Jamie Wall on how his faith in the Black Ferns was restored following last year’s disastrous European tour.
This is a story about Ruahei Demant, on Thursday night named Kelvin R Tremain Memorial player of the year, Tom French Māori player of the year and Black Ferns player of the year, and last month World Rugby Women’s Player of the Year.
It took place on 27 November last year. I remember because it was the weekend after the Black Ferns’ last game of their tour to England and France in which they got flogged in every test.
Me and a couple of guys were kicking a ball around at College Rifles RFC in Remuera on a hot and humid Saturday morning. Even kicking didn’t take long to raise a sweat. Across the park, we saw two players doing shuttle runs – not something you’d usually see in November, given the club season is long-finished.
It was Ruahei (Lu) and Maiakawankaulani Roos. They’d only landed back in New Zealand a few days beforehand, but were out on the turf doing pre-season training. Not a ball in sight, just sprints to halfway and back, over and over.
The club is down in a basin surrounded by about a billion dollars’ worth of real estate. Lu and I both train on it on Tuesday and Thursday nights, we both wear the same jersey and say good luck to each other as we go into our changing rooms on Saturday afternoons – her for the women’s premier side and me for the far more social men’s premier reserves.
When they finally took a break, I went over to say hi. I’m a firm believer that journalists aren’t here to be friends with players, but it’s hard not to be when you play for the same club. I put my hands up to be like, “Hey, I’m not at work, we can talk freely.”
I’d been one of only two people (Joe Pearson from Stuff being the other) who regularly had been on the Black Ferns’ Zoom call press conferences for the tour. As it had gone on and the results showed just how far the team had slipped after so much inactivity, the mood had obviously gotten pretty low.
The true fallout of the tour was yet to come, but even then it was feeling like a seismic shock. All four tests resulted in the four largest defeats in the Black Ferns’ history. When she greeted me, I didn’t really know what to say other than, “Are you okay?”
I didn’t really know how she’d react, but she smiled and told me that it’d been a rough month. Maia was almost passed out next to us after the sprint training – she’d been one of the few players that could actually hold her head high after the run of losses.
I said it was impressive they were down there training, considering they’d only got off a plane a few days ago. Lu’s smile dropped, she stared me in the eye and said, “We have to. We have to start now if we are going to achieve what we want to achieve.”
She was talking about winning the World Cup. Just days after coming back from the worst return by an NZ rep side ever, she had the belief and the work ethic that could turn it around. We chatted for a bit then they got back into their running.
I went back to our goal-kicking practice and talked with the guys about the team’s chances. There was less than a year to the RWC, and right then it seemed like the Black Ferns would be lucky to make the semi-finals. But she was out there that day, accepting the situation but busting her arse to try and change it.
You know the rest: Lu was named skipper, played the best rugby of her life in 11 test appearances in 2022, lifted the RWC and in the last couple of weeks has taken home every award she’s been eligible for.
I’m not saying it specifically started that day – Lu has been training and playing for years, but for me that’s when I believed that things could be turned around. The RWC battles were great to watch but it was really fought for when no one was there, when it’s just lines on a field that you run back and forth from.
I checked in with Lu throughout the season, which wasn’t hard as she was always only a few metres away on training nights. As the year wore on, things started to affirm the belief she held. And then they captured the support of the country and gave us the most memorable rugby story in years.
“We have to.” Unblinking, unwavering, even in the aftermath of a disaster. That’s the attitude that wins World Cups, earns glory and etches names in history.
Story Credit: rnz.co.nz