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Joy after loss: Silver Fern Watson's taking care of baby

Vital Silver Ferns defender Jane Watson reveals she's both ecstatic and mindful of her pregnancy. And she's searching for ways to keep giving all she can to her netball sides.

Chance for Pasifika women to return to their roots

Changes to rugby’s eligibility laws could make a massive difference to the women’s game, with a host of Black Ferns able to return to their Pasifika roots, writes Alice Soper.

Amelia Kerr: My family saved my life

Amelia Kerr wants the world to understand the mental hell she's been through in the past 18 months. And the White Ferns wunderkind tells Kristy Havill how her family and those closest to her helped save her life.

New basketball league scores with equal pay

A new national league for women’s basketball - with equal pay to the men’s league – will give a giant boost to the sport’s development on home soil and lure Kiwis home, Merryn Anderson writes.

A cricketing world where bubs are welcome

A novel idea of free childcare at all Cricket World Cup matches in NZ next year - and mums actually playing in the tournament - shows how far the women's game has progressed, says an ex-White Ferns captain. 

Former White Ferns captain Aimee Watkins knows the struggle of balancing cricket with career and family.  

At the age of 28, she decided it was time to move on with her life and retire after playing 141 internationals. A decision she was almost forced to make. 

Watkins wanted to start a family with husband, Jamie (who’s now the head coach of the Central Hinds), and knew that meant she couldn’t carry on with cricket. 

While family wasn’t the only reason Watkins finished playing in 2011 - a chronic knee injury plaguing her final years as New Zealand captain - she never considered juggling motherhood with cricket.  

“There was never any talk of it and in my mind, when you want to have kids, that’s sort of it,” says Watkins, recalling how there were never any discussions about players having children.  

But things have changed markedly in 10 years. Watkins’ vice-captain, Amy Satterthwaite, is still in the White Ferns side, with an almost two-year-old daughter. 

White Ferns Amy Satterthwaite and Lea Tahuhu with daughter, Grace. Photo: NZ Cricket.

And in another innovation for the game, at all 31 games of the upcoming ICC Women’s Cricket World Cup, being played throughout the country in March and April, there will be free childcare for every family who walks in the gate. 

“Absolutely 100 percent it’s something that I would have liked to have had available in my day,” says Watkins, who now has two daughters aged eight and six.  

“Even just at local games at Pukekura Park in New Plymouth, I’ve thought ‘Oh I can’t really take them along’ because even a T20 is still four hours, where you’ve got to entertain them.  

“Cricket is for everyone, families are welcome. The kids can be involved or not - they can watch or sit there and do colouring-in with someone else. But it’s great to have families all at the ground.” 

The novel pop-up childcare idea comes out of a collaboration between the CWC22 organising team and in-home education provider PORSE. 

It’s part of a bigger plan by Andrea Nelson, the CEO of CWC22, to make this cricket tournament family-friendly and different from other world sporting events. 

In 2011, as Watkins finished playing, the New Zealand Cricket Players Association started working with the women’s teams, a change that has gone on to benefit many White Ferns players.  

"That’s clearly a pathway a lot of women want to take, having a family,” says Watkins. 

“So recognising that, drawing something up and seeing what happened overseas and in other sports to make it work, it was a game changer. Obviously for people like Amy Satterthwaite recently, and who knows who else in the future." 

Watkins remembers where the state of women’s cricket was in her playing days, starting at Central Districts when she was only 16.  

The Central Hinds would be given leftover gear from the Stags men’s team, and would train in XL men’s shirts. It left Watkins and her teammates feeling undervalued. 

Aimee Watkins retired from cricket in 2011, and now has two daughters with her husband, Central Hinds coach, Jamie Watkins. Photo: Getty Images. 

The journey New Zealand Cricket have been on to support the women’s game is massive, and Watkins credits their work alongside the associations for the progress made since she played. 

Some things have stayed the same, though. Watkins still holds the New Zealand record for the most ODI wickets, taking 92 across her 10-year international career. 

*** 

The concept of free childcare came out of a conversation Nelson had with PORSE founders Rahul and Bhavini Doshii at a Phoenix football game. 

‘We were discussing the [Cricket World Cup] tournament and what we were trying to achieve, and how our message was about attracting a new audience,” Nelson says. “PORSE are totally committed to celebrating working parents, so it’s a perfect alignment with what we’re trying to do.” 

They successfully trialled the idea at home games for the Blues rugby side, encouraging young families to come to Eden Park, but this is the first large-scale event they’ve worked with.  

“It’s such a great statement of what we’re all about,” Nelson says. “We want to make people think differently, try something new. It will create a really fun family atmosphere for everyone - whether they’re cricket fans, or about to become cricket fans.”  

When Nelson first took on the CEO role, one of the first people she spoke to was Sarah Styles, then head of female engagement at Cricket Australia (she’s now the director of the Office for Women in Sport and Recreation in Victoria).  

Nelson asked her how they’d managed to attract big crowds to the Women’s Big Bash League, and how AFL did the same for their women’s league.   

“There were two things I took out of it. One was the importance of having advocates in the community – which is what our Champions programme is all about,” Nelson says. 

So far 1870 New Zealand community ‘Champions’ have signed up to help spread the word about CWC22.  “You’ve got to have people sharing it in the community, telling people to go,” says Nelson. 

“The other thing was to create an atmosphere that’s different. We have more to come – there’s some pretty cool family friendly and unusual things we plan to do for our spectators. Eight hours of cricket is a long day if you’re new to the sport, so we’re trying to break it up, so it feels like a festival.”  

“It’s only possible when you have corporate support. Any event can’t do something like this on their own. What’s great is that we’re all on the same waka trying to achieve the same thing and it genuinely makes a difference.” 

*** 

The vision of CWC22 is ‘to own the moment and lead the change’.  

“It’s ironic that the moment we’re owning is the reopening of international sport in New Zealand, and the change we’re leading is a bit different to the one we thought we’d be leading,” Nelson says. 

The global pandemic took its first swipe at the World Cup in August last year, forcing the ICC to delay the event by a year.  

It continues to cause hassles. The qualifying tournament in Zimbabwe last month, to determine the final three nations for the World Cup, was called off early when travel restrictions were imposed after the new Omicron variant of Covid-19 was found in southern Africa. 

The three spots were decided by ICC rankings – and filled by Bangladesh, Pakistan and the West Indies.  

One of those teams will play the White Ferns in the opening match at Bay Oval in Tauranga on March 4. The draw has still to be completed.  

For all the problems Covid has caused the organisers, it’s also had a positive spin.  

“It’s helped us to become one team - with the government, with the ICC, with New Zealand Cricket,” Nelson says. “I’ve never worked on an event where so many people have become invested in it becoming a success. Because it’s more than just the event itself – it’s what it signifies, as the first of the three World Cups coming to New Zealand.” 

