for the hosts. The other four teams are then determined in the ICC Women’s Cricket World Cup qualifier.

While the Irish may be at outside odds to clinch one of the top five spots, it’s the promise for regular cricket against high quality opposition that’s exciting the players.

Each team in the championship is guaranteed to play eight three-match series over the next three years – four at home, and four away.

It’s a lot more than Ireland will have played in the same period of time throughout their history, and provides frequent opportunities to pit themselves against the world-class teams and players.

As well as currently hosting South Africa, they will also welcome England, Australia and Sri Lanka to their shores, and will travel to Pakistan, India, Bangladesh and the West Indies for their away series.

Couple that with Cricket Ireland investing €1.5m (NZ$2.5m) into the women’s game in 2022 - tripled from pre-pandemic years - including 20 contracts for the players and more full-time coaching resource, and you get the feeling the future for Ireland on the world stage is bright.

“The girls are really looking forward to the opportunities that lie ahead,” Kelly says.

“They’re a professional unit now, they want to learn and want to develop and this will be their chance to do that.”

Kelly’s stint in Ireland is scheduled to go through until September, but her plans at to return to New Zealand for another domestic summer are still not set in stone. It could, of course, depend on how things pan out with her new national team.

Ireland host a T20 tri-series at home with Australia and Pakistan next month, which may provide her with another opportunity to cement itself in Ireland’s future plans.

When asked if she’ll be home in time to suit up in blue again and add to her tally of over 150 matches for the Auckland Hearts, she’s very emphatic: “Your guess is as good as mine.

“I would love to follow the sun around for a bit, but we’ll just see what happens. The way it’s all worked out, I’m here for it.”]

*The Cricket World Cup in New Zealand earlier this year has smashed viewer records - becoming the most viewed women's cricket competition in history. It racked up 1.64 billion video views - the third most digitally engaged ICC event ever, behind the ICC men's World Cup in 2019 and the 2021 men's T20 World Cup.  Those figures were 16 times higher than the last 50-over women's World Cup in England in 2017. 

'I didn't want concussion to be my story' - Tall Fern

Told she shouldn't play basketball again after multiple concussions, former Tall Fern Samara Gallaher will suit up for the first game of the new Tauihi women's professional league - driven to make a difference for young girls. 

It was a living hell.

Just as she’d reached the prime of her career, Tall Fern Samara Gallaher could no longer walk into a basketball stadium.

The bright lights, the roar of the crowd, the repeated hammering of balls on the hardwood floors. All those things she loved about her game were suddenly too much for her muddled brain to handle.  

For 16 months, the Dunedin-born basketballer best known as Sammy suffered through constant migraines, fatigue and over-sensitivity to light and noise.

“I spent a lot of that time in bed resting, sitting there literally doing nothing for weeks on end,” Gallaher says. That was tough for a player renowned for diving on loose ball, fully committing to a lay-up, never afraid to put her body on the line.

She put a dot on her bedroom wall in Melbourne to stare at every day until she didn’t get a headache.

All because she’d banged her head too many times.

It was an accumulation of collisions and head smacks onto the court that finally stopped Gallaher in her tracks six years ago. And it came just as she was on the verge of breaking into Australia’s WNBL and tour Europe with a Tall Ferns side trying to qualify for the Rio Olympics. A tour she'd been building towards for two years. 

But it was her ninth – and last – concussion Gallagher will never forget.

Samara Gallaher (centre) wins the hustle in the Hoiho's preseason game with Mainland Pouākai. Photo: Angela Ruske.

“It was a huge one. I went for a lay-up and I got tunnelled - someone took my legs out from under me and pushed me. An unsportsmanlike foul,” the 29-year-old says.

“I flipped back and landed on my head. You could hear the crack on the court, and everyone went ‘Oooh’. I sat up and laughed it off because, hey, I was always hitting my head.

“But this time I went ‘woah’,” she wobbles her head, “and I went straight back down. That one really rolled me.”

Gallaher was forced to make herself unavailable for the Tall Ferns, and realised she had to take concussion seriously.

She went through almost a year-and-a-half of intense rehabilitation for her brain, before she was given advice no athlete ever wants to hear.

She was told she should never play again.

“I got myself in a really bad hole,” she says. “On top of all the symptoms I had to deal with was the realisation I couldn’t play basketball, I had to give up my livelihood. It was the toughest thing I’d ever had to deal with. And I wouldn’t talk about how I was dealing with it, either.”

When Gallaher came home to live with her family last year, she’d finally made peace with the fact she wouldn’t take the court again.

She’d found a new way to stay involved in the sport and to give back – becoming Basketball Otago’s ambassador for the women’s and girls’ game; making sure young girls got the same support on and off the court as she’d had growing up.

But then when she least expected it, a band of Kiwi medical specialists - headed by the All Blacks' physiotherapist - offered to help her get back on the court again.

And on Wednesday, Gallaher will suit up for the Southern Hoiho to play Mainland Pouākai in the very first game of Tauihi Basketball Aotearoa – the new women’s professional league.

Players from the inaugural Tauihi league pose with Warbirds (from left) Jacinta Beckley, Sharne Pupuke-Robati, Sammy Gallaher, Mary Goulding and Micaela Cocks. Photo: Suzanne McFadden.

“Honestly, it sounds cheesy, but it’s like a dream come true. I never thought this day would come again,” she says.

“For the first time in five years, I feel balanced and where I’m supposed to be. And it’s about way more than me, or basketball, now.”

The first knock

Micaela Cocks, the most capped Tall Fern in history, will turn out for Northern Kāhu in the new league – the first time in 15 years she’s played a professional season at home.

She remembers Gallaher as a fresh-faced 16-year-old coming into her first Tall Ferns squad. “She was young but she had so much skill. I remember thinking ‘This is so good for women’s basketball to see such young talent coming through’,” Cocks says.  

“So to see her back on court, in the new league, after her time away dealing with all her concussions, it feels really good. I know it’s been a tough time for her.”

Gallaher remembers her first experience with the Tall Ferns for a different reason.

As a kid, she was torn between two loves – basketball and rugby. She did everything she could to emulate her brothers while at St Joseph’s Cathedral School in Dunedin. When she reached Kavanagh College, there was no girls rugby team, so she played in a club boys’ side until she was 15 (“Then Mum didn’t want me getting injured”).

Playing for Kavanagh and the Otago Gold Rush at the team's inception in the New Zealand women’s basketball championship (WBC), the young guard was picked out for national age-group sides and the Junior Tall Ferns.

'I’ll just play smarter. I’m never going to skimp on effort or hustle' - Sammy Gallaher.

Two days before her first Tall Ferns trial, she suffered her first concussion.

“I was playing WBC and I stupidly tried to go up against [Tall Fern legend] Jody Cameron for a rebound, and I vividly remembered being in the air competing with her and thinking ‘What am I doing?’ I came down and hit my head on the ground,” Gallaher says.

“I thought I was a hero after the doctors said: ‘If you feel all right you can go back and play’. Concussion protocol wasn’t a massive thing back then. So I played the next day, and got taken out by [Tall Fern] Charmian Purcell. Same thing again, a 16-year-old who thought she could take on the big guns – and couldn’t.

“So I went to the Tall Ferns trial the next day and told them.” Fortunately, she was sent home.

She remembers struggling to focus in the classroom after those initial head knocks, but “just got on with life”.

Although she was in the Tall Ferns environment for the next few years, she didn’t make her debut - against Australia - until she was 21.

“A lot of it was me just not being ready, but also the incredible calibre of players in New Zealand,” she says. “But that wait helped blood me into the team.”

