Emma Godwin aims to be just the second Kiwi female from the provinces to swim at a senior long course world champs, and become an Aquablack. And she's determined to get to the Paris Olympics, but not to move to a big city to do so.
Auckland's floods unearthed a precious medal for Kiwi football great Michele Cox, carrying special memories of her professional career. Suzanne McFadden was there when she saved it from the skip bin.
Michele Cox wears a delicate medal around her neck. A reminder of an important era in her footballing past.
But it came so close to being lost forever in an Auckland rubbish dump.
The medal washed up while I was visiting Cox – who I’ve known since 1989 - at the Mt Eden home she grew up in and now shares with her mum, Barbara.
The pair are legendary for being the first mother and daughter in the world to play together in a football international - back in 1987, in New Zealand’s only win over the United States. Michele went on to be counted as one of New Zealand’s football greats - a trailblazer for Kiwi women wanting to play professionally overseas.
These two Football Ferns were showing me where floodwaters, mixed with sewage, had risen to in the garage under their house during the Auckland Anniversary floods back in January. The water reached 2m high, swamping both their cars.
Very little in the garage was salvageable – including much of the memorabilia they’d collected in their sporting careers. They were heartbroken, but pragmatic.
Then Michele spotted a small green box on a table outside the garage. “Why is this here, Mum?” she asked. “Oh, it’s going in the skip bin,” Barbara replied.
Michele Cox opened the box and out flowed a wave of memories. The elegant silver scroll, entwined with gold leaves, represented one of the best times in her life – when as a naïve 19-year-old, she’d gone to Germany to play football for top club TSV Siegen.
The pendant was a keepsake from the two German Cup titles Cox won with the team; a tiny replica of the winners' trophy. Cox was part of unforgettable finals in 1988 and ’89, played in the Berlin Olympic Stadium in front of tens of thousands of fans.
Unfortunately, its sister medal had already been tossed out in the first skip bin of flotsam.
“But that’s okay,” says Cox. “I put things in boxes and forget about them. But when I saw the green case, I knew exactly what it was.
“It means a lot to me - not just about winning two German Cup finals with the best team in Germany, with women who’d become the best coaches in the world. But it also reminds me of Germany’s reunification, and how happy the people were.”
Cox would go on to play for the Football Ferns for 11 years. She then worked for football giants FIFA and UEFA, and Prince Ali bin El Hussain of Jordan, running his foundation to grow the game in Asia and helping overturn a ban on Muslim women wearing hijab on the football pitch.
She also drove the successful bid to have the inaugural FIFA U17 Women's World Cup in 2008 played in New Zealand. Since she's been back home, Dr Cox has lectured in advanced sport development at AUT, helped New Zealand Cricket grow female participation, and been CEO of the New Zealand Football Federation.
Now she's focusing on being an author. She wrote Murdering Middle Age with fellow Football Fern Maia Jackman last year, and she's just re-launched two books in her ‘Sammy’ trilogy, written for kids and based loosely on her own experiences as a young girl playing football, and those of other players she knew.
Cox grew up playing for the Eden Football Club, the club grounds right next door to her house. The club was famous for hosting visiting English premier teams – Manchester United had a disco there in 1975 after beating Auckland 2-0.
In fact, most of the flooding that poured into the Cox’s driveway and garage came from the football field, where the aging drains were too small to cope with the unprecedented deluge.
Cox has saved a scrapbook from her early football years, and found the first story I wrote about her for the New Zealand Herald in 1989. She was in the West German city of Siegen then, working in a sausage factory every morning before training with the club. I always remember her telling me she smelled of liverwurst.
She’d made quite an impression on German scouts while playing for New Zealand at the World Women's Invitation tournament in Taiwan – a big deal in the days before there was an official FIFA Women’s World Cup. It was at that tournament the Cox mother-and-daughter duo made world football history, while playing together in defence in their 1-0 win over the United States.
Michele studied German at Epsom Girls Grammar and sparked up a conversation with the West German players at the tournament, saying she’d love to play in Germany. Five months later, she was signed up by the star TSV Siegen club - arriving near the end of the 1988 season.
“My first German Cup final was only three weeks after I arrived. The first game I played was the semifinal against Frankfurt and I scored a hat-trick,” Cox recalls of the 4-0 win.
“We had an incredible team - six German players including the captain, Silvia Neid. She won the World Cup and Olympic gold as captain, and then again as the coach of Germany. That was the calibre of players, and then there was me - just 19 years old.”
Her second game was the German Cup final, against Bayern Munich, played in Berlin's iconic Olympic Stadium, built for the 1936 Olympic Games.
“I can totally relate to the Black Ferns when they couldn’t hear their team-mates at the World Cup final. I was in a stadium with 72,000 people and I could not hear a thing,” Cox says.
“I was completely overwhelmed in that first final. You come from a country where you have three dads and a dog on the sideline, and three weeks later you’re playing in front of 70,000.”
Siegen won 4-0, with Neid scoring a hat-trick. One of her goals was voted Tors de Monats – the German goal of the month. “It was the first time ever a woman won – up against all the men in the Bundesliga," Cox recalls. "She scored a volley 15 metres out from the corner and everyone voted for her – that’s equity, right?
“The Germans were so far ahead of everyone else back then. They played double headers of the mens’ and women’s cup finals – so crowds were exposed to women’s football. Now they can go out on their own, they don’t need the men to generate crowd support.”
A year later, Siegen won both the German League and the German Cup – beating Frankfurt, 5-1, in the final.
Not long after, Cox was there to witness the Berlin Wall coming down. “There’s a photo of me with streamers all over my head. It was a beautiful time,” she says.