The extra year to prepare for the tournament has been priceless, too, Nelson says. 

“Of course, it’s not how you’d choose to stage a global event. There are constraints and you end up spending your time doing a lot of contingency plans, often in the knowledge the things you’re planning for may never happen. It just keeps changing,” she says. 

“But we are making the best of what we have, and we’re really grateful for the position we’re in. It’s grass banks, it’s outdoors, it’s summer. As an Aucklander, I know I’d be very comfortable sitting on the grass banks at Hamilton’s Seddon Park and watching one-day cricket.” 

Nelson is proud of what her team has already achieved – the $2m upgrade to gender-neutral changing rooms at all of the grounds, the nationwide education programme available in Te Reo, and the integration of Te Reo in cricket.  

“And the leaders we are growing in our team – who’ve been through an experience that no one else has before. They will be such an asset to New Zealand sports events in the future,” she says. 

With the first team, India, arriving in January to play the White Ferns, the focus is now on getting people to the games. So far they’ve sold over 26,500 tickets.  

Regardless of the traffic light stages New Zealand will be in come March, the event will still take place. What changes is the crowds.  

“If there can’t be crowds, there can’t be crowds. That’s the risk the event is carrying,” Nelson says. “But we want to fill the stadiums and show the world. If we’re unable to do that because of a public health measure, we will roll with that. 

“You’ve got to roll with the punches, and remember that at the end of the day you’re trying to do something that’s really good. You’re trying to create a fantastic event that’s also a showcase of something really important – women in sport, equity, and the global growth of the game and New Zealand’s part in that.” 

A new chapter in world champion rower's legend

After falling out of love with rowing, world champion Fiona Bourke is back on Lake Karapiro, but now as a coach. And she's collecting the wisdom of other coaches to guide the next generation of promising Kiwi rowers.

Fiona Bourke’s story has all the classic elements of a fairy tale.  

Her story is of the late bloomer who worked hard to become a rowing world champion, then fell out of love with her sport and flew to the other side of the world - only to have that passion rekindled at one of the world’s leading universities.

There’s even a gruff and unpretentious hero in the storyline, who she now tries to emulate in helping other young rowers, as he once helped her.

Bourke will probably chuckle reading this. But the Olympian, who’s now working to forge a path for young New Zealand rowers, knows the next chapter in her story is only just beginning.

Flicking back to the beginning, growing up in Hawke's Bay and of Ngāti Kahungunu descent, Bourke wasn’t a rower. In fact, she wasn’t very athletic at all.

“I played social soccer and basketball at high school literally for the trip to the city for games so we could stop at McDonald’s,” she says. “I was a complete nerd.”

Bourke, who was dux at Central Hawke's Bay College, stresses she knows now it's "cool to be smart" and it's a message she tries to get across to young athletes.

It wasn’t until she moved to Dunedin - where she was top of chemistry for two years at Otago University - that she took up her first real sporting endeavour, rowing.

On the bedroom wall of her student flat, Bourke had a cardboard cut-out of her two rowing heroes – Caroline and Georgina Evers-Swindell.

In 2008, Bourke had just finished her novice year at the Otago University Rowing Club, and was sitting in the clubrooms watching on the big screen as the Kiwi twins won their second Olympic gold medal - by 1/100th of a second. “When they needed to be in front, they were in front,” Bourke says.

“I said to myself ‘I want to be like them one day. One day I want to be in the New Zealand rowing team and coached by Dick Tonks’.”

Fiona Bourke (Ngāti Kahungunu) was named Māori Sportswoman of the Year in 2014; it's her goal to become fluent in Te Reo. Photo: Rowing NZ. 

Bourke’s ambition came to be in 2010, when she first joined the New Zealand rowing team in the U23 women’s eight. Within two years, she rowed at the London Olympics in the quad. Tonks would coach her for six years – and have a lasting influence on her career, in and out of a boat.

In 2014, Bourke and Zoe Stevenson became world champions in the double scull – a year after they’d won silver. But the following season, Bourke's career suddenly changed course. 

She still remembers the morning she woke up and realised her love for rowing was gone.

It was the day before the national trials for the 2016 Olympics. When Olympic single sculler Emma Twigg (now the reigning Olympic champion) had left to study overseas, Bourke had been moved into the single boat – as the next fastest sculler.

“I didn’t enjoy it, but I didn’t have the courage to say so,” she says. “It destroyed my love of the sport.”

Instead, she decided she’d had enough, and laid down her oars.

Bourke left for the United States to do something “completely different” – working with young girls at a summer camp in New Hampshire, as a 'waterfront director'. “It was awesome to be doing something totally removed from rowing – it was a different universe,” she says.

She could have been lost to the sport forever – but it wasn’t long before rowing was calling her again.

Bourke visited Boston to meet friends she made on the US women’s rowing team. She mentioned she wanted to get back into the sport somehow.

One of them told her of a coaching job at Harvard University, as the assistant heavyweight coach of the Radcliffe women’s rowing crew. “I was like ‘Heck no I don’t have the qualifications’. They wanted someone with five years’ coaching experience, and three years’ experience in the NCAA system,” Bourke says.

Coach Fiona Bourke talks to young women rowers at Lake Karapiro. Photo: Rowing NZ.

But they encouraged her to call, and her impressive rowing pedigree obviously helped her clinch the job. For three years she worked on the Charles River, coaching the successful Radcliffe crew.

“While I was working at Harvard-Radcliffe, it was the only women’s rowing programme in the country to have a full staff of women – head coach, assistants, volunteers and boatwomen,” Bourke says.

“It was amazing, and they put such value on athletes having an identity outside of sport; on being good people, not just athletes.”

Bourke helped recruit two young Kiwi rowers - Morgan Blind and Kayla Baker - to the college while she was there. “It’s cool how it will change their lives to be able to study at the highest level,” Bourke says.

It’s now Bourke’s role to help rowers like Blind and Baker return home and further their rowing careers.

Of course, that’s not easy right now. For the last two years, Bourke has coached the New Zealand U21 team – who unfortunately, halted by the global pandemic, have had nowhere to go.

But she also now has a fulltime role at Rowing New Zealand as a national pathway coach. That requires liaising with clubs around the country, helping to develop their athletes through the rowing system, and keeping in touch with Kiwis who have rowing scholarships at US colleges.

“We’re working on the seamless transition for when they have their degrees and want to row for New Zealand,” Bourke says. “In the past, we’ve lost some athletes when they’ve come back. We want to put a huge value on them getting an education - taking time to develop and grow as a person and an athlete – and then coming back to row again.”

While Bourke has plenty of personal experience and knowledge to call on, she also has the opportunity to grow in the second cohort of Te Hāpaitanga, a project created to expand New Zealand’s pool of female coaching talent.