Hoiho guard Samara Gallaher at the free-throw line. Photo: Angela Ruske. 

Gallaher, who's iwi is Ngāti Raukawa, took up a US college scholarship at Southwest Baptist University in Missouri, majoring in psychology, and was there for almost two years before homesickness got the better of her. “I’m really close to my family and it was before Skype and Facetime,” she says.

Back home she enrolled at the University of Otago’s physical education school and returned to the Gold Rush, where she won several championship titles and was often selected in the league's All Star 5.

Then in 2014, she got a phone call out of the blue from a coach in Melbourne inviting her join the Hume City Broncos in the highly-regarded Big V championship. She “dropped everything” to start a week later.

In her four seasons with the Broncos, she won a couple of championships and fell in love with Melbourne. She’d cemented her place in the Tall Ferns, too.

But in the back of her head, trouble was brewing.

Bringing new value

Concussion remains a major problem in New Zealand sport, especially for women. Global research reveals female athletes are at almost twice the risk of suffering concussion than male athletes, and women and girls take longer to recover from a head injury.

“Concussion had been an issue for me ever since that first one,” Gallaher says. “The knowledge around it at the time wasn’t great. I was supported, but the seriousness of it wasn’t reinforced as it is now. The protocol was to take two weeks off, and I’d still have symptoms but I just keep playing.

“I’d never really recover and then I’d take another hit. Even a wee knock would stir things up.”

Then she took the biggest hit in 2016, and spent six weeks resting before returning home to the Tall Ferns trial for Rio Olympics qualification. “I’d been building up to that for two years," Gallaher says. "But I stood there watching the girls train and my head hurt too much. I had to go and tell [head coach] Kennedy Kereama: ‘Sorry I can’t be available for this tour’. It was the hardest thing I’d ever had to do.

“I then had the realisation I wasn’t okay, that I had to get my head right. I saw psychologists, physiologists, concussion specialists, physios, anyone who could help. It was a long 16 months.

“At the end of it, my concussion guy sat me down and said 'I don’t think you’ll have any ongoing issues, but my recommendation is that you shouldn’t play basketball again. I don’t want you to lose another 16 months of your life'. But I’m very stubborn.”

She tried to train again, but always left the gym with a migraine. “So I fully walked away from the game,” she says.

“It took me a few years to find out who I am without basketball, and where I can now bring value to the world. Then it was okay not to play.”

Gallaher returned to coaching and working with the basketball community around how to grow the women’s game.

Otago Nuggets boss Angela Ruske cuts down her piece of net after her team won the 2020 Sal's NBL men's championship. Photo: supplied.

Angela Ruske, the Otago Nuggets general manager, remembers Gallaher approaching her when she returned to Dunedin and offering to help.

“She said ‘What are we doing for the next generation?’” says Ruske, who also heads the Hoiho. “She knew how much effort and time people had put into her career, and she wanted to give back. It’s not every player who thinks like that.”

So Gallaher took on the ambassadorship of the women’s game: “It felt right to help make sure the girls’ game wasn’t falling behind.”

She was delighted, then, when word got round that the revamped national women’s league would give the country’s leading female players equal pay to the men in the NBL, and create a pathway for girls to aspire to. She just didn’t picture herself playing in it.

Concussion Girl

A random conversation with All Blacks physio Peter Gallagher gave her new hope. “He said ‘You’re that concussion girl, aren’t you? I reckon I could get you back on court’,” Gallaher says. So she started a year-long journey to strengthen her neck and see if she could play again.

“I hadn’t thought about the neck tension, support and stability," she says. "Seeing it from another angle was incredible. And now I’ve done some amazing work with physios and chiropractors.

“Today there are excellent concussion protocols, lots of support and experts who know how to treat it. If I’d been given that help early, I may not have had such a terrible journey with concussions. But it was just the way it was.”

Gallaher got a little court-time for the Gold Rush at the end of last season, and slowly built her confidence back up to play professional basketball again.

“You live in a little pocket of fear, and you play it incredibly safe. But I was given huge confidence from the people around me who said I could do it,” Gallaher says.

“When it was finally announced I'd play [for Hoiho], the support was overwhelming; I didn’t realise I had so many people in my corner. I walked into training that night and burst into tears.

“It was a five-year journey - going away, getting lost and finally finding my way back.”

A huddle of penguins: the 2022 Southern Hoiho line-up. Photo: Angela Ruske. 

Ruske is thrilled to have Gallaher’s strength and leadership in Hoiho. “It’s amazing not just because she’s such a talented basketballer. It’s what she brings to the team – her charismatic, bubbly personality, her work ethic, her leadership by example. She’s an amazing role model, not just for her team-mates, but the young girls who are coming up through the game.”

And Gallaher can also help by finally opening up about her concussion history. 

"I’ve had multiple girls come up to me saying they’ve had concussion too and want to know how I’ve worked my way through it," she says. "At first, I didn’t want concussion to be my story; to be that girl who played for New Zealand but then got concussed. But by holding on to that story, I couldn't help someone else. So I’m grateful for that opportunity too."

Gallaher admits she’s had a few taps to the head in training – “Don’t tell Mum” – but she’s come away feeling fine.

Will all that she’s been through change her full-throttle game? “If you’d asked me six months ago, I would’ve said 100 percent. But after last week’s preseason game, I’d say nope,” Gallaher laughs. “I almost forgot I’d had a concussion journey.

“But I’ll just play smarter. I’m never going to skimp on effort or hustle, but if there’s a 50-50 ball, I probably won’t go in for it.

“I’ve lived in worry and fear for five years. But I could walk down the street and walk into a pole; you never know what’s round the corner. I’ve been given this opportunity to play again and I’m taking it.”

She'd actually returned to live in Melbourne when she got the call to join Hoiho. “I realised Tauihi was a beautiful opportunity, a blank canvas. We can make this into something everyone can come home to," she says.

“Yes, we’re doing this on court, but what we’re going to do off the court – for the next generation - now that gets me going.”

* The first game of Tauihi Basketball Aotearoa - Southern Hoiho v Mainland Pouākai - tips off on Wednesday, with live coverage on Sky Sport 3 from 7pm.

Suzie Bates' surprising rugby career

If not for an untimely break, Otago White Fern and Tall Fern Suzie Bates could have taken a different sporting path, Suzanne McFadden discovers in part 3 of our On Your Mark series, taking Commonwealth Games athletes back to high school. 

Suzie Bates is a rare breed.

She’s played basketball at the Olympics and is about to play cricket at the Commonwealth Games. But did she come close to playing rugby at those lofty heights, too?

At Otago Girls' High School, a sports-mad Bates threw herself into every code that had a tournament to travel to - her prerequisite before she’d sign up.

Those sports included cricket and basketball, volleyball and touch. And then there was rugby, where she played in the school backline alongside Black Ferns Sevens Olympic champion Kelly Brazier.

“I don’t know if sevens would have been for me - I wasn’t quite quick enough,” Bates says. Even though she’s hailed as one of the best fielders in international cricket, holding the record for most catches in a series (20, incidentally).

“But I loved rugby. I was a big girl for my age, so I charged through the midfield. I always wondered later in life, when I was fitter, how I’d go playing rugby again. But there’s always the fear of being injured.”

Her rugby career ended prematurely when she broke her collarbone – playing basketball – and she never picked up an oval ball again. “So my mum was really happy,” laughs Bates, Otago Girls’ High head girl in 2005.

But she’s stayed in touch with Brazier, Otago Girls' 13th Olympian, following her dazzling career closely.