Cox still keeps in contact with many of the women from the Siegen side, who took the young Kiwi under their wing.
In 1998, as a Football Fern, Cox toured the Netherlands, Germany and the United States. She was then Michele McCahill, having married All Black Bernie McCahill.
“We turn up in Germany and were sitting having lunch with the German team, and Silvia Neid was the assistant German coach then,” Cox says. “She had no idea who Michele McCahill was, but when I walked over to her and she recognised me, we jumped around the room like little girls.”
That same celebration happened again at the 2011 World Cup, when Neid was the German head coach and Cox was on the FIFA committees for women’s football and the Women’s World Cup.
Neid helped form one of the main characters in Cox’s ‘Sammy’ books, and Sammy’s best friend, Kelly, is based on another of Cox’s great football friends, Kelly Simmons – who announced last week she's leaving the FA - England’s Football Association – after more than 30 years driving the growth of the women’s game in England.
“The Sammy books are loosely based on stories from my background,” says Cox, who played all of her childhood football with boys.
“When I went to Auckland United to launch the books, I talked two little girls, aged five and seven, and it was their first time having anything to do with football. They said they’d been scared all week, but they turned up and it was really fun.
“That’s what Sammy and the Shooting Stars is all about - that anxiety for kids around sport. That wasn’t me when I was little, I went out and tried everything. But if it was me now, I'd be anxious because I don’t want to get injured, I’m too slow. So I get it.”
The book also addresses bullying and overcoming that with the help of team-mates.
“The second book, Way to Play Sammy, is set in the same season, when she does well but gets a bit arrogant - she becomes a bit of a dick, which most of us athletes have done in our time. She gets dealt some lessons and comes back to be a team player,” Cox says.
When Cox rediscovered the German Cup medal, we talked about getting it made into necklace. She took it to Areias Jewellers in Mt Eden, who repaired some corrosion from the floodwaters, and put it on a chain.
Cox now keeps it close to her heart; this one won’t end up at the tip.
* Cox's books, Sammy and the Shooting Stars and Way to Play Sammy, (Clean Slate Press), are available in bookstores nationwide.
Taking her young family around the world as she rows is a key factor in Emma Twigg's decision to defend her Olympic single sculls title at next year's Paris Olympics. And, Andy Hay writes, the next Emma Twigg could be waiting in the wings at the Maadi Regatta next week.
Next Saturday she will be there somewhere.
She might be standing knee-deep amid the splashing and cheering at the finish line of the 2000m rowing course at Lake Karapiro, watching crewmates flash by on finals day.
Maybe that's her, picking up the vibrations of that churned-up water and the roar of her own school friends as she hits top gear in the race of her life so far.
The idea might have only just seeded or maybe it’s just waiting for its moment.
But somewhere at the Maadi Cup regatta on the last day of finals next Saturday, she will be there.
The next Emma Twigg. World champion single sculler. Olympic gold medallist.
Just over a week out from the promise of that Maadi magic, the only people down by the finish line are two men, one of them holding a baby. That guy's yelling, “Let’s go Twiggy, wind it up.”
Thirty-five-year-old Twigg is into the final 100 metres of a time trial, which also happens to be her first official row after announcing she’ll defend her Olympic title in Paris next year.
The boys by the lakefront have been Twigg’s teammates over the years. And the baby? Well, he’s now a central and critical part to one of high-performance sport’s toughest gigs.
Twigg is one of our greatest women’s rowers. A champion on the water who’s been championing a more progressive policy around female athletes and their families.
The arrival of her and wife Charlotte’s first child, Tommy, last year only sharpened her resolve to push for change. And the change is gathering momentum.
In the past month, Tokyo teammates Brooke Francis (nee Donoghue) and Lucy Spoors returned to full-time training after starting families of their own.
Women athletes like these are gold. They've invested years into building a bank of physical and mental endurance plus the high technical capacity to race boats at top level. They are entering peak potential in their early 30s.
As we're walking off the boat ramp on this prime early autumn day on Karapiro, Twigg wonders how much longer athletes like double Olympic champions Caroline and Georgina Evers-Swindell could have stayed in the sport if they'd had the opportunity to take a break, and then the space to combine the demands of full-time training with becoming parents.
"Obviously, I don't know their motivations, but it probably wasn't seen as an option for them. It was motherhood or stay rowing," says Twigg.
"Brooke and Lucy are pretty quickly proving that you can have nine months away, keep training through that period and within three or four months [of giving birth] be back to where you were when you left."
One of the key factors in Twigg's decision is the support Rowing New Zealand is offering around life balance.
"We spend up to three months in Europe every year," she says. "So it's a pretty big call to say I'm leaving my family for that time. The support Rowing New Zealand has given myself and some of the other mums in allowing us to take our families was a really big piece of that puzzle."
No woman has ever rowed the single scull faster at an Olympics than Twigg.
She was part of the greatest hour New Zealand Rowing has had at the Games, which started with Twigg setting a new Olympic best time of 7m 13.97s, the women's eight winning silver, then the men's eight upending everyone's expectations with gold.
Fewer than half the people who excelled on that day are back for the truncated run to Paris.
So Twigg staying in the programme is a big deal.
Mike Rodger first got in a rowing boat as a five-year-old, coxing a crew for his older brother.
Fifty-two years on, he's still in a boat, coaching Twigg on the long, lonely rows up and down Lake Karapiro.
Now that she's figured out 'why' she's doing this all over again, Rodger's there to make sure that word stays front of mind when times get tough, as they inevitably will, over the next 16 months.
"We talk a lot. Around days like today when things are good and really identifying the things she enjoys," Rodger says.
"I know how hard it is to keep pushing yourself in a single, how the grind is on some of those long, boring sessions that just are relentless."