“It can be hard in a high performance environment, particularly as a woman in a typically male-dominated space, not underselling yourself, standing up and having a voice,” she says.

While there are no female coaches at the high performance level in Rowing NZ, they are working to elevate women in the sport. Hannah Starnes, a national age-group coach who’s now head coach at the Waikato Rowing Club, was in the first Te Hāpaitanga intake of 12 coaches last year.

“For three female rowers of that era to have gone on to pursue coaching shows the importance of growing good people" - Fiona Bourke.

Bourke also applied in 2020 and missed out, but was so impressed by Starnes’ experience, she tried again and has made the cut of 16 women from a wide range of sports.

“It’s important we get someone into that high performance space in rowing,” Bourke says. “And it’s also important you’re not there just because you’re a woman. It’s making sure you are the best person for the job.”

Starnes says she’s learned so much on Te Hāpaitanga, a High Performance Sport NZ initiative, from up-and-coming female coaches in other sports codes.

“I’ve watched strong, powerful women soften after finally feeling like they have a safe space to show their emotions,” she says. “I’ve had cup of tea conversations with women about their kids, their marriages, the juggle and the sacrifice. I’ve stood in silence with empowered women who were about to do something they never thought they could do, seen the resulting empowerment afterwards.

“The power of potential and the support network within the group is something quite special and I feel privileged to have been part of it.”

Starnes also rowed for the Otago University club, with another Te Hāpaitanga coach and former professional cyclist, Elyse Fraser (below).

In fact, Fraser – now a coach with Cycling New Zealand – played an important role in Bourke’s rowing career.

“Elyse was a senior rower at Otago when I was a novice. She was one of the best athletes I’d seen, and I aspired to be as good as her,” Bourke says.

“We rowed together at our club, and one of the defining moments of my career was learning to race with Elyse on Lake Dunstan. Throughout the race she was telling me, 10 more, 10 more. And she didn’t stop asking me for 10 more throughout the race. I didn’t stop – and I was toasted afterwards. But she taught me to always give all you have.

“For three female rowers of that era to have gone on to pursue coaching shows the importance of growing good people.”

Tonks also had a huge influence on Bourke’s career - and continues to do so.  

“What I learned from him was incredible. The first year I was terrible, but he took a chance on me, he saw something in me,” she says.

“Everyone was released for the Christmas holidays but I wanted to stay at Lake Karapiro and row, because I wanted to improve. On Christmas Eve, he was there on the water at 6am – and he didn’t need to be.

“He believes it’s not about you as a coach trying to get accolades; it's about helping the athlete to achieve anything. That resonated with me. I wanted to be able to give that back to other athletes.”

Bourke also hopes to finesse the skills of observation she picked up from Tonks. "He’s a man of very few words, but his observation skills are impeccable. He could tell from the way you carried your boat down to the water what you needed in that coaching session," she says.

“You can’t just rely on science, you need intuition and feel. It’s getting harder to develop those ‘human’ skills with so much technology and physiology in sport.

“But Te Hāpaitanga is helping to make [coaching] a lot more intuitive. And it gives you the courage to stand up and do something that’s different, because you believe in it.”  

Fast driver's Xmas gift comes early

Kiwi rally driver Emma Gilmour has found a way home after scoring the drive of a lifetime. But she's filling in time by making herself at home with the legendary McLaren team.

Emma Gilmour will completely miss Christmas this year – flying across time zones in her much-anticipated journey from England back home to New Zealand.  

But the history-making rally driver is not too concerned. Instead, she’s thrilled to finally be coming home to Dunedin after five months in the UK, having battled the MIQ lottery and missed out on several chances before Sport New Zealand gifted her a spot. 

And, anyway, her Christmas present came early this year, in the form of a souped-up electric SUV with the name McLaren written on it. She just has to wait till next year to race it.  

The 41-year-old Gilmour has lost count of how many Covid tests she’s had to take this year. She left New Zealand shores in July to fill her role as a reserve driver for Veloce Racing in the inaugural Extreme E championship series.  

Extreme E is an off-road racing series where all teams have one male and one female driver who share equal driving duties. Along with promoting gender equality, the series also focuses on raising awareness for climate change; the vehicles they drive are the electric off-road SUV. Spark Odyssey 21.

Gilmour made her race debut in Greenland in August, round three of the series, with co-driver Stéphane Sarrazin.  

Gilmour's first taste of the Extreme E series came in Greenland in August, racing with Veloce. Photo: (ADD CREDIT)

And then in November, she was named the first female driver to sign up with the McLaren team – and will race for them in the 2022 Extreme E series, on courses in remote corners of the world with American rallycross and stunt driver Tanner Foust.  

Gilmour is used to making history, becoming the first woman to win an event in the NZ Rally Championship, dominating the Rally of Canterbury. 

The British-based McLaren team, of course, was founded by Kiwi motorsport legend, the late Bruce McLaren. 

Originally holding a place in MIQ for September, Gilmour decided to give up her spot when she had the chance to race with Veloce again, this time in Italy for the fourth round.  

Gilmour can see the bright side of the decision now, especially with New Zealand in various stages of lockdown. It also gave her the chance to be at the COP26 climate change summit in Glasgow when her signing was announced.  

And to spend valuable time working with McLaren and test driving her new race car.  

A very special guest was present for Gilmour's McLaren announcement, Gilmour describing the chance to meet Prince Charles as "surreal". Photo: McLaren Racing. 

She’s also made time for sightseeing. A quick look at Gilmour’s Instagram shows all the places she’s visited in the UK since first making the trip over in July.  

“I’m lucky, I’ve got a good friend Claire who I met through rallying and she lives up in the Borders area in Scotland. I’ve basically gone up and stayed with her and her husband since September and obviously travelled back and forth to London when required,” says Gilmour.  

Gilmour is grateful for the valuable time she’s spending at the McLaren Technology Centre in Woking.  

“That’s the thing I’ve been really lucky with - being here, I’ve been busy testing with McLaren, getting ready for the next season with them,” says Gilmour.  

“I’ve had some good opportunities by being here with the testing and being at the McLaren Centre. Being able to watch F1 from behind the scenes and getting to have a look around the whole set-up there, I’ve been very lucky.” 

Testing time is limited with the Extreme E series, but Gilmour had the chance last weekend to take the car out for a full test drive. 

It was the last chance for Gilmour and Foust to test everything before they go to the first event of the 2022 series in Saudi Arabia. 

“It’s a really important test,” she explained before going out. “We’ve got a plan of what we want to achieve and try to learn, so it’ll be good to get to drive the car again.” 

This is where Gilmour’s time racing last year will come in handy.  

“Even though I’ve done rally cross, I’ve done rally, nothing quite prepares you for driving these electric off-road buggies. They’re nice to drive - the electric power is wonderful - but they’re quite big and the terrain itself is quite challenging,” Gilmour says.  

There have been some big names participating in the series, with the likes of Sébastien Loeb and Carlos Sainz lining up in the 2021 edition.  

Being on equal footing with such legends is a unique experience for Gilmour, the Kiwi admitting there is a little bit of “starstruck-ness”.  

“You can watch it on TV and think ‘I know what I’m in for’ but then actually rocking up and being on the start line with all of these other world champions, it’s quite a different beast,” she says.  

Gilmour has her own impressive qualifications though, finishing runner-up in the New Zealand Rally Championships three years in a row to put her in the top of the country’s rally drivers.  

Gilmour will have a short Kiwi summer before heading back to the UK and onwards to Saudi Arabia for racing. Photo: McLaren Racing. 

One of many Kiwis left refreshing web pages in hopes of returning to New Zealand, Gilmour was gearing up for a white Christmas with friends in the UK when she heard Sport NZ were allocating 20 spots for Kiwi athletes stranded overseas.  

Notified that her name was down for one of the places, Gilmour was initially hesitant to get her hopes up.  

“I probably won’t believe it until I see it and it happens,” she jokes.  

Gilmour runs a car dealership in Dunedin - Gilmour Motors Suzuki - and credits her small team back home to everything running smoothly in her absence.  

Earlier this week, it was confirmed that Gilmour received one of those Sport NZ places, flying out of the UK in December to be released from MIQ in early January.  

“It’s a really weird mix of emotions, you sort of feel bad to be getting one when other people are still missing out,” says Gilmour. 

The proposal of MIQ being scrapped by February for fully vaccinated New Zealanders returning home is music to Gilmour’s ears, who will spend around a month in New Zealand before returning to the UK to link up with McLaren.  

Gilmour has her fingers crossed she’ll be able to return home without restrictions come next year - she’ll be travelling to Saudi Arabia, Africa, South America and Northern Europe, all part of the provisional 2022 Extreme E calendar.  

“The nature of the Extreme E series is about racing without leaving a trace and leaving a smaller carbon footprint. The cars are shipped between each event so it’s quite a slow turnaround between events which means it leaves quite a long time that allows people to go home,” says Gilmour.  

Despite all the uncertainty around travel plans, Gilmour is incredibly grateful for the opportunities her career has given her.  

“I feel really lucky to be able to travel and to be able to do so many cool experiences so I’m looking forward to the season next year.”  

Emotional return of Silver Ferns besties now mums

Longtime friends Kayla Johnson and Phoenix Karaka are supporting each other as they return to the Silver Ferns' sphere with babies - but without their partners - and a new appreciation for the load athlete mums bear.

Countless times in their lives, Phoenix Karaka and Kayla Johnson have spilled tears together.

The pair have been close friends since they played netball as schoolgirls at Auckland Girls’ Grammar in the 2000s (in the days when the exceptional defenders were both shooters).

They cried together when they both made the Silver Ferns to play at their first World Cup, in Sydney in 2015. “We were like ‘How the heck did we get here?’,” Karaka laughs.

Then when Johnson (née Cullen) returned home to Auckland, after living in Sydney for two years, with baby daughter Millah, the waterworks switched on again.

“We met up for coffee and I was heavily pregnant, and we both just ended up crying,” Karaka recalls.  “It had been ages.”

But Johnson reveals a different reason for her emotion. “I was crying because I was thinking ‘Girl, you are in for a shock…’”

There were tears shed again last week, when they messaged each other after both of their partners headed off to live overseas to play their sport.

Last Thursday, All Black Patrick Tuipulotu left behind Karaka and their daughter, Pāma, to play a rugby season in Japan’s Top League. He won’t be back until the middle of next year.

A week before, Johnson’s league legend husband, Shaun, had flown across the Tasman to join the Warriors at their new base in the Brisbane suburb of Redcliffe for the 2022 NRL season.

“I asked Phee [Karaka] ‘How much did you cry when Pat left?’” Johnson says. “I cried heaps, too, when Shaun left. I feel like I’ve still got baby hormones running through me.”

And they doubt this will be the end of their shared weeping. Both women have found it tough getting their bodies back into top shape after childbirth, juggling their daughters and training, and regaining the mindset of playing netball at the highest level again.

Both Johnson and Karaka have been welcomed back into the Silver Ferns environment, with a week-long camp in a fortnight. It could ultimately lead to their re-inclusion in the Silver Ferns, who need more experienced defenders – especially with vice captain Jane Watson announcing her pregnancy this week.

“The challenge of it is exciting, but being so competitive, we don’t give ourselves credit for what we’re actually doing,” Karaka, 28, says.  

“I feel it’s going to be super hard for us both. No doubt I’m going to be coming over to Kayla’s and having a few cries because of how hard it is. It’s nice to have someone there going through the same thing… and as close friends, doing this in the same year.”

We’re on a three-way video call, and Johnson is in the Auckland home she’s just moved into with 15-month-old Millah, and Johnson’s friend and nanny, Julie.

Karaka is sitting in her car outside Pāma’s kōhanga reo. Her mum wasn’t able to pick up Pāma today as she normally would, so Karaka is taking her daughter along to a training session with her Northern Mystics team.

She’d asked head coach Helene Wilson (also a mum) if she could bring along Pāma, who will turn one on Christmas Day. With no shortage of ‘aunties’ to watch over the little girl while Karaka does her fitness tests, it was no problem.

Karaka realises she has to lean heavily on family to help her through this ANZ Premiership season.  

“The Mystics have been really good at understanding that this season, while Pat’s away, it going to be trickier, in terms of organisation and stuff like that,” the 30-test circle defender says. “But having family is huge. I don’t think I would have fully committed to a contract if I didn’t have them here.”

Johnson had her first team training back with the Northern Stars this week, able to leave Millah - an energetic little girl - with her live-in nanny.

“My friend Julie was living in Sydney when we were, and she moved back here and needed a job and a place to stay. It worked out perfectly,” Johnson says.

“Millah loves her, she calls her ‘Mummy’. Right now, Millah lives with two mummies, and no daddy.” Johnson and Karaka laugh.

With the constraints of lockdown, 29-year-old Johnson was champing at the bit to train with other people again.

“Motivation is so hard to find training on your own, not having the challenge of others pushing you, which I thrive off because I’m quite competitive. It’s hard to consistently train, and train well,” the 47-test Silver Fern says.

She’s conscious it’s been a while since she played top-tier netball. She left New Zealand after her last ANZ Premiership season with the Stars in 2019, and was immediately roped in as a temporary replacement for the NSW Swifts in Super Netball. Then she fell pregnant.

Earlier this year, she took the court for the South Coast Blaze in the Netball NSW Premier League, but she was “hopeless”.

“I was so unfit, I was only playing a quarter at a time. I don’t even count those games because I was still on a managed load and trying my best not to cark it,” she says.

Johnson and Karaka then laugh themselves to near tears discussing their pelvic floor weaknesses since giving birth, and some unfortunate incidents while jumping, as defenders do.

Phoenix Karaka defends a shot in a Silver Ferns test against England in 2017; watched by Kayla Johnson (left). Photo: Michael Bradley Photography. 

As athletes who’ve been among the best netballers in the world, both women had expected to regain their game fitness significantly quicker than they have.

“I was so positive I’d be able to bounce back fast. But it’s just been really hard,” Karaka says. “When you start doing fitness it’s okay. But then having to play netball and do netball-specific things – you discover you’ve lost a lot of your balance.

“The knowledge is still there to be able to pass the ball, but it’s almost like watching Pāma trying to pass… I feel really weak.

“And mentally, I push myself then test myself, and I’m not getting the results that I feel I’ve put into training. It’s quite stink.”

Both women look across the Tasman and see former Australian Diamonds Kim Ravaillion and Gretel Bueta back in Super Netball after having their first babies. Shooter Bueta (née Tippett) returned to the Queensland Firebirds just four months after having son, Bobby, in January.

“You see Kim and Gretel and they came back so fast, and you’re like ‘Yes it can be done’,” says Johnson. “But you’re also wondering ‘Why wasn’t my recovery like that?’

“I couldn’t even go for a walk until a month after Millah was born. I still feel like I’m years behind them.”

“But everyone is so different in their recovery,” Karaka reassures Johnson. “I have to appreciate that my body has just given birth to, like, a watermelon, so it’s taking longer to get over that. Now pre-season is starting, I’m just excited to be doing it with other people. Training in isolation is horrible, the hardest part.”

A former Mystics captain, Karaka made a brief return to the ANZ Premiership this year, seven months after having Pāma.

Under a new ‘return to play’ plan - managed by Netball New Zealand and the player’s ANZ Premiership team - she went to team trainings, but also spent time in the gym with the Silver Ferns strength and conditioning trainer and physio to make sure her body was ready for the blitz of elite competition.

She wishes she’d known more about what to expect physically in the lead-up to the birth and afterward. “I was quite fortunate to stumble across a yoga place that had pregnancy physios. But if that was available for all pregnant women, not just athletes, life would be different for a lot of people,” she says.

“We’re working on more support around that with netball, because there are a few more of us having babies, and it encourages us to still have a career.”

Kayla Johnson's Silver Ferns career has been punctuated by serious knee injuries. Photo: Michael Bradley Photography. 

Back fulltime with the Mystics this season, Karaka knows she doesn’t have to look far for inspiration and guidance. The woman who took on her Mystics captaincy mantle, Sulu Fitzpatrick, has been there before – as a mother of twins.

“Sulu’s had an up-and-down journey, but to see where she is now is a huge inspiration,” Karaka says. “Kayla and I have gone through some of those experiences with her.

“So now we can say ‘Right, there might be some really crappy parts to our lives, but we can see there’s a greener side’. I know if I need any advice, I can just go to her.”

Johnson admits she didn’t have the appreciation for mothers in sport until she had her daughter. “Now, I’m like wow, how have you guys done this and committed to your sport? It blows my mind. Even though it seems like an impossible task now, it’s nice to know others have gone before us, they’ve done it and succeeded.”

Both women says they have the full support of their partners, even if it’s from a distance. Cue more tears.

“Shaun’s 100 percent supportive,” Johnson says. “He saw how sad I was when I wasn’t playing. Oh my god, I don’t know why I’m crying. [Karaka tears up too].

“I didn’t feel like myself when I wasn’t playing. There was something missing. And I felt like I had to experience that to appreciate what netball has given me, what I took for granted.

“We moved back to New Zealand so we could be with our families and support each other. Then the news was sprung the Warriors would move to Brisbane and be based there. That was a really tough time. But Millah and I are getting into a better routine, and I think we’ll get through it.”

The Kiwi halfback – returning to the Warriors after three seasons with the Cronulla Sharks - told Stuff this week leaving his family behind was the hardest decision he’d ever made. “The silver lining in all of this - I miss my family, I miss my little girl - but knowing that Millah is going to get to watch her mum play and be in the stands and go onto a netball court after a game, it’s all these little things that add up to making this sacrifice worth it,” he said.

Another person supportive of both players returning to the international court is Silver Ferns coach, Dame Noeline Taurua.

The out-of-the-box coach, and mother of five, has introduced a new philosophy embracing mothers returning to the game, helping them before and after their children are born.

In August, she revealed Karaka, Cullen and their Silver Ferns team-mate Katrina Rore were under ‘return to play’ plans (Rore, who had daughter, Lilybud, in May, isn’t ready to return to action yet).

“If the mamas want to play and they are ready to play – even if sometimes you don’t know how to make that comeback – that’s a good start,” Taurua told LockerRoom at the time. “We will put a plan around them and make it work.”

Kayla Johnson (left) and Phoenix Karaka take advantage of the fan zone at the 2015 Netball World Cup in Sydney. Photo: Michael Bradley Photography.

When Karaka and Johnson were invited to the December 15 Silver Ferns camp in Wellington, it gave Karaka something to strive for. But Johnson was surprised to have even been considered.

“I was also surprised that the communication I’ve had with Noels has been so frequent,” she says. “She’s been ringing me every week to check in and see how I am. She definitely understands how hard being a mum is, and how hard it is to get back to playing.”

“I’m almost scared again,” Karaka says of going into camp.

“I haven’t been in that environment since I don’t know how long. Four or five years?” Johnson replies. “I’m probably going to die of shock.”

But neither woman will now take this opportunity for granted.

“The time I have away from Pāma to put into my netball career has got to be 100 percent committed, because that’s time away from family,” Karaka says.

“And I have to make sure I’m recovering properly, because I need to feel good when I’m with my daughter. That plays on my mind too: It’s not just for me, it’s for her, too.”

Adds Johnson: “When you’re being a mum 24/7 with no outlet, it gets draining. It’s nice having my own career, and I’m a lot better mum when I come home, too.”

Trailblazing Wellington Phoenix duo rise above

On the eve of the first A-League Women's game for the Wellington Phoenix, coaches Gemma Lewis and Natalie Lawrence share the benefits of coaching women, how the league is a gamechanger for young Kiwis, and a Christmas away from home.

Gemma Lewis and Natalie Lawrence hope one day they can just be referred to simply as ‘coaches’.  

Chosen as the head coach and assistant coach of the debutant Wellington Phoenix women’s team, Lewis and Lawrence are used to the conversation always centering around the fact they’re ‘female coaches’.  

“We’ll know we’ve made the progress when we don’t get asked about being female coaches as much - that’s how we’ll know we’ve started to shift,” says head coach Lewis.  

There’s no doubt, though, that their partnership is special: one of only two all-women coaching line-ups in the A League (along with Canberra United). The Phoenix make their debut in the 10-team competition on Friday, playing Western Sydney Warriors at their new home-away-from-home-ground in Wollongong.  

And there’s no doubt they are the right duo for the job; their CVs speak for themselves. 

Lewis is a former Welsh international footballer who’s held various coaching roles in New Zealand over the past five years, including assistant coach for the Football Ferns at the 2019 FIFA Women’s World Cup, and has been head coach for the national women’s U20 side. She was also on the coaching staff of the celebrated New Zealand side who won bronze at the 2018 U17 Women’s World Cup in Uruguay. 

Lawrence’s experience coaching in New Zealand and Canada, and her work developing young players, also makes her a perfect fit for the young Phoenix side - a team with eight 18-year-olds. 

Lawrence (second from right) and Lewis (far right) are leaping head-first into a brand-new team. Photo: Speed Media Australia. 

While the two coaches, chatting from Wollongong earlier this week, hope in the future the conversation will stray away from gender, they have to admit there are advantages to having female coaches in the women’s game.  

Remembering times when she coached boys’ teams, Lewis says male footballers tend to ask less questions and don’t want to talk over things.  

“When I coach females, it’s a lot different,” she says. “They want as much information as they can get, they kind of want that reinforcement. Every player’s different but at the same time, that’s normally a bit of a trend in the female game.” 

Lawrence laughs, admitting it’s a generalisation. “But females love to know the why, and men like to get on with it...I think there’s going to be a natural advantage to understanding our own gender.” 

There’s also the emotional side of it as well, Lewis points out. “With teams I’ve worked with in the female game, if you really get their respect and their trust in the relationship, then they’d walk through a brick wall for you.”  

Their selection for these leadership roles early in the Phoenix Women’s journey shows the development of women’s football in New Zealand is on the right path.  

“They could have potentially not given this job to a female coach for the first season, so there’s already a lot of firsts,” Lewis says. “To put a whole female coaching team in charge is also a big step for them, but I think it shows we’re moving in the right direction.” 

Gemma Lewis (centre) and Natalie Lawrence (right) with Northern Mystics coach Helene Wilson at a mentoring session at a Te Hāpaitanga workshop in Gisborne. Photo: Photosport

Both women are part of the first Women in High Performance Sport programme back in New Zealand. Lawrence is one of eight women in the leadership residency project, that saw her embedded into New Zealand Football; Lewis has been one of 14 emerging female coaches in Te Hāpaitanga, which helps them to gain confidence and learn from coaches from other codes.  

“We got a lot out of that programme as the mentees,” Lewis says. “And now in a programme that’s being created by New Zealand Football for female mentorship, we’re able to give back what we’ve learned and mentor coaches coming through in our own game.  

“We’re both coaching full-time now, and we can show that you can maybe turn coaching into a career – it’s not just a volunteer role that you do for the love of it. It comes with its challenges, but if it’s something you’re really passionate about, you end up making it work.”  

There’s always been a missing piece for Kiwi women footballers in terms of player development, Lawrence believes, and the Phoenix team can fill that gap in the 2021-22 season. 

“Our top players have had access to professional football through moving countries, but that’s a big barrier for a lot of players, especially at a younger age,” says Lawrence.  

“Now there’s a team for Kiwis to aspire to be part of that’s incredibly close to home - you now have a complete pathway in New Zealand that’s sustainable and tangible. Where you can stay in your country and you don’t have to leave if you don’t want to.  

“I think that’s an absolute game-changer.” 

Phoenix head coach Gemma Lewis is looking forward to bringing top women's football closer to home this year. Photo: Speed Media Australia. 

Lewis and Lawrence have the chance to make their mark on football in New Zealand as they develop their team, and they have high hopes of the new Phoenix side becoming role models for young Kiwi footballers back at home. 

“I think that’s been the struggle in the past. The visibility of role models and the professional game for New Zealand has been really hard to grasp. You’ve got these amazing Ferns who play in incredible teams across the world, but you don’t ever really get to see it,” says Lewis.  

Both coaches say that unless young fans are willing to wake up in the early hours of the morning to follow international leagues, it’s hard for aspiring footballers to see Kiwis footballers succeeding.  

Lewis hopes the team will be able to travel back to New Zealand next year, and not just for the players who are stuck in Australia away from their families, but also to play home games and give back to the community.  

She raises the idea of having young players attend the Phoenix training sessions, being able to ask questions and meet the players, increasing accessibility and visibility.  

“I think our Football Ferns have done amazing work making the sacrifices to move away from home going into these incredible leagues, but the visibility of that back home is very limited and I don’t think our players really get to know those players well enough,” she says.  

“Having this closer to home just means you’re hoping young players start to know the names of the players that play for the Phoenix, and feel like you can be a professional player and see it as something they could start to have as a career.” 

Building the team culture is something the coaches have been doing since day one, leaning on the culture the Phoenix men’s side has developed, while also creating their own. 

“Everything that people are thinking could be a challenge, we’re trying to embrace and create in our culture,” says Lewis.  

“For everyone - players, staff, everyone involved - it’s the first time where you get to really put a stamp on what this team looks like. Lots of teams you come into, it’s already there for you.  

“You kind of learn to embrace it or add your twist of it, whereas this is an open book for the players and for all of us within the team to really shape who we want to be as a team.”  

Their time in Wollongong, their home away from home, hasn’t been the sunny vacation they were hoping for so far, with rain closing the grounds some days. Lewis jokes they might even get a white Christmas.  

Lawrence’s face lights up at the mention of Christmas, her favourite holiday.  

“We are super, super aware that these players are going to be away from their families so we want to make it as special as we can,” says Lawrence, who has already planned out the festivities for the day. 

Lewis and Lawrence are looking forward to making new traditions, not just at Christmas time, but also as a brand new team who have the chance to make history.  

*The Wellington Phoenix play their opening match in the A-League Women against the Western Sydney Wanderers FC on Friday 7pm (NZT). Watch live coverage on Sky Sport 2 from 6.30pm, or free-to-air on Prime.  

From ocean to alps: Coach conquers her fears

Refusing to play the gender card, our emerging women coaches are building their confidence and facing their fears in Te Hāpaitanga - a project to grow the country's female coaching talent pool. 

Jonelle Quane is at home on the ocean. A national champion surf lifesaver in her competitive days, Quane is still in her element watching the surf roll in at Christchurch’s Sumner Beach.

So when she was told she had to go mountaineering on Aoraki Mt Cook, Quane - in her words - totally freaked out.

“I was an athlete, but I have never been so physically or mentally challenged in my whole life,” she says. “I had to tell myself ‘Jonelle pull yourself together’. I was so vulnerable.”

After conjuring up ways in her mind to wriggle out of it, Quane realised the climb was there to challenge her, to push her outside her comfort zone, and make her a better coach.

Quane is the pool rescue coach lead in Surf Lifesaving New Zealand's high performance team.

She’s also been one of the first coaches in the Te Hāpaitanga project, created to expand the country’s female coaching talent pool. The mountaineering expedition was one of five residential workshops the 14 emerging female coaches go through over 18 months. 

As Quane scaled part of Aoraki in October, she understood why the coaches have been constantly stretched throughout this pilot project.

“It was really scary. But it took us back to trust, to listening to our guides who know what they’re doing. I thought I could have died, but I was okay. I didn’t fall,” she says.

Te Hāpaitanga coaches climbing Aoraki Mt Cook, from left: Kim Mickle (athletics), Jonelle Quane (surf lifesaving) and Jenny Armstrong (yachting). Photo: supplied. 

“When you’re a coach, it’s a privileged position. You aren’t constantly challenged, and yet you do that daily to your athletes.

“Now I definitely feel challenged again. Now I’m freaked out and vulnerable, I can relate to being an athlete again. And I’m a better coach for it.”

This High Performance Sport NZ initiative has already been deemed a success - 11 of the 14 women participating have either changed roles or taken on more responsibility in their codes since being part of the project.

Olympic gold medallist sailor Jenny Armstrong is one of them – a coaching gun for hire before the project, she’s now Yachting NZ’s manager of women’s sailing and the Laser Radial programme.

Whitney Hansen has just returned from the Black Ferns’ tour of England and France, after she was selected as their Rugby World Cup coach intern.

Footballer Gemma Lewis has become head coach of the Phoenix Women, who play their very first game in Wollongong on Friday (her assistant coach, Natalie Lawrence, is part of a women's leadership residency project that saw her embedded into New Zealand Football).

Gemma Lewis has made history as the first women's head coach at the Wellington Phoenix. Photo: Speed Media Australia.

“We’re really pleased with what’s happened so far,” says Lyn Gunson, the former Silver Ferns captain and coach who’s now Te Hāpaitanga programme leader.

In fact, it’s gone so well, a second cohort of 16 female coaches have just been selected. Among them are another former Silver Ferns captain turned Tactix assistant coach Julie Seymour, and triple code international Honey Hireme Smiler, who’s working with New Zealand Rugby League.

Gunson says 44 women applied for the spots: “The need is still there, significantly.”

It’s two years since the Minister for Sport and Recreation, Grant Robertson announced the $2.7m pilot project, Women in High Performance Sport, aimed at creating the right environment and opportunities to get more women in leadership and coaching positions at the pinnacle end of sport.

At the time, less than a quarter of the country’s 114 carded coaches – who get support from HPSNZ – were female. At this year’s Tokyo Olympics, there were only four women among the 66 coaches in the New Zealand team.

Te Hāpaitanga gives up-and-coming coaches an experienced mentor (from another sport), and a scholarship of up to $15,000 to supplement their salary, or further their coaching experiences or qualifications.

Any coach who applies for Te Hāpaitanga and doesn’t make it can be part of a satellite group - a “no-frills access to learning”, Gunson explains, which gives them the chance to establish cross-code connections with other female coaches.

Four of the women in last year’s satellite group successfully reapplied for Te Hāpaitanga, edition II.  

One of them is former world champion rower Fiona Bourke, who’s now the New Zealand U21 rowing coach.

Bourke decided to try again after seeing the progress of another young Rowing NZ coach, Hannah Starnes, from the first Te Hāpaitanga cohort.

“I saw her personal growth, how much more confident she is in what she’s doing,” Bourke says. “The way Hannah interacts with people and the way she’s coaching has changed in a really positive way.”

Te Hāpaitanga project coaches and mentors at their first residential on Whakatō Marae, Gisborne. Photo: Photosport

One thing Gunson stresses is that the project hasn’t focused on gender inequalities. “We haven’t gone near the gender card,” she says. “What we’ve said is if you’re going to do these roles in high performance sport, you’ve got to understand what high performance is all about and you’ve got to be capable to do the job.

“We’re looking at increasing [the coach’s] capability and their ability to connect and make a difference to themselves, and that will increase their confidence. As soon as that happens, they’ll start doing things - and that’s exactly what’s happened.”

Quane says her confidence and self-awareness has “grown immensely” through the project.

“As coaches we spend most of the time analysing and understanding our athletes, asking them heaps of questions, to create an environment where they can flourish,” she says.

“But in my career, I’d never sat down and said ‘What do you want as a coach? Where do you want to go?’ That’s never been a priority. Rightly or wrongly, it’s been about the athlete.

“Now I have that self-awareness, a clarity around what I want to achieve. I’m definitely going to be a better coach for it.”

Te Hāpaitanga has also given Quane the confidence to coach again. She had taken a step back but was still involved in surf lifesaving as a selector.

“But this project reignited that hunger for me to coach nationally again. I feel more comfortable now to go back into that space,” she says. “It’s given me the confidence to say ‘no’ to things, to question and to have a thicker skin.”

Jonelle Quane (right) talks with her Te Hāpaitanga mentor, Maria Hassan. Photo: Photosport.

What Quane has valued most, though, is building a network of new sporting connections - with the other 13 coaches and her own mentor, athletics coach Maria Hassan.  

“The connections and relationships have been tremendous, and they’re lifelong. I know these women value me, they give a damn,” Quane says.

“It’s a really safe environment to talk about what’s challenging, what’s working well in our sport, and not be judged or criticised. And there’s a lot more sharing of knowledge between codes.”

While there are common threads to their encounters and concerns, each woman’s story is different, Gunson says. “And the new group of coaches are completely different from the first in a number of ways. But that’s the challenge for us.”

And this isn't a male-free zone. Gunson has made sure men have been involved in the project, like former Football Ferns coach Tony Readings. “In their sporting communities, they have to work with men," Gunson says. "And they have great skills to contribute, too.”

The new Te Hāpaitanga 2 cohort are: Holly Sullivan (Boxing NZ), Emily Willock (Canoe Racing NZ), Arna Majstrovic (Surf Lifesaving NZ), Fiona Bourke (Rowing NZ), Honey Hireme-Smiler (NZ Rugby League), Julie Seymour (Netball NZ); Tarena Ranui (NZ Football); Leanne Walker (Basketball NZ), Crystal Kaua (NZ Rugby), Tamara Reed (NZ Triathlon), Elyse Fraser (Cycling NZ), Alana Gunn (NZ Football), Angela Winstanley-Smith (NZ Waterpolo), Danielle Cranston (Hockey NZ), Heelan Tompkins (Equestrian NZ), Lucy Brown (Snow Sport NZ).

Football's Flea leaps between roles in women's game

One of New Zealand's footballing greats, Annalie Longo has taken on a new role to grow the game for women and girls across the country. But she's not ready to hang up her boots yet, with a home World Cup still calling. 

Befitting her footballing nickname, 'Flea', Annalie Longo is leaping from one role to another in women's football in Aotearoa.

The hugely experienced Football Fern and two-time A-League Women's champion is working to grow the women’s game here, while still being an integral part of it.

Longo, 30, recently began her new role with New Zealand Football as development manager of the women’s game. It comes just as NZ Football have made a commitment to “supercharge” the women’s game through their legacy plan for the FIFA Women’s World Cup 2023 here in New Zealand.

This weekend, she’s helping to organise – and will play in – a special match celebrating the 100th anniversary of women’s football in New Zealand. It’s almost a rematch of the first women’s provincial game played between Canterbury and Wellington club Aotea in 1921 – and will be played at the same ground as that original game, English Park in Christchurch.

Like other New Zealand-based international players, Longo hasn’t been able to play for the Ferns in their latest series with Olympic champions Canada and Korea Republic, because of MIQ restrictions.

But she’s still been involved, making her commentary debut on the weekend for Sky Sport in the Ferns’ 2-1 loss to Korea (they play their second match tonight).

Donning her Superwoman's cape, Longo will also combine her day job with a domestic summer season playing for her local premier team, the dominant Canterbury United Pride.

And she wants to keep playing for the Football Ferns - possibly through to 2023 and the FIFA Women’s World Cup.

“I've still got a lot of decisions to make, but I'm definitely not ready to retire for good from international football," the 124-cap international and three-time Olympian says.

“I need to get myself back into enjoying football again and playing at a higher level to put that goal on the radar."

Annalie Longo training before the Tokyo Olympics this year - her third Games. Photo: Ella Reilly/NZ Football

If she does, it will be Longo’s ninth FIFA tournament.

Longo admits it’s been a challenging beginning to her new job, shrouded in a pandemic lockdown. "It's been a tough start. I had to do all my inductions through Zoom, which was a challenge," she says.

But in Longo's favour is the fact that she knows a lot of what will be required in the role already, having driven the growth of girls’ and women’s football for Mainland Football in Christchurch for the last six years. “Fortunately, I already know a lot of the business.”

And she gets to stay in Christchurch to do it.

Longo's remit involves the overseeing of playing, coaching, refereeing and administration in the women’s game. She wants to get a gauge on what’s needed throughout the country to help women’s football grow, including futsal and school programmes.

“It's about being a sounding board and being visible,” she says.

Longo sees a gap in the way girl's football is catered for in New Zealand.

“I've learnt already that there aren't a lot of girls-only products in our structure, meaning that under the age of 10 or 11, there are not many programmes a girl can turn up to and play girls-only football,” she says.

“And if we're talking about girls falling in love with football and buying into it, I think being more targeted at girls themselves is really important. For me, that would involve perhaps being flexible around times as well - it may even be outside of the traditional hours like a Saturday. We'd be trying to create a fun-type of programme that would really drive participation.”

Longo was also involved in the launch of NZ Football’s FIFA Women’s World Cup 2023 legacy plan in Wellington last week, to deliver better opportunities, experiences and development pathways for women and girls. She presented one of the four key pillars – People and Places (Tiaki).

“It recognises diversity and inclusion, as well as encouraging more coaches in the women's side of our sport,” she says.

It’s a huge opportunity to make the most of the biggest sports event ever played in New Zealand. Just how big is a Women's Football World Cup tournament? The last edition, held in France in 2019, generated 1.12 billion viewers around the world; around one seventh of the world’s population.

And while she looks forward, Longo won’t forget about the roots of the women’s game in New Zealand, and the women who kicked it all off.

She’s been involved in organising the celebration of 100 years since the first female inter-provincial match was played in Christchurch in 1921. The match between Capital and Canterbury United Pride in the National League: South Central series on Saturday will mark that milestone. Longo will be a pivotal player in the Pride line-up.

“We’re going to showcase a lot of the players over the decades, invite them to the game and do a presentation to celebrate the moment. It's something to definitely look forward to", Longo says.

It also coincides with the Wellington Phoenix debut match in the semi-professional A League Women on Friday.

(For the record, Canterbury won that inaugural game in 1921, 1-0, in front of a crowd of 2000. The following year, councils around the country banned women from playing football at city reserves. It wasn’t until the 1970s that the game began a serious resurgence in New Zealand).

Should Longo make the field at the 2023 World Cup, it would be a high point in an already stellar career - which started for the Football Ferns in 2006 at the age of 15.

Longo is the owner of some wondrous facts and statistics. Possibly the best of the lot is that she first came up with the idea for the 'Football Ferns' moniker for the national women's team, during a brainstorm around the time she first played internationally.

The last time a Women's World Cup was played in New Zealand - the inaugural U17 tournament in 2008 - Longo claimed the honour of scoring the country’s first-ever goal. 

She’s also the second-youngest player - in women's or men's football history - to have played at a senior FIFA World Cup. This achievement came in 2007 in China, when she appeared in the tournament for the Football Ferns aged just 16 years and two months (the recordholder from Nigeria, in 1999, was just one month younger).

Football Ferns team-mates in Tokyo (from left) Annalie Longo, Meikayla Moore, Hannah Wilkinson and Marisa van der Meer. Photo: Ella Reilly/NZ Football

In the here and now though, it's her new work position which takes precedence. The fact is Longo's plate over the next few months looks fuller than Nana's Christmas dinner plate.

She’s also involved in coach mentorship and women in leadership programmes in Christchurch next month, and organising and overseeing women and girls football awareness month in March.

While she knows her role will see her more office-bound than she was at Mainland Football, Longo hopes not to be stuck behind a desk for as much as she can help it.

“I know this role will involve a lot more strategic planning than I've done previously, but at the same time I want to be really visible out in the communities, in our federations and out on the grass,” she says.

A key focus for Longo will be to develop relationships with the development officers of each of the six federations. Getting into schools to promote her sport is also foremost in her plans.

One gets the feeling that Longo is a young woman going places literally and figuratively for NZ Football.

  • The Football Ferns’ second match against Korea Republic at 11pm tonight (NZ time) will be live on Sky Sport 1 and 7 beIN Sports.  The Phoenix Women play Western Sydney Wanderers at 7pm on Friday, live on Sky Sport 2, Sky Sport 7 beIN Sports and free-to-air on Prime. 
  • The 100 Years Game between Canterbury United Pride and Capital Football takes place on Saturday at 2pm, and can be streamed on the Sky Sport Next YouTube channel.

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