“Every time we play cricket at the Mount, she brings a few of the Black Ferns Sevens girls along,” Bates says. “It would be awesome to play at the same tournament as Kelly for the first time.”

When the Black Ferns Sevens team for the Commonwealth Games is named next week, Brazier – a Black Fern for 13 years and a four-time World Cup winner - is almost certain to be among them.

Who could forget the 2018 Commonwealth Games sevens final on the Gold Coast, where Brazier scored an 80-metre runaway try in extra time to secure gold for her Black Ferns Sevens sisters.

Black Fern Kelly Brazier on her way to scoring the winning try in the 2018 Comm Games sevens final. Photo: Getty Images.

Bates’ sporting career could have branched off in any direction.

“But it’s just that opportunities presented themselves which kind of directed my career,” the former White Ferns captain says. “Who would have thought cricket and basketball would provide these opportunities for me?”

Well, definitely not Bates’ science teacher.

“She told me to keep working hard because sport wasn’t a career,” she recalls.

“I was very fond of her, and to be fair at the time, the sports I was playing didn’t have a career path. She just wanted to make sure I still used my brain and got through high school and university.”

Which Bates did, with a Bachelor of Physical Education from the University of Otago, "which only took me six years."

But she’s grateful to the teachers and lecturers who kept her at her studies, while she was “distracted” by sport.

***

Inside the gymnasium at Otago Girls’ High, four massive banners hang along one wall. Each bears a word exemplifying the school’s malaga (Samoan for journey), and below it, the image of a former student who went on to sporting greatness.

The Otago Girls' High gym with three of its most famous sporting alumni. Photo: supplied. 

Dame Yvette Williams, Olympic gold medallist in the long jump and multiple Commonwealth Games medallist, represents 'Empower'.

“The cornerstone of our school is Yvette Williams,” says the acting head of physical education, Marcelle Clements. “She wasn’t our first Olympian [swimmer Kathleen Miller was in 1928] but Yvette was our first Olympic medallist.”

Kelly Brazier, Olympic and Commonwealth gold medallist, is 'Inspire'. “She was a very quiet, humble student here," Clements says. "But we just love her confidence on the field, and she's the embodiment of an inspiration to a wealth of girls."

Anna Frost, exceptional ultramarathon runner and Skyrunner world champion, is 'Dream'. She returned to the school as a relief teacher when Covid stopped her competing offshore. “We love Anna’s story, and her life-long journey in a not-traditional sport,” Clements says.

And Suzannah Bates, 2008 Olympian in basketball and undeniably one of the world’s best cricketers, wields the willow beneath the word 'Challenge'.  

Bates, now 34, laughs whenever she sees her first name spelled out in full: “No one’s called me that in a long time.”

Still living in Dunedin, Bates visits the school often, invited back to talk to students. “I say: ‘Surely they’re sick of my voice’,” she says. “But they tell me there are new girls starting every year who haven’t heard from me yet.”

One day last week, she walked into the school gym where a Year 10 class was doing PE. “Two of the kids – who aren’t our sporty kids – asked ‘Oh my god, is that Suzie Bates?’” says Clements. “They were like ‘Wow she’s actually here!’

“She’s a role model, and was even when she was in the classroom, without actively seeking leadership. That’s why we chose her for our gym wall.

“She has a ripple effect across every walk of life in our school – it’s not just our top sporting athletes. At yesterday’s library day we had to dress up as our Matariki future stars, but there was one kid with her Suzie Bates-signed cricket T-shirt on and her cap looking just like Suzie.”

Suzie Bates with her banner in the Otago Girls' High School gym. Photo: supplied. 

Bates knows so well the importance of young women meeting their role models, who were once schoolgirls like them.

There’s the famous story of Bates in Year 9 at Otago Girls', meeting Olympic gold medallist cyclist Sarah Ulmer when she came to the school as part of the New Zealand Olympic Committee’s ambassador programme – and the lasting effect it had on the young Bates.

“She was so cool and down-to-earth with us - she seemed so normal,” she says of Ulmer. “She got us to write down really big goals. To dream big and not be ashamed of those dreams.”

Bates wrote that she wanted to play cricket and basketball for New Zealand. Today she’s an NZOC ambassador.

“I always remember that moment when I go back into schools, that you have the potential to do that for some young sporty kids. It’s pretty cool I’m on the other side now,” she says.  

Bates shares the love around other schools in Dunedin. Last year, she was at Kavanagh College to announce student Erika Fairweather was going to swim at the Olympics. And she’s helped to coach the First XI cricket team at St Hilda’s Collegiate School.

“I get a bit of stick for helping out St Hilda’s, but they have a very strong cricket team, and my arm was twisted,” she says. “They’ve produced a lot of [Otago] Sparks and now a White Fern in Eden Carson.”

Carson, who’s 20, is one of two rookies named in the White Ferns to play T20 at the Commonwealth Games next month.  Bates also coached her in the Otago U15s for two years and knew straight off the bat the spinner was something special.

“I always remember she had a bit about her when she bowled 10 overs into the wind on a really windy day - and she was the most competitive player in our team by far,” Bates says.

“She’s from Ranfurly and my dad was born in Ranfurly, so there’s a nice connection. And I’m so stoked for her.”

White Ferns on their way to Birmingham (from left) Eden Carson, Suzie Bates and Hayley Jensen. Photo: Getty Images. 

Bates still has a “great connection” with Otago Girls. She goes out for coffee with the school’s sports co-ordinator, Colleen Hokianga, whose daughter played basketball with Bates.

“I remember the little girl with pigtails who started here. She was so cute,” Hokianga says.

The school’s philosophy around getting girls playing sport and being active is having to constantly evolve, Hokianga says. “We know these are challenging times for our students, so we're listening to them more to see what they want from sport. We no longer push just the traditional sports, we have to embrace what they want to do," she says.

“It’s getting harder to encourage them to celebrate their successes, some are a bit shy about that. And we try to get them away from their cellphones and encourage them into physical activity. We’re understanding girls want to be active but in different ways than they ever have before.”

It's obvious the school – and the rest of Otago - are succeeding. For the second year running, the region came out top in the national census of secondary school sport participation in 2021. Otago’s participation rate for teenagers is 63 percent compared to the national average of 49 percent, and those figures are virtually the same for Otago girls involved in sport.

Otago Girls’ offers 32 sports to their 700 students – including fencing and curling. “We were national curling champions a few years ago – not bad for a city school near the beach,” Clements says.  

One of the most popular sports at the moment is badminton – the school has 11 teams in the Otago competition and another six who stay after schools on Friday for social games.

“We’re now taking away the word ‘trial’ which is a barrier for some girls who don’t want to be competitive and just want to play in a team with their friends,” Hokianga says. “Enjoyment is a huge part of it.”

Otago Girls' High senior A volleyball team won their local championship last season.  

There is no high performance programme at Otago Girls'. “I don’t like academies,” says Hokianga. “They’re school kids - let them enjoy what they do without putting immense pressure on them. They get enough of that with NCEA.

“Our top athletes can apply to the Otago Academy of Sport which has a high performance programme. This year has been a bumper year – we have six girls in the programme.”

***

If Bates had taken up a basketball scholarship to an American college straight out of high school, she would have had a very different path – and would probably have ended up teaching back at Otago Girls’.  

American basketballer Leonard King, who was playing for the Otago Nuggets, helped mould a young Bates’ game and put her in touch with some US colleges.

But White Ferns coach Steve Jenkin got wind of her plans and immediately selected her for the White Ferns at just 18. “He got me in the team a bit earlier than planned,” she says. “Once I played international cricket, I was hooked. But had Steve not picked me I could have never played cricket again.”

But the decision to stay home actually worked out well for her basketball career.  

“By not going to America I stayed in the New Zealand basketball system, so I was really lucky to be in the selectors faces when the Beijing Olympics opportunity came around,” Bates says.  

Suzie Bates shoots for the Tall Ferns against Japan in 2009. Photo: Photosport. 

It was also a deviation from her path to becoming a PE teacher. “I couldn’t commit to a whole year of study. So it kept being put on the back burner which was a shame,” she says.

“I’m going to talk to Eden [Carson] because she’s in her final year of vet study. I know a [fulltime] cricket contract is exciting, but I have my wiser hat on, and I’m going to tell her to get her studies done now because it’s really hard to go back to.”

Bates’ sister, Olivia (who played netball for Southern Steel), is a school teacher in Dunedin. “Maybe when I don’t have sport to play it might be an option too,” the elder Bates says.

While Clements has encouraged Bates to join her in teaching, she’s now had second thoughts. “She could potentially be wasted as a teacher because her vision and ability to lead is much more global than that,” Clements says. “Her talents lie in her ability to get a collective of people together for the benefit and wellbeing of all women. Internationally.”

But neither of those options are on her near horizon. Bates isn’t ready to stop playing cricket at the highest level yet.

She’s not calling it ‘unfinished business’. Yes, this year’s World Cup was devastating, and she still has “bipolar feelings” about it – from the joy of playing on home soil to the heartbreak of narrowly missing the semifinals.

“A memory I’ll never forget was at Eden Park against England when we got the ninth wicket runout - we sprinted across the field and the crowd was going absolutely nuts. And I genuinely thought we were going to win it,” Bates says.

“It was one of the greatest games of cricket I’ve been a part of. But having lost and knowing our World Cup was over was hard to believe.

“We had three close games that went to the last over and under pressure, we weren’t good enough. But I think what I’ll remember looking back in time was the genuine support from the whole of New Zealand. I don’t feel like I’ve ever been so supported as a White Ferns cricketer. And people genuinely enjoyed the cricket.”

Bates was always going to reassess her career after the World Cup. “And with the Comm Games being so close, I thought ‘Why not get amongst it?’

“With the young players and a new coach I feel invigorated again. I had a big break with my shoulder injury and then Covid, and I know once I’m done, I’m a long time retired. I still love it as much as ever and my body is still doing the right things.

“And there are so many exciting things coming up I can’t say no to them right now.”

Fling open rugby's clubroom doors to trans players

As sports release their rules around transgender athletes, veteran rugby player Alice Soper wants New Zealand Rugby to commit to including trans players at grassroots - while making the sport safe for everyone. 

This year marks my 20th season playing club rugby. I was recruited, as an enthusiastic 13-year-old, to play for the Johnsonville women’s side.

This was an open grade and my slight frame was up against fully grown adults, some of who were international representatives. My teammates and coaches did their best to equip me with skills I needed to keep me safe.

And that paid off when I made the Wellington Women’s Sevens team that year alongside my school’s sports coordinator. 

Local newspapers wrote excitedly about my inclusion. I was a school kid playing women’s rugby which was seemingly no cause for concern. But 20 years later, I am now being told to be afraid of playing women.

Our sport prides itself on being a space where every body type is welcomed and celebrated. It is the combination of our unique shapes and skills that build a team.

The full array of that diversity is on display each weekend at your local club match, where powerfully built front-rowers and lively halfbacks tip each end of the scale. Women’s rugby, while now requiring dispensation for ambitious youngsters, is still an open season. It’s not unusual to see crushing contact between players of vastly different sizes.

So too, given our playing numbers, do you frequently see first-timers stepping on to the pitch with Black Ferns.

There is a look you see in a player’s eyes when they realise they’ve found themselves in a mismatch. A fullback lining up a flanker on the break, a prop realising they are going to have to chase down that winger, a halfback digging in the ruck with no protection. You could argue these moments are what our game was designed for.

But does this all feel safe? Well, we’re not playing tiddlywinks here, mate.

Since 2019, there have been eight requests for dispensation from trans rugby players in New Zealand.

When women first played rugby in Aotearoa in 1888, it was under modified rules to ensure it was “free from all elements of roughness”. Those in charge were convinced that “the female frame cannot stand such a game.”

Those attitudes grew louder in the 1920s when various doctors were recruited to condemn women’s participation. Multiple column inches given to dubious medical opinions that barely masked their misogyny. 

This does not feel far off current declarations being made about the risk trans women pose to cis women. Trans men, meanwhile, are seemingly invisible. If male puberty was the lethal threat that it is built up to be, you would think there would be greater concern from administrators for the trans man playing in a league of cis men.

However the erasure of trans men’s participation speaks to sports' long history of policing women’s bodies while encouraging men no matter the risk. 

 Wellington Pride hooker Alice Soper scores a try against Counties Manukau in the Farah Palmer Cup. Photo: David Brownlie.

Those sexist attitudes, held by those in positions of power, are still the biggest threat to the women’s game. So forgive me if I find the sudden concern for my welfare disingenuous.

Where were you when your women’s team was moved to the potholed pitch in order for the men to train? Where were you when your women’s team was overlooked again at the award ceremony?

Where were you when complaints were made about that coach's conduct? And why are you here now, to defend me from a minority, when you are seemingly so comfortable with this day-to-day reality?

In 2020, World Rugby issued their guidelines barring transgender women from playing rugby internationally because of "player welfare issues". Now it's up to New Zealand Rugby to lay down its guidelines for the grassroots game, with a draft regulation coming out for consultation in the next few weeks. 

Since 2019, there have been eight requests for dispensation from trans rugby players in New Zealand. Despite my obsession with our game, it seems it just isn't that popular with the trans community. And given how they see rugby treats women, queer folk and players who are not of Pākehā decent, I do not blame them.

However, I do welcome them.

For us to make our sport safe for trans men, trans women and non-binary participation, we will need to pull these issues of diversity and inclusion to the fore. We will need to start having real conversations about modernising spaces, diversifying all positions and think hard about what it means to prioritise player welfare both on and off the field.

Simply put, rugby that is safe for trans players is safe for everyone.

Trans folks' existence challenges binary thinking. There will be no one policy that will capture all the shades of difference and concern held by those who play rugby.

However, a commitment to inclusion throws the clubroom doors open to whomever may wish to enjoy our game. The same game that was built to celebrate the full spectrum of bodies after all.

Hard knocks can't rock exciting Magic middie

One of the most exciting players to emerge from this season's netball's premiership, Simmon Wilbore suffered a series of untimely setbacks - including surgery. But she still made her mark on the Magic midcourt, and has her sights set on 2023. 

The odds were stacked against Simmon Wilbore this year.  

After playing a full game for the Magic in the opening round of the ANZ Premiership, and making quite an impact, Wilbore was then absent until round 10 - more than two months later.  

A broken finger, Covid, a sprained ankle and a tummy bug all threatened to put a halt to Wilbore’s season, but the cool-headed midcourter refused to let anything stop her return to court.  

Wilbore was a standout for the Magic in her first game this year, a victory over the defending champions, the Mystics. She had the most feeds, goal assists and centre pass receives in her 60 minutes at wing attack. She also had four pick-ups - the most from either team that game.  

But in training for their second game, Wilbore felt a crack in her finger after a minor bump while defending. She hoped it was just a sprain.  

It turned out to be a spiral fracture, and the 28-year-old had to undergo surgery two days later. The surgeon estimated the healing process would take 12 weeks, essentially ruling Wilbore out of the entire season.  

“I said ‘We’ll aim for six weeks’,” recalls Wilbore, who then worked with sports doctors and a hand therapist to push to get back playing.  

Then she caught Covid two days after surgery, and had to look after her young son with the illness and a big cast on her finger.  

“I had made a decision that even if I wasn’t cleared, I was still going to play,” she says.  

“I needed to be back on court. I wasn’t going to end the season by just doing nothing, this was my opportunity, and I needed to take it.”  

Initially, her bone wasn’t healing well, but after eight weeks, she was given the all clear to return to the court.  

But at her very first training back, she sprained her ankle, ruling her out of that week’s game.  

Round 10 was set to be her return, a re-match of the Magic’s opening game (and only win at that stage) against the Mystics, but a stomach bug the day before put her in doubt.  

“Nothing was going my way,” Wilbore admits. “But I ended up getting out on court, and we got the win, so that was awesome.”  

Simone Wilbore helped Magic to a handful of wins at the end of their season. Photo: Michael Bradley Photography

Wilbore (who was Simmon Howe) had a traditional journey through netball, starting at the age of five in Ōpōtiki; her sporty family supporting her to play netball, touch and basketball.  

She played for Waiariki, the Bay of Plenty Māori team, from the age of 12. That’s where she met current Magic coach Mary-Jane Araroa, whose family was involved in running the team. Wilbore also played Bay of Plenty representative netball from the U15 level and moved to Hamilton when she was 18 to study at the University of Waikato.  

Receiving a Sir Edmund Hillary scholarship, Wilbore studied sports and leisure, with a one-year postgraduate diploma in teaching. Now she’s a PE teacher at Hamilton’s Fraser High School, also teaching core subjects in the junior school.  

Wilbore was the player of the year in the National Netball League (NNL, formally known as Beko) in 2018, and captained the Waikato Bay of Plenty team. The following year, she received her first Magic contract, chosen as one of four training partners, but was elevated to a fully contracted player partway through the season.  

“That was my debut season and first time playing at that level, and I loved it,” says Wilbore.  

“But I was also still working full-time. I’d literally go to the gym at 5.30am, go to work, go to training, repeat, go on the weekend to games and go back to work. It was way too hard.” 

After the 2019 season, she married Te Amo Wilbore, and in September 2020, they welcomed their first child.  

She smiles when asked about her son. “He is amazing, he’s such a good boy. His name is Te Amo Amo Wilbore, he’s named after his dad.”  

“You couldn’t even make up what happened to us this season, so hopefully Covid doesn’t impact us like this heading into 2023.”  

After taking the 2021 season off and slowly returning to the game via club netball, Wilbore decided she was ready for her next challenge, and let now Magic coach Araroa know she would be keen to play NNL in 2022.  

“One morning I got a phone call from her, literally at like 7.45am when I’m getting me and my son ready,” Wilbore recalls. “She asked if I was interested in being a training partner for Magic.”  

Wilbore’s initial reaction was shock, but after talking it through with her husband and family, she decided to take the opportunity. Having found herself stretched thin back in 2019, so she decided to fully commit to netball this season, taking leave from teaching to focus fully on netball.  

When Silver Fern Katrina Rore announced her pregnancy before she got to play a game for the Magic, Wilbore had the chance to step up from training partner to fully contracted team member.  

“As a training partner, you feel like you’re in the team, you’ve trained with them all pre-season and then when it’s time to go, you get quite sad because you feel like that’s your team,” Wilbore says. “So it was amazing that I was given that opportunity.” 

Simmon Wilbore (right) with close friends Ariana Cable-Dixon (left) and Ngawai Hawera and their babies. Photo: supplied

With the support of her husband, who plays rugby in Ōtorohanga, Wilbore manages to balance the busy life of netball and mum, Te Amo Amo turning two in three months’ time. 

“Prior to him, netball was everything and I would have done anything for netball, my number one priority. Whereas now, obviously he is,” Wilbore says.  

“Netball is still important, but at the end of the day it’s not everything. I think it also makes me enjoy it a bit more cause I’m not as focused or stressed.” 

Wilbore has a strong community around her, including friends and fellow netballers Ariana Cable-Dixon and Ngawai Hawera - two players who filled in for the Magic’s midcourt when Wilbore was away.  

The trio are very close, Cable-Dixon and Hawera were bridesmaids at Wilbore’s wedding and all three had babies within nine months of each other. “They’re forced best friends,” Wilbore jokes.  

“Even though we’re kind of competition in netball, we’ve never let that affect us. We’re really supportive of each other and I couldn’t be more stoked that anybody else got that opportunity to come in than them.”  

The netball skills run in the family too - Mystics and Silver Ferns shooter Monica Falkner is her cousin.  

“It’s funny in the family when we play each other, everyone just goes for both teams,” Wilbore says, playfully pointing out the Magic won both times she was on court against the Mystics.  

Balancing being a mum and netballer meant pausing her teaching career this year to focus on the Magic. Photo: Michael Bradley Photography

When the Magic’s 2022 roster was announced, there was some scrutiny from Magic fans, noticing none of their 10 contracted players were specialist wing attacks. Georgie Edgecombe made the shift from wing defence to wing attack, having a lot of court time in Wilbore’s absence.  

“She’s unreal, she is so fit, so strong, so athletic,” Wilbore says of 21-year-old Edgecombe. “She’s just like a sponge, she just takes it all in and you couldn’t ask for anybody better to learn a new position. 

“I think people kind of underestimate how important wing attack is, and actually how hard it is. They’re the leaders down the attacking end.” 

Covid was harsh on the Magic this season. It wasn’t until round 12 they had all of their 10 contracted players available to play. They finished their final three games with two wins and one loss - a glimpse of what could have been if they’d had a full-strength team all season.  

“Obviously on paper, the results haven’t been that great. But we’re a new team, with lots of changes, and we’ve had a rollercoaster of a season,” Wilbore says. “We’ve got such a good connection and culture off-court, it’s just building it on-court."

Wilbore hopes to continue playing next season and be offered a contract with the Magic again.  

“That was the other thing why it was important for me to try and come back,” she says. “I’d been given this opportunity and I had something to prove.  

“I’ve been given a decent amount of court time, which I’m very grateful for, so hopefully I’ve shown enough. But I’ve loved every chance I’ve had.”  

Mya's medley on song for Birmingham

Frustrated in the pool last year, top Kiwi medley swimmer Mya Rasmussen sought a new start in Brisbane - and now she's off to her first Commonwealth Games.

Medley swimmer Mya Rasmussen always wanted to compete at the Commonwealth Games and was well on track to do so as a young teen.   

But after winning a gold medal in the 400m individual medley at the 2017 Commonwealth Youth Games in the Bahamas, in a lifetime best that would have qualified her for the previous year’s Rio Olympics, she plateaued.

In her late teens, she was struggling to find the form that would get her into the top 16 at a world juniors competition, let alone secure selection to her first senior team. 

Even at age 15, while she was a student at Palmerston North Girls' High, Rasmussen was New Zealand’s top ranked swimmer in both 400m IM and 200m IM.

In 2018, she moved from Feilding to Australia’s Sunshine Coast in search of better times, better competition, and to train with some of Australia’s top swimmers such as Kaylee McKeown, a top 400m IM swimmer who currently holds a world backstroke record.

Yet for the following two years, Rasmussen was consistently swimming times slower than she did when she was 14 – not even 10 seconds close to her personal best - and felt like giving up altogether.

“Swimming was just not feeling the same for me – I hadn’t been anywhere near my times, and I was really struggling mentally to get back to motivate myself,” she says.

She questioned why she was still in the sport.

“I was training so hard, but not getting the results that I felt like I deserved or had worked for. Even last year was quite rough,” the 21-year-old says.

Then late last year, Rasmussen made another move – this time for a change in coaching.

Moving down the coast to Brisbane has paid dividends for Mya Rasmussen (centre lane). Photo: Swimming Queensland. 

She wanted to work with coach Tim Lane at Somerville House, a squad based at a girl’s boarding school in South Brisbane. Rasmussen has settled in there, and has found a part-time job at Nike.

The move has paid dividends.

“I took a break and focused on 200m IM and 200m butterfly. Then I came back and did a four minutes 48 seconds time in the 400m IM and thought, ‘Oh I can actually still do a decent time’, which was like a real confidence boost for me,” Rasmussen says.

In January, she clocked 4m 42.33s in the 400m IM at the New South Wales championships - just shy of her lifetime best. It was her first time under 4m 46.00s since her Commonwealth Youth Games title; and was clocked just a few months after her move to Brisbane.

While that clipped her ticket to this week’s world championships in Budapest (she swims the 400m IM on the final day on Saturday), her time fell nearly four seconds short of the tougher Commonwealth Games standard.

But in April, Swimming New Zealand informed Rasmussen her New South Wales time was good enough to be selected for the Birmingham Commonwealth Games, as a swimmer who could potentially be placed in the top six in the event.   

She will also swim the 200m IM and the 200m breaststroke in Birmingham next month, five years after winning medals in the same three events at the Commonwealth Youth Games.

“I’m shocked I got there after all this time,” Rasmussen says, recalling hearing the news of her Games selection. “I was in the car on the way to training and I just started crying – I was so excited.

“I hadn’t even got a time to make the long list, so I had to do all that long list paperwork to be nominated. I didn’t have a clue whether they were going to select me. I also got nominated last time – but didn’t get selected, so I didn’t want to get my hopes up.

“I’m glad that I stuck with it and finally got there in the end. It’s been such a long time – it’s a huge relief.”

Rasmussen says had she not moved to Brisbane, she would not be off to the Commonwealth Games.

“The facilities, the coaching and the training partners are so much better over here. Tim is an amazing coach, he’s just so organised and onto it. I could not find a more perfect match in a coach,” she says.

“We think very similarly, and he just understands what I’ve been through and makes it clear what I need to do, which makes it easier for me.” 

Mya Rasmussen will swim three events at the Commonwealth Games next month. Photo: Swimming Queensland.

Even a world championships qualification time was not initially part of the plan so early. Rasmussen had not been closer than four seconds to the qualifying standard within the previous five years.  

“I was going to come home [to New Zealand] and attempt it, or do it at the Australian trials, but Aussie trials got moved to May, a month after our qualifying period ended,” Rasmussen says.

A last-minute decision was made with Lane to have a crack at the world championship qualifying standard at the New South Wales champs to avoid having to make a last-ditch attempt at the New Zealand trials in April, should the borders be open.

“I wasn’t too sure how I’d go,” Rasmussen recalls. “I had five days to prepare to try and go under this qualifying time. It was quite daunting, but it was pretty awesome to get under the time.”

Rasmussen holds multiple national age group records and more than 50 Manawatu records. Yet she is the only swimmer in the Commonwealth Games team without a national open title. 

That’s because as a teenager, Rasmussen chose to bypass most senior national events, getting her top times at the national age grade championships. Many of them were quicker than the winners of senior nationals.

Even as a 13-year-old, she broke five minutes in the 400m IM, in a time that would have got a silver medal at this year’s New Zealand championships. 

However, Rasmussen’s initial times in Australia during her slump were pretty good by New Zealand standards. Since 2013 only two New Zealand swimmers have gone quicker than 4m 51.00s in the 400m IM at a national open competition.

One is 2016 Olympian Helena Gasson, who, in April qualified in the 200m IM for both Birmingham and Budapest (which is why Rasmussen isn't permitted to swim the 200 IM at the world champs). 

Teenager Gina McCarthy also met the development qualifying standard for Budapest and could have been selected had Rasmussen not got the A standard. 

Mya Rasmussen training in Slovakia last week before the world championships. 

But Rasmussen has high goals. Her Olympic goal is to lower her times to qualify for Paris in 2024, which has the same 400m IM qualifying standard as the one she missed for Birmingham.

She believes she can do it.

“I’m definitely ready to go faster now,” she says. “Coming over here and going up against people that are just going to kick my arse has been really important. 

“If I can drop below 4:40 at the Commonwealth Games, that would be great. Tim said I’m more than capable of dropping to 4:38.”

Should Rasmussen do that, she will not only be in the hunt for a place in Paris, but she’ll hold her first New Zealand Open record, one that has that has stood since 2007.

For now, she has a busy international schedule of four pinnacle competitions in 13 months, if she wants to compete at the world short course championships in Melbourne in December, and next year’s world championships to be held in Japan in July. 

* Erika Fairweather has finished sixth in the 400m freestyle on the opening day of the world championships in Budapest yesterday, holding on to her sixth ranking. Eve Thomas finished 13th in the same event. (Lewis Clareburt finished just outside the medals in the men's 400m IM).

And at the world Para swimming championships, Nikita Howarth won silver in the 100m breaststroke SB7, and was seventh in the 100m backstroke S7. Gaby Smith smashed personal best times to make her first three world champs finals, with a fifth and two sixth placings, while Lili-Fox Mason also swam a personal best to finish seventh in the final of the 400m freestyle S10.  Cameron Leslie was NZ's star of the world meet, winning a gold and three silvers.

Burger's down but not defeated by unlucky break

Silver Fern Karin Burger will watch the Commonwealth Games with her leg in a cast, but the outstanding defender is dead-set on returning for the World Cup defence in her native South Africa, she tells Merryn Anderson.

For the past year, Karin Burger had been nursing an undiagnosable niggle in her foot - all part of being a professional athlete, the star Silver Ferns defender thought. 

Little did she know one awkward landing would result in six months away from the sport she loves, and rule her out of next month's Commonwealth Games in Birmingham.

In the final game of the Tactix season against eventual ANZ Premiership champions the Pulse, Burger came down badly on her right foot. She describes that moment as “the last straw”, unable to work through the pain she’d been managing until then. 

“Everybody kept doing as much as they could to try and figure out what the issue was so it’s not like there was a lack of effort in that area," she says. "Nothing showed up until we did the scans after the last game."

Those scans revealed the injury was a fracture in her navicular bone, which will require surgery to heal. Now the 29-year-old defender is hoping to return to the Ferns environment by December.

Despite the blow, Burger is staying positive and is determined to come out of this setback fitter and stronger than before - especially with the next Netball World Cup being held in her homeland of South Africa next year. 

“It’s so frustrating for everybody that we couldn’t pick up on anything earlier to prevent anything. But everybody did as much as they possibly could. It is what it is, no-one’s to blame,” she says. 

Burger is also taking that mindset with her as she prepares for six to eight weeks in a cast, unable to join the Silver Ferns on their journey to Commonwealth Games redemption.

A sure selection for the pinnacle event, her unavailability leaves the Ferns a lot lighter on defence. And the dynamic 33-test player is obviously disappointed.

“I’m not the kind to think about something and think ‘what if’. It’s the situation I’m in so it’s important for me to look ahead," she says.

“I had my weekend to cry about it and get through it.” 

The surgery involves putting a screw through the bone to fix the crack, and shaving off a bit of bone to prevent a clash against any other bones - which could create another fracture. Once her time in the cast is over, then rehab starts. 

“Then it’s just about recovering all the muscle I would have lost and the fitness I would have lost by that point,” Burger explains. 

“As much as I’d like to take the court as soon as the cast is off, there’s also a lot of dangers in that, in going to any competitive stuff undercooked. So it’s important to get the ankle mobility back, the fitness and the strength back up and running.” 

Burger is hoping to return in time for the Silver Ferns trials in December, but light-heartedly says she could be available for FAST5 World Series in Christchurch in November if things go well. 

Despite a disappointing season with the Tactix, Burger still found herself enjoying her netball. Photo: Getty Images

For the athletic defender who hates sitting still, she’s already researched ways to cover the cast while swimming, and planned seated boxing for cardio and upper body workouts while she recovers from surgery. 

“I’m quite excited to focus on the things I can do that are non-netball related. And also working on my body to get it up and running and fit and healthy and mobile and strong - specifically going into another pinnacle event next year, and making sure I don’t have niggles,” Burger says. 

“I can’t remember the last time I didn't have niggles, so it’s the perfect time to work on those little things. I try not to dwell too much on the negative and keep going.” 

Burger played every second of the Tactix’ disappointing 2022 ANZ Premiership season, mostly at goal defence. 

The Tactix finished bottom of the table this year, with just five wins - a stark contrast to last year where they lost in the grand final to the Mystics by only two goals. 

“I love being on court so regardless of what the score is going to be, I just want to be able to play netball,” Burger says. She was without her defensive partner of Jane Watson this year, who welcomed her first child, Tia, in May. 

“Sometimes you’re gonna enjoy the game and sometimes you’re not,” Burger says. “So it’s just about how you can make yourself enjoy it and find ways to enjoy it when it’s not going your way - I think that’s been a big challenge for me as well.”

For a player who has made the grand final of the ANZ Premiership every year since she’s been playing (winning back-to-back titles with the Pulse in 2019 and 2020), this season was definitely a change for the talented defender. 

“It was a complete different experience for me, which I felt like I learnt quite a bit from," she says. "So I wouldn’t change anything cause everything happens for a reason." 

While Burger is upbeat and positive talking about her injury, she's also trying not to think too much about missing the Commonwealth Games. 

“Mentally, I need to try and distract myself, especially with the netball going on,’ she says. “As much as I want to support the girls, I know it’ll be hard for me to watch it, knowing I can’t be out there doing it as well. So it’ll be good to find some things to distract myself with off-court.” 

She’s hoping to be able to make the trip back home to South Africa while in recovery, the last time she saw her family was before Covid. But she also has support in Christchurch and Wellington. 

“Rehab for me is my key priority at the moment so I need to put myself where it’s going to be best for me. So whatever that looks like and we’ll work from there,” Burger says, noting overseas travel can still be difficult with Covid - which she impressively managed to avoid this season. 

Burger made her Silver Ferns debut in September 2018, and has amassed 33 test caps since then, including a handful as part of the victorious 2019 Netball World Cup team. 

Being part of a Ferns team defending their world title is high on Burger’s netball bucket list, especially when it's held in Cape Town. 

“Growing up, wherever I went, regardless of what sport I did, there was always support on the sidelines, especially Mum and Dad,” says Burger, who moved from South Africa to New Zealand as an 18-year-old. 

There won't be a lack of support for New Zealand in the crowd - Burger’s parents, siblings, wider family, friends and old school teachers all supporting her from afar at the moment, but eager to see her play in person in the black dress. 

“Having my people in the crowd will be the biggest thing for me to look forward to,” Burger admits, as well as playing in familiar surroundings. 

Twenty-seven Silver Ferns triallists enter camp on Monday, with the team to compete in Birmingham named on June 27.

Burger is eager to point out fans don’t see who performs well at camp, and coach Dame Noeline Taurua considers all players at trials, so all 27 could be in with a chance of making the final playing 12. 

As for who Burger predicts will get the nod in the defensive end? 

“It’s always a tough one when people ask about selections,” she says. “I guess it depends on what happens in trials and the connections, cause Noels is quite big on not necessarily individual players playing well, but how they gel within a group as well. 

“Considering Sulu [Fitzpatrick] and Phoenix [Karaka] have that great connection already and they have been in the mix prior, you’d have to think they’re up there. And obviously Kelly’s [Jury] had an amazing season, and has been in the mix as well, so I guess those three would be three key players in the defensive end.” 

She predicts the usual suspects of England and Australia will be New Zealand’s biggest competitors, with reigning Commonwealth champions England playing on home soil. 

“But it’s going to depend on who their players are and their playing style, and what ours look like as well,” Burger guesses. “From experience, it’s the styles that are the difference and styles that are usually the downfall rather than the team itself.” 

The hearts of Kiwi netball fans broke with the news that Burger would miss the Commonwealth Games, the defender being a sure pick for the Silver Ferns. Photo: Michael Bradley Photography

The 2023 ANZ Premiership will be key for players to stand out and put their hand up for World Cup selection. While Burger can’t announce where she’s signing yet, it seems she has unfinished business with the Tactix. 

“I don’t like club hopping so that in itself is a big indicator for me. Regardless of the season we’ve had this year, I know there’s a lot of potential down here and I enjoy Christchurch, so that’s as much as I can say I guess,” she laughs. 

With the potential return of Watson in the defensive circle, Burger is looking forward to spending more time domestically at wing defence. It's a position she frequently fills for the Ferns but has spent little time there for the Tactix this season. 

“If the opportunity presents itself for me to do that, I think it’ll be quite nice to be able to just practise doing the switch on a regular basis and doing it seamlessly,” she says. 

“I think that’s a key thing for me as well, because as confident as I feel in one position, if you don’t play the other one for too long then you sort of feel a bit uneasy about it. So it’s just making sure that when I do make the switches, I can play the best I possibly can. And being able to play both ways next year would be a good starter.” 

While the rest of 2022 is undetermined, Burger’s still optimistic and determined to bounce back. 

“I don’t know what the next six months are going to look like, and how I’m going to come out of it,” she says. “Obviously I’m going to think the most positive way I can and think I’m going to come back fitter and stronger than I went in.

“So if I can do that really well and hopefully put my hand up for the January tour [the Quad Series, also in South Africa] that’ll be a good starter.”

Burger is enthusiastic when asked if being selected for the 2023 World Cup defence would be a career highlight. 

“Oh, 100 percent! Definitely having it in South Africa as well,” she says. 

“Also, more so now that I’m not in Comm Games, I’m going to put even more effort and time into that because I refuse to miss out on another one.” 

Nana and Tui help Black Ferns wing love rugby again

Caught in a downward spiral after a major concussion, Black Ferns scoring machine Ayesha Leti-I’iga thought she’d never wear the black jersey again. But with the support of family – and a close bond with Ruby Tui – she’s back to her explosive best.

To see Ayesha Leti-I’iga crashing through tackle after tackle, or her scorching pace kicking in and leaving defenders flailing, or laughing with her new buddy, Ruby Tui, as they practise their chip kicks, you’d have no idea of the pain and torment she's been through.

The Black Ferns’ weapon on the left wing, Leti-I’iga scored twice in the opening match of their Pacific Four campaign, a win against Australia, a fortnight ago, and was player of the match in last weekend’s victory over Canada. She’s never been as fit or enjoyed her rugby so much, she admits, before the Black Ferns' final game against the United States on Saturday. 

Yet it wasn’t that long ago, Leti-I’iga believed she’d never get to pull on the black jersey again.

And she’s forever grateful to the grandmother who raised her for helping to pull her out of a downward spiral.

A Black Fern since she was 19 back in 2018, Leti-I’iga quickly stamped her mark on the Black Ferns as an exciting try scorer and a powerful and deceptive runner with the ball. Standing at just 1.65m, she was proud to be “different to other wingers” and stuck to her grandfather’s advice to always be fearless in a game.  

But then the Porirua-born Samoan’s progression came to a sudden halt – when her head hit another player in a club match in 2020.

Playing for her Ories (Oriental Rongotai) club side - where she's famous for repeatedly scoring five or more tries in a game - Leti-I’iga made a tackle but went in headfirst.

“I had a headache after the game and thought nothing of it,” the 23-year-old says.

Ayesha Leti-I'iga has played 14 tests for the Black Ferns since her 2018 debut. Photo: ACC NZ.

But it turned out she had delayed concussion, and a major one at that.

“As the days went by, I started getting sensitivity to light and I was really tired throughout the day. I slept most of the day, and I was barely eating,” she says.

“I had sharp headaches which made me sleep more, because I couldn't bare the pain when I was awake.”

What made it tougher for Leti-I’iga to cope was that she was already grieving the death of her beloved grandad, Faaui. 

Leti-I’iga was raised by her grandparents after her mum, Mary Asolupe Leti-I’iga was tragically struck by a car in 2009. Ayesha was just 11 years old.

She had a special bond with her grandparents, who are from the Samoan village of Lalomauga on Upolu. But especially her grandad, who she’s always called her “coach off the field”.

She was devastated by his passing. “It was really hard for me because rugby was our thing. With him not being here, it was hard to find my love for rugby again,” she says. “So I didn’t cope as well as I thought I would.

“After that all happened, I spiralled. And I turned to alcohol to try to solve my problems. I really thought I wouldn’t be able to put the black jersey on again.”

But then a “good chat” with her grandmother, Salafa, turned her around.

“Nana just told me straight: ‘Where do you want to go in life? You’re not going down the right path. Is this what your grandad would have wanted for you?’,” Leti-I’iga recalls.  

“That was a real eye-opener because I didn’t want to take his name in vain.

“I knew I could either keep going downhill or go back up from this. And so I just knuckled down and did the hard work to get back here.”

Black Fern wing Ayesha Leti-I'iga attempts to leap over Canada's Elissa Alarie in their Pacific Four match in Auckland. Photo: Getty Images. 

Concussion remains a serious issue in sport in New Zealand, and rugby tops the list in ACC claims for concussion. Research undertaken by the University of Otago of Kiwi rugby players, on top of international research, shows female rugby players tend to be at a higher risk of concussion than male. Rugby concussion for men sits around 13.8 suspected concussions per thousand playing hours, and in the women's game it's about 20.8. 

The Black Ferns have been involved in helping World Rugby to better understand head injuries in the game, wearing hi-tech mouthguards in a test against England late last year. 

Leti-I’iga saw a specialist in head injuries, and spent three months away from the field. Her aiga were her biggest support, she says. And they also became her driving force to get back into black, and earn a fully-professional contract with the Black Ferns. A goal she achieved in February.

“We didn’t have the most privileged upbringing and I wanted to give back to my grandparents, for the sacrifices they made for me,” says Leti-I’iga, who’d worked for the Ministry of Social Development. “Knowing I could make money just playing the sport I love, so I could give back to them, that’s driven me.”

When she suffered her concussion, she’d just been selected for the Possibles v Probables trial looking towards the 2021 Rugby World Cup to be played in New Zealand. But of course, Covid struck, and the tournament was postponed 12 months. Leti-I’iga could finally thank her lucky stars.

“I’m pretty lucky the World Cup got pushed another year. If it was still last year, I don’t think I would have made the team,” she says. “But I have faith now that I can still make that team, so I’m trying to push for it.”

‘I may not be everyone’s cup of tea, but I may be someone’s shot of vodka’ - Ayesha Leti-I'iga

If the Black Ferns selectors had to choose their team today for the World Cup, kicking off at Eden Park on October 8, Leti-I’iga would be a sure bet to be there.

“Man, our wingers are world-class aren’t they?” the Black Ferns new director of coaching, Wayne Smith, said after Sunday’s win over Canada (when right wing Ruby Tui scored two spectacular tries).

“Ayesh isn’t bad either,” Smith said with a grin. “They’re phenomenal, so you can see why we want to play some rugby because you’ve got to use your great players. They’re pretty special.”

Leti-I’iga found her love of rugby again playing in this year’s Super Rugby Aupiki for Hurricanes Poua. And on this Pacific Four series tour, she says she’s enjoying her rugby even more and is the fittest she’s been, too.

She credits a new “family environment” in the Black Ferns, under a new coaching team led by Smith, and being given the licence to run the ball from anywhere on the field.

And then there’s been the arrival of Tui.

Practice makes perfect for Ruby Tui with the chip and chase she's been practising for a month.

This series has been Olympic gold medallist Tui’s international debut in rugby 15s. And she’s immediately made an impression on the coaches, fans and her team-mates. None more so than Leti-I’iga.

After Tui, 30, scored the Black Ferns first try in the test against Canada – a smartly executed chip and chase in the right-hand corner – she gave kudos to Leti-I’iga.

“Ayesha has been my coach on the chip and chase, and she’s been really hard and critical every day,” Tui said. “And when I did it on the field, she even said it wasn’t good enough; it wasn’t high enough… so I’ll try and work on it more.”

“Nice,” Leti-I’iga chipped back. “I’m glad you acknowledge your mistakes.”

Tui has now set a challenge for Leti-I’iga. “We’re both competitive people, so Ruby has got one up on me. So if there’s an opportunity in this game [tomorrow] I’m going to give it a crack,” she laughs.

“Having Ruby in this space has made this tour even more fun for me. We play the same position, but I never feel like I’m in competition with Ruby - we’re just helping each other get better.

“We’re similar people, we’ve naturally gravitated to each other, and we’ve become real close super-fast.”

Leti-I’iga has also learned from Tui, a veteran of more than 150 games in the black jersey, and the 2019 World Sevens player of the year.

“Rugby aside, the first thing I picked up from Ruby is she’s a human first. She’s a people person, and that really shone throughout this tour. She took that on the field, and there was so much trust in our team,” Leti-I’iga says.

She makes them laugh, too: “We’re doing drills and she’s groaning and scaring people. I ask her 'Why do you make those noises?' and she says she can’t keep her excitement in.

The irrepressible Ruby Tui. Photo: Sky TV

“We’ve been real big on culture and she’s helped implement that in our team. It’s really cool to see how much our team has grown. We’re still building and I can’t wait to see where we go.”

Tui will be missing from New Zealand’s backline against the United States in Whangārei on Saturday, having returned to the Black Ferns Sevens fold.

“I’m already missing my buddy,” Leti-I’iga says. “I sent her a long text today saying how much love I have for her, and how grateful I am to have her in this team.”

Leti-I’iga is looking forward to taking the field against the US, the nation she made her debut against at Chicago’s famous Soldier Field in 2018 – scoring the final try in the Black Ferns’ 67-6 victory. She’s excited, too, her family have travelled north to watch her play.

She'll have the names of her mum and grandad written on tape around her wrist when she plays.

“I’ve never gone into a game scared because my grandad always told me to be fearless,” she says.

“I know I’m different to other wingers because of my size and I want to bring something different. So I use my size to my advantage.

“There’s a netballer, Cathrine Latu [now Tuivaiti], she’s different. And there’s a quote that sticks with me: ‘I may not be everyone’s cup of tea, but I may be someone’s shot of vodka’. So that’s me.”

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