And that's why Rodger will still be keeping Twigg company down the end of Karapiro after some of his other Kiwi crews have finished their sessions.
"You know, being a single sculler is tough, they are by nature individuals," he says. "[But] I don't think Emma is, she enjoys the company of others, she enjoys talking to people. I feel guilty if I'm not beside [her] because I know how lonely it is."
This will almost certainly be Twigg's last Olympic campaign; her fifth. She must first qualify the boat at the world championships in August then reset for the Paris Games next July.
"There's a lot of privilege that comes with being able to call yourself the defending champion," says Twigg.
"I'm still improving, technically. I'm still loving what I do and have a desire to be here. And part of that is having my family there as well."
She's no apologist for using her status within the sport to push for more women athletes to be able to do the same.
"I went through a phase where I was a world champion, but still not given the luxury of some security within the programme. And that was because we had such depth.
“But I think now that there has been a shift [there's] this proactiveness to look after those that you do have, which I think should be there regardless."
Maybe that young woman at Maadi Cup this week is reading this and the idea of becoming the next Emma Twigg... the next world and Olympic champion... just got a whole lot more believable.
* More than 2200 rowers from schools around Aotearoa will race in the Maadi Regatta on Lake Karapiro from Monday, with finals on Friday and Saturday. It can be watched on livestream here.
Jorja Miller has quickly become one of the key players in the successful Black Ferns Sevens in her first season on the world series circuit, and it's a unique combination of sports that's helped her reach the top, Merryn Anderson discovers.
Jorja Miller’s life has always been a balancing act between her two sporting loves - both literally keeping her on her toes.
The 19-year-old Black Ferns Sevens star grew up in Timaru playing rugby, inspired by her dad, and highland dancing, following in the footsteps of her mum and nana.
“I’m glad I had both of them,” Miller says. “I didn’t like one over the other, so I was always making sure I prioritised both evenly, which I think now has benefited me quite a lot.”
Now that combination has taken her to great heights - as she makes a name for herself in just her first season of the world rugby sevens series.
Miller heads to Hong Kong today with the rest of the Black Ferns Sevens team as they look to clinch a fifth straight world series title at the Hong Kong Sevens next week.
Managing to balance both rugby and dance through her school years, Miller says there are many transferable skills she takes from the stage to the field.
“The main ones would have to be my agility, footwork, lateral movement and the ability to move quick with my feet.” You can definitely see all of those skills at play when the young prop eludes tacklers on the world sevens circuit.
Despite being at different ends of the sports spectrum, Miller - an age group national champion in both sports - enjoys having both in her repertoire.
“Playing a lot of team sports growing up, it’s cool because you work hard with a team, train hard and then you succeed together or grow together,” she explains.
“Whereas in dancing, it’s sort of all on you - which is also a cool drive to have cause you know you’ve got to do your job or else you’re not going to succeed and then it comes back to you."
As for another member of the Black Ferns Sevens who has the best highland dance skills? Miller reckons Portia Woodman-Wickliffe.
“I taught her a little routine and she was pretty good at it," she says. "A little bit of work needs to be done, but she’s pretty up there.” (Woodman-Wickliffe, by the way, was one of Miller's sporting heroes when she was at intermediate school).
Miller grew up in Timaru, and started playing rugby when she was just four with her older brother on all boys teams.
She dabbled in sevens, but mainly played 15s until moving to Christchurch Girls’ High School as a boarder in Year 11.
“That was when I actually started taking it seriously and I found a real passion in it,” says Miller, who led the Christchurch Girls' team to win the national sevens schools title in her first year.
“I could just play how I played and express myself. I think at the moment, sevens is definitely suited to the style of rugby I like to play.”
Miller was named in the Black Ferns Sevens side in 2022, but missed out on the chance to compete at the Birmingham Commonwealth Games with a knee injury.
After two surgeries, she finally made her debut in September, at the Rugby World Cup Sevens in Cape Town.
“Before running out onto the field for the first game, all the girls were just like ‘Just run out there and look up’,” Miller remembers.
“Cape Town Stadium is a massive stadium with heaps of people so I ran out and it was just such a surreal feeling.
“Then in the huddle with all the girls with the fern on our chest, it was so special because those are the moments you dream of as a kid.”
When she played in the Sydney Sevens back in January, Miller - still only 18 - was named player of the final in the Black Ferns' 35-0 victory over France.
Coming into a close-knit team, Miller was fully embraced by her teammates, even legends like Sarah Hirini who marked her 50th tournament on the same day Miller made her debut.
“As soon as I came in, everyone was so welcoming," Miller says. "They opened the doors for me and let me into the environment which was really awesome and just made it a lot easier." The team didn't just welcome her, but also her parents and family into the Black Ferns whānau.
Hirini is a big role model from Miller, who learns a lot from playing right beside her on the field.
“She’s the person who's going to say something to you, tell you what you need or where you can go or what she needs from you," Miller explains.
"It helps you to be able to grow; it’s all from a good place which is really special to be able to have that connection. And I think across the team it’s like that, we all want to have honest conversations so that we are the best team.”
From making her debut only six months ago, Miller has shown an impressive rise through the ranks, quickly becoming one of the stars of the team. It's something she didn’t expect to happen so fast.
“It’s been pretty crazy and still seems hard to believe almost,” she says.
“Coming in, I didn’t even expect to debut within two years, but I obviously hoped. I’m really passionate and driven, so I tried to drive towards making my debut as soon as possible and be on the world series, but I knew maybe the reality wasn’t so much like that.
“I’ve been able to grow tournament by tournament through confidence and belief and connections with all the girls on the field."
At the most recent tournament in Vancouver, the Black Ferns won their fourth tournament in a row, beating Australia, 19-12, in the final.
The victory meant the side qualifies for the 2024 Olympics in Paris, looking to back up their gold medal from Tokyo.
“A big goal for us this season was to qualify for the Olympics,” Miller says. “So being able to do so this early in the season, not having to wait for the end was really cool for us and a big thing to celebrate.”
Miller knows being in the Olympic team is no guarantee, but it would be a dream come true.
“It was always tick off the small things first and hopefully make it to there one day,” she says.
“Obviously a lot of athletes dream of going to the Olympics because it’s the pinnacle of all pinnacles, definitely been a big dream. Still gotta work to get there but I’m excited for the next year or so.”
NZ Rugby wants to triple the number of female rugby referees - starting with the rise of Natarsha Ganley to Super Rugby honours, and handing a whistle to an Aupiki star player in a new scholarship. Suzanne McFadden writes.
Natarsha Ganley loves rules. So during the week, she's on the lookout for money launderers and people funding terrorism. And on weekends she watches for knock-ons and players offside - fast-tracking to become one of the top rugby referees in the country.
Ganley reckons her two careers – as a national referee and a compliance analyst for investment advisors - dovetail nicely.
For three years she put down her whistle to concentrate solely on her day job, but now she’s returned to rugby she says she has a much healthier mindset.
“I feel a weight off my shoulders - I’m in a better headspace to love what I do. Reffing isn’t a chore. And to be part of such amazing footie right now is something very cool,” she says.
This Super Rugby Aupiki season has seen Northland-born Ganley become the 30th referee in Super Rugby history. Last week she officiated her 30th first class rugby match.
This weekend, she'll be out in the middle with her whistle for Aupiki’s third and fourth play-off between the Blues and Hurricanes Poua. (The Chiefs Manawa v Matatū final will be refereed by Nick Hogan).
One of the players Ganley will be running after, Blues playmaker Krysten Cottrell, is now following in Ganley’s stride – part of a new scholarship initiative encouraging female players to take up refereeing.
In fact, Cottrell was an assistant referee yesterday running the sidelines at the Super Rugby U20s tournament in Taupō.
Ganley is thrilled to see more female referees coming to the fore. “There aren’t many of us. But with the game growing, it would be cool to get more girls reffing as well,” she says.
“What rugby has given me is self-confidence, that's transferred over to my business career too. Knowing you can handle whatever gets thrown at you because that’s what you do every Saturday.”
Ganley started refereeing as a 17-year-old, officiating men’s rugby while still at Kamo High School.
Rugby was the first sport she played, alongside her two brothers. “Mainly for convenience – so Mum and Dad could chuck us all in one team,” she says.
“At intermediate and high school there were no girls rugby teams so I naturally fell back into netball.
“But when I was 17, they had a ‘You make the call’ course for refereeing, offering a whole bunch of NCEA credits and a day off school, so that’s how I ended up getting back into rugby.”
Ganley saw the game through new eyes, and it brought her closer to her rugby-mad dad, who came to every match she reffed across the north.
Her rise was rapid to the national referees squad, where she learned from experienced female referees like the pioneering Nicky Inwood (who was a high performance referee reviewer at last year’s Rugby World Cup).
“We had some really fantastic women who were facilitating and growing the rest of us,” Ganley says. “It’s quite contagious when you’re in a niche group of girls doing it. No one else understands the challenges you can face as a referee, and especially as a female referee."
She was just 21 when she stood in the middle for a women’s NPC match, between Manawatu and Taranaki, back in 2013.
Three years later, Ganley became the first non-resident female to officiate at the Hong Kong Sevens – as part of an interchange programme between North Harbour and Hong Kong referees.
But just before Covid invaded out shores in 2020, Ganley decided to stop refereeing and focus on her career off the field.
“It was a tough decision, but I’m one of those people who’s all or nothing – if I commit to something I’ll throw everything into it. And I couldn’t give that to refereeing at the time,” she says.
She moved to Wellington with her job, but is now back in Auckland working for Hobson Wealth Partners as an anti-money laundering and counter financing of terrorism analyst.
“I specialise in checking out the people and the money that’s coming into our company and making sure it’s from the right people. And once they have the money with us, making sure they’re doing the right things with it,” she explains.
“I love structure and I love rules. So it’s a natural swing between both work and rugby.”
(She's also studying part-time towards a Masters in Business Administration, around team leadership and dealing with change - new skills she's using on and off the field).
Well ensconced in her career, and with understanding bosses, Ganley returned to refereeing last year just in time for the Farah Palmer Cup, and ended up officiating the final between Canterbury and Auckland. She's moved to the next level with Aupiki.
“I’ve been reffing a lot of the Aupiki girls since 2013, and we’ve grown up together,” she says. “It’s such an honour to be sharing the field with the best rugby players in the world.
“I’m out there now because I enjoy it, I love the game, I love these girls. I can now see the funny side of things that happen in games - and I'm in the right headspace to enjoy it. Most of these players are absolute professionals, but you can have a bit of a laugh with them.”
She’s amazed at how far the women’s game has progressed in the past three years – especially after the Rugby World Cup.
“The step-up in skill level and the style of rugby these girls are playing is incredible. And with any step-up, everything happens that little bit faster. So as a referee at breakdowns or set pieces, your processes have to be a lot quicker," Ganley says.
To keep up with the play, Ganley - who also refs men's games at North Harbour - is grateful for the support she gets from her own referee coach and a personalised strength and conditioning programme.
Ganley is mentored by Brendon Pickerill, a professional referee for New Zealand Rugby.
“He helps me with my processes and with preparing me. The knowledge he has is incredible,” she says. “The best thing I’ve learned from him is listening to and learning about things that are relevant to your game.
“There’s so much white noise around - in a game you could pick up 20 different things that you could do better. But going into the next game, you need to pick up on the things that will make you a better referee and work on those, instead of trying to do everything at once.”
North Harbour referees Brendon Pickerill and Natarsha Ganley are working together to help grow her game
She also works with Simon Jones, the strength and conditioning coach for the Otago Highlanders, who has her doing running, speed and gym work, but also focusing heavily on allowing her body to recover after every game.
Ganley is quick to point out being a top-level referee involves more than just one game a week. After her “eight-to-five” job, she trains, and most weekends she travels to a different corner of the country.
“Then there’s a lot of homework – writing your review of the games and then preparation for the next weekend. You don’t just show up for a game on Saturday,” she says.
“You go through every single decision you made on the field, if you got that wrong, how do you improve your processes to get it right next time. It’s constant development.”
And there's further development underway to introduce more players to refereeing.
As part of Sport New Zealand's Covid response, Rugby NZ benefited from a $400,000 grant to invest in women’s refereeing. They've employed top referee Maggie Cogger-Orr as a full-time women’s referee development officer (right now she's in Europe to referee two Women’s Six Nations matches over the next fortnight).
With the help of Ashley Stanley at the NZ Rugby Players Association, they created a two-year scholarship initiative for players interested in exploring refereeing.
“We liked the idea because we’d had a lot of success with players like Rebecca Mahoney, Tiana Ngawati, Selica Winiata making the transition to be very good referees," says Bryce Lawrence, who's led the project.
The first three scholars are Cottrell, a former Black Fern, and fellow FPC players Chloe Sampson from Taranaki and Kaitlin Bates from Hawkes Bay.
“Krysten [Cottrell] is going to take it slowly to fit it around her rugby commitments - we really encourage them to keep playing,” Lawrence says. “Chloe has been playing and refereeing but now she’s fully committing to refereeing, and Kaitlin is going to play a whole range of different sports and learn to referee as well.”
There's still a lot of work to do to grow the number of female referees. There are around 100 in New Zealand rugby now – a number that’s remained stagnant for a few years, Lawrence says. But he hopes the predicted boom in female player numbers could also lift the number of refs. “Our aim over the next 10 years is to have 300 female match officials,” he says.
Naturally, Ganley would like to referee a test match in the not-to-distant future. “It’s a dream to do something on the international stage and with the introduction of the women’s World XV tournament this year, there will be some amazing opportunities," she says. "All you can do is be the best you can be, continue growing, making sure you’re fit, keeping your mind on rugby. So if an opportunity comes up the next week, you’re ready to go.”
She’s crossing the Tasman at Easter to referee a Super W game between the Force and the Rebels. “During the World Cup, I went to some of the Wallaroos training sessions and reffed them, so it will be good to see some of those girls again,” she says.
Watching the World Cup from the stands, Ganley was inspired.
“It was just such a rush, the adrenalin, the atmosphere was electric. That’s what you want at the end of the day, is that feeling,” she says. “It’s definitely helped to keep pushing me.”
* The finals of Super Rugby Aupiki will be played at FMG Stadium Waikato in Hamilton on Saturday: Blues v Hurricanes Poua in the play-off for third at 11.35am; Chiefs Manawa v Matatū in the grand final at 2.05pm. All games are live on Sky and Prime.
One of New Zealand’s brightest young netball talents, Paris Lokotui has returned to the court 10 months after a knee reconstruction. Now she hopes her tough journey back paves a better way for other Māori and Pasifika players.
Paris Lokotui remembers the moment time stood still.
The 21-year-old was playing for the Central Pulse against the Southern Steel in the 2022 ANZ Premiership, when just minutes into the game, she suddenly went down in a heap.
“I caught the ball behind me,” Lokotui remembers. “I landed on my right foot, but my left foot didn’t land properly, and I felt my knee cave in.”
She heard the double-blow of the umpire’s whistle. She was immediately surrounded by her team-mates and knew the vision of her writhing in pain was live on Sky Sport.
“It was overwhelming in that moment. It was like someone had shot me in the leg and I was in a bad way. I could feel the concern all around me,” she says.
Lokotui had heard a loud pop – she knew she’d ruptured the ACL (anterior cruciate ligament) in her left knee.
Pulse physio Ari Carroll did a quick knee test which confirmed their worst fears.
Lokotui had just been selected in the Silver Ferns development squad, and the previous season had made the Silver Ferns squad to play England and Aotearoa Men. She'd been crowned the 2021 Aspiring Silver Fern. Now, she was trying not to cry.
“A lot of emotions ran through my head,” says the midcourter. “I knew it was going to be a major setback. I had worries that I might not come back as the same player and get back to that level.
“But I had a load of people saying to me: ‘You’re only 21, you have a long career ahead of you’, so I tried to stay positive.”
Lokotui suffered the ligament tear on May 9 and had reconstructive surgery on May 26. Her long journey back - to return to the court for the 2023 season - had just begun.
Learning to walk again
Lying in her hospital bed at Boulcott Hospital, in Wellington, Lokotui’s first step was being able to straighten her leg and then try to walk.
She was nervous about putting weight on her knee.
“The surgeon encouraged me to get up and walk around three days after surgery. He wanted to make sure that I didn’t get a stiff knee and I kept progressing,” she says.
Sharon Kearney, Netball New Zealand’s lead physiotherapist and NetballSmart consultant, says Lokotui attacked her rehab head-on. She’s done everything the Pulse physio Carroll asked of her.
Erikana Pedersen, a netball colleague of Lokotui, sent Kearney a video, saying: “Look at Paris. She’s only one-week post-surgery, and she’s walking normally”.
“That spoke volumes,” says Kearney. “She was listening to her surgeon and physio and mentally taking every challenge on board and achieving well.
“Paris got on and did the hard work. And it is hard work – in fact it’s a slog at times.”
Kearney says there are milestones vital to reach in a player’s rehab and they need to progress through them systematically.
“Paris has been meticulous with relearning her jumping and landing, stopping and agility to support her return to play, her ability to transition back and her ability to minimise further injury,” says Kearney.
Everyday life was also draining for Lokotui. Getting around the house on her crutches was hard work and it was exhausting having a shower without getting her leg wet.
“It was character building stuff,” says Lokotui with a laugh. “It was nice having things brought to my lap and then taken away – I made the most of that, but I’m not sure my family enjoyed it.”
Lokotui was humbled by the number of players and coaches, both past and present, who encouraged her during her recovery.
“That meant a huge amount to me. I cannot thank Ari and Shaz [Sharon Kearney] enough. They were amazing,” she says.
The time away from netball allowed Lokotui to focus on her studies. She’s in her fourth year at Victoria University doing a bachelor of commerce, with a minor in te reo Māori.
Back on court
Lokotui now calls Christchurch home.
She has a fresh start with the Mainland side in the National Netball League and just over a week ago, she completed her long-awaited comeback.
“It was a big moment and a great achievement after all the hard work,” she says.
“I was a bit nervous but that was more about playing well, so I don’t let anyone down. But most of all I was just excited to be back and doing something that I love.”
Kearney says Lokotui has done an amazing job to be back on court 10 months after her injury.
“Now improving her netball will start,” she says. “By continuing to focus on improvement and her strong desire, I’m sure Paris can make her way back to New Zealand squad contention.”
Lokotui says watching the Silver Ferns’ bronze medal winning performance at last year’s Commonwealth Games only added to her motivation during her rehab.
“The thing I missed most was being around the team environment,” she says. “I’ve been involved in team sports my whole life, so it’s great to be back.”
Her injury has given her a new sense of perspective. Lokotui now does the NetballSmart warm-up every time she plays and trains.
“Before my injury I took my body for granted – I was like ‘Nah, I’ll be sweet’ when it came to warm-ups, but not anymore,” she says.
She hopes all younger players understand the importance of the NetballSmart warm-up – jumping, landing, and changing direction.
“Once you experience that personal cost of a serious injury, you know what you’re missing,” she says.
Kearney says the jump and landing resources NetballSmart provide, not only help the player to minimise injury and improve performance, they also help the injured player return to play.
Making a difference for Māori and Pasifika
Lokotui’s dad is Tongan. Her mum is Māori. Her family come from Ngāti Kuri, Te Rarawa and Ngāi Tahu.
She has a talented whānau. Her rugby-playing brother Cody, who she lives with in Christchurch, is in his second year at the Crusaders Academy. Their father, Lua Lokotui, played for Tonga in two Rugby World Cups.
Paris wants to tell her story to help others.
“I think someone like myself with a Māori background and a Polynesian background, sharing their story can have a big impact,” she says.
“I want to be that role model for the next generation of players and help them believe that if I can do it, when I came from the same area, the same culture, the same background, well, they can do it too.”
Paris Lokotui hopes to be back playing at ANZ Premiership level next season.
ACC research shows that Māori are almost twice as likely to experience a serious injury but almost 20 percent less likely to make a claim.
Māori make up a quarter of all traditional netball participation but according to the 2021 Voice of the Participant survey from Sport NZ, are less satisfied with their overall netball experience.
This is something that ACC and Netball NZ is working on to change and Lokotui wants to help.
“I want Māori and Pasifika players to know about injury prevention, and the support that is available for them if they do get injured,” she says.
“If by sharing my experience, it will help others to learn, I’m all for that.”
The cost of netball injuries
ACC invests in Netball NZ to help deliver the NetballSmart training programme.
Netball is the most popular sport for females in New Zealand, with over 136,000 players nationwide. But it's also causing a high rate of serious knee and ankle injuries in female players.
In 2022 ACC accepted around 21,146 netball-related injuries which costs $34m to help people recover.
Back in 2019, a 10-year nationwide review of primary ACL reconstruction showed the greatest increase was seen in females aged 15-19 years, with the incidence increasing by 120 percent in the last decade. Netball was one of the main sports contributing to the incidence of ACL injuries in this age group.
Research shows performing neuromuscular warm-ups two to three times a week before trainings and games can reduce the risk of ACL injuries.
“It’s exciting to see the positive impact of the NetballSmart programme supporting players to stay on the court and minimise time lost to injury,” says ACC injury prevention partner Nat Hardaker.
"We’re keen to grow the reach of NetballSmart and ensure more netball players benefit from the programme so they can enjoy more time on the court with their team-mates."
The hat-trick hero of the Black Ferns’ 2017 World Cup win, Toka Natua is back in rugby – discovering the pros and cons of playing as a mum. And the double international is ready for her next chapter in France.
There are the odd moments at training where Toka Natua’s mind goes blank and she finds herself on the edge of bursting into tears, in front of her Blues team-mates.
It’s in those flashes Natua misses her baby, Lavenia-Rangi, most. When she remembers her 18-month-old daughter is 2000km away and she won’t be seeing her for a little while.
But it’s the tough decision the new Blues prop and her partner, Chiefs loose forward Pita Gus Sowakula, made so they could both play Super Rugby this season.
Lavenia-Rangi is being well taken care of by Sowakula’s mum and his large family back home in Fiji, since Natua started training with the Blues women in mid-January.
“It’s been a challenge trying to deal with my emotions,” Natua, 31, admits. “Baby's my everything.”
But the 22-test Black Fern – legendary for scoring a hat-trick of tries in the 2017 Rugby World Cup final – knows it was the best solution as she returned to rugby for the first time since 2020, making her Super Rugby Aupiki debut.
“At first, I was adamant she wasn’t going,” Natua says. “But in the last week before going into Blues training camp, I realised she’d have to go because I didn’t know how I was going to focus, how I could cope.”
Natua’s mum offered to help, too, but she lives an hour’s drive away in Tokoroa, where Natua – who’s Cook Island Māori - grew up. “Mum’s an early childhood education teacher and both my sisters have five children each. So it's already full-on for her,” Natua laughs.
Lavenia-Rangi's parents are counting down the “two more Saturdays” until she returns home to Hamilton – after the Blues' play off for third in the final weekend of Super Rugby Aupiki, playing Hurricanes Poua at Waikato Stadium on Saturday.
Returning to rugby as a mother has certainly been an eye-opener for Natua.
“When I was younger, I took things for granted. But being a mum now, you appreciate that time you have away,” the loosehead prop says. “I’ve found a whole different purpose. Although you’re more exhausted, I find it much more enjoyable. And that’s been my main focus this season.
“Like a lot of mums I’ve spoken to in the game, I wouldn’t change it for the world.”
It’s not the first time sport has separated Natua and her daughter. She went to England last October – switching codes to play in the Rugby League World Cup for the Cook Islands.
“It was my first break away from Baby, and it was for three weeks. But I also enjoyed that time away to focus on myself,” she says.
Natua played for the Cook Islands at the 2017 League World Cup, too – three months after winning the Rugby World Cup in Belfast. This time turned out to be a lot more painful.
In the opening game against world champions, Australia, Natua suffered a fractured eye socket. “Fortunately it didn’t need surgery; it healed over time,” she says. “I was pretty much a team manager after that.” After losing to the Kiwi Ferns, the Cook Islands scored their sole victory of the tournament against France.
Natua has enjoyed interchanging between the two codes. “It keeps me learning. I feel like both games help each other - the way you run lines, the tackle contact. I just wish I’d had more time to prepare for the Rugby League World Cup,” she says.
But she’s unsure whether she will play league again. “In all honesty, after this season, I will plan my next around my daughter. I don’t want to waste any more time away from her,” she says.
Toka Natua and Pita Gus Sowakula in their rival Super Rugby kits
Natua is guaranteed at least one more season of rugby – when she, Sowakula and their daughter move to France in October to play rugby for the Clermont club.
Sowakula, who’s played two tests for the All Blacks and was powerful with the ball in the Chiefs' victory over the Rebels on the weekend, was the first player signed to Clermont in their bid to win the European rugby’s Champions Cup title by 2025. As part of the deal, Natua was also signed up to play in the Clermont women’s club side.
“Everyone keeps saying ‘You must be excited’. But I’m nervous, especially about missing my family. I’m a mum’s girl, and I’m really close to my sisters and their children,” she says.
“I know with me and my partner we can have fun anywhere, so it will be a good experience for our little family.”
Natua admits she was anxious before her return to rugby with the Blues this season.
“There’s that old Auckland-Waikato rivalry that’s been there like, forever,” says Natua, who helped Waikato reach the Farah Palmer Cup final against champions Canterbury in 2020.
“The older girls I knew, but there were more younger than older. But when I came in, I stoked there were a lot more people like me, Pacific Island girls. I’m really enjoying the environment – it’s refreshing.
“Being in a professional environment – that’s in between the Black Ferns and FPC – means it’s not too serious that you can’t enjoy it. And we can get creative. Having Carlos Spencer, the creative mastermind, working with us has been awesome.”
Blues training has been intense, so she’s put her other career – as a freelance graphics designer – on hold. (Natua has a bachelor of media and creative studies from the University of Waikato).
On the bench for the Blues’ narrow 26-23 semifinal loss to Matatū on Sunday, Natua admits it’s been a challenge to getting to her ideal playing weight. "I'd like to be in better shape before I commit to the FPC this season," she says.
Watching the Black Ferns win the Rugby World Cup at home last November was bittersweet for Natua. It brought back good memories of the last World Cup – where she appeared in every game, and scored three tries in the space of 20 minutes in the Black Ferns’ triumphant final against England.
“But in all honesty, I found it hard watching because it was a goal for me to play in a World Cup at home,” she says.
A string of circumstances had determined otherwise - a hamstring injury ruled her out of the 2018 Black Ferns campaign, then Covid hit, and she fell pregnant.
“The 2017 Black Ferns were the team who got things moving more for the women’s game. So I found it hard because it was a place where I wanted to be, the reward I wanted to reap,” she says.
“Of course, I was happy to see some of my closest friends win again. But I watched more highlights than live games.”
Natua reckons time will be against her to play at another World Cup, in England in 2025. But she’s relished her first Aupiki season with the Blues – even if it’s been the cause of a little rivalry at home with Sowakula, who she met when he first played for the Chiefs in 2017.
“My partner tells me not to wear my Blues stuff around him and his team,” Natua laughs. “Even my family cheer for me, not necessarily for the Blues. But I guess I’m still Chiefs at heart.”
So you wouldn't blame her if she was cheering under her breath for the defending champions, Chiefs Manawa, when they play Matatū in the Super Rugby Aupiki final on Saturday.
Greer Sinclair has played for four of the six ANZ Premiership teams, but now she's finally putting down roots at the Mainland Tactix, Merryn Anderson writes.
The week of her debut for the Mainland Tactix, Greer Sinclair had to drive to a warehouse to pick up the correct team merchandise for her family.
The 22-year-old defender played for three different ANZ Premiership teams last season, able to be loaned to other teams due to the disruptions of Covid. You could understand if her support crew felt a little confused.
Previously a training partner for the Stars, Sinclair played her first game for the Christchurch-based Tactix this month - back in her hometown, Auckland, against her old team.
“That was really cool because I had my whole family and friends there, a little army behind us,” Sinclair says.
“For me to get that full game and to start was amazing, because it gave me self-confidence and I enjoyed it so much.
“Then to also have my family and my friends there, who've been supporting me since the beginning, was really special.”
Sinclair had to tell her dad he couldn’t wear his old merch - he only had Stars colours - so she picked up the right team kit before the game, creating her own corner of red and black at the match.
Last season, Sinclair played for the Mystics, Magic and Stars - all while balancing work as a nanny, coaching netball and studying. (She's been doing a lot of her study online with AUT, working towards a business and marketing degree).
“It was a weird one, playing with three different teams,” she says.
“You can’t really go into a team and learn all of the structures and all of the plays within the week leading up to the game. So I just went in there and just played netball and had fun and enjoyed it.”
This year, she received her first full contract, moving down south to Christchurch. She also works with the Tactix marketing team, as part of a placement paper for her degree.
She’s always admired the Tactix for the team’s loyalty and strength, and was excited to have the opportunity to play for the Canterbury side.
“I’ve always looked up to that, and obviously with Jane [Watson] and Karin [Burger] in the defensive end, that’s a huge pull for me,” says Sinclair, as the Tactix prepare for their South Island derby match with the Steel in Invercargill tonight.
Sinclair has almost 150 caps of international experience surrounding her, with Silver Ferns Watson and Burger in the circle and English international Laura Malcolm in the midcourt.
She also flats with Malcolm and Pulse-turned-Tactix shooter Aliyah Dunn. “They're such a laugh, they’re great,” Sinclair says.
Sinclair reckons she can’t even list how much she’s learnt from the veteran defenders in the short time she’s been at the Tactix.
“They just see the game differently because they’ve had so much experience,” she says.
“Even my attacking game’s improved cause I’m hitting the line harder. I’m working off Karin, and Jane’s voice from the back - she’s just always talking so I can always hear her.
“They’re all an asset to be working with, that whole D [defensive] end with Laura in the front as well, it’s amazing. I’ve still got lots more to learn, so I’m just going to be a sponge the whole season.”
Being able to be in one team for a full season is a gift for Sinclair, and not because she can now plan her life easier.
“Actually settling into a team and growing connections and partnerships on court and off court is just so much better for my game to improve,” she says.
“The little things like my work-ons and my strengths, I can hone in on them and improve them.”
Sinclair played a full match at wing defence in the Tactix' 55-49 win over the Stars in round one, and was equally effective in the midcourt as she was in defence.
“We were stoked off that first win - it sort of set our tone and how we’re going to start the season,” Sinclair says.
She had an even tidier second game, playing the first three quarters at wing defence, as the Tactix lost to reigning champs the Mystics after a second half slump.
“I think we’ve reset, we know what we did wrong, what we need to work on so we’ve gone back to that this week and trained that hard,” she says.
The Tactix take on the Steel on Monday, a team who've been struggling since the loss of goal shoot George Fisher with a knee injury.
A comprehensive win over the Steel could see them shoot up the table, a big boost so early in the season.
Making the Silver Ferns has been a goal of Sinclair’s since she was a little girl. She's reached national honours before - as a student at Epsom Girls Grammar, Sinclair made the New Zealand secondary schools team in 2017 and '18, and was in the New Zealand U21 side who were working towards the Youth World Cup in 2021, which was ultimately cancelled because of the pandemic.
Having her first full season in the ANZ Premiership is something she believes will help to reach her Silver Ferns dream.
“Being selected from the beginning and being chosen in that 10, it just gives you the self-confidence to believe in yourself and know you’re good enough to be there,” she says.
“You can actually put yourself first to improve in little things in the game you need to work on.”
The Magic pulled off an incredible turnaround of fortunes on Sunday, with a one-goal extra-time victory over the previously unbeaten Mystics in Hamilton. After two heavy losses, the Magic found themselves trailing by 10 after the first quarter, but patiently chipped away and won every other spell, drawing level at the end of 60 minutes. Goal keep Erena Mikaere, pulling in five intercepts, put the Mystics attack under pressure they couldn't respond to and the home side won 57-56.
The Pulse put the wind up the Stars in their encounter in Auckland, but a strong third quarter performance by the Stars - with former Silver Ferns captain, and mum of two, Katrina Rore coming to their aid - turned around last year's grand final result, and they came away 59-51 winners.
*The Tactix play the Steel in Invercargill at 7.30pm on Monday, with coverage live on Sky Sport 1, to complete round three.
The Baradene College girls senior eight will have the spirit of Sister Anne de Stacpoole guiding them in their new boat at the annual Maadi rowing regatta this month, Andy Hay writes.
By the time racing at Maadi comes around later this month, the racks at Lake Karāpiro will be groaning with the weight of boats in every size, shape, age, and colour.
Each rower hoping their boat will add some special speed as they aim for their best performance of the season when it matters most.
And then there are the boat's names. 'Ex Animo' (from the heart), 'Father John', 'Ad Surgo' (to soar), 'Brother Terence', 'Lesley Milne', 'Michael Brake', 'Juliette Haigh', 'Skate Millar', 'Dimity'. All names with special meaning to their crews.
And as two Auckland schools showed at the recent Head of Harbour regatta, sometimes the name of a boat can bring out the best in a crew.
For sibling schools Sacred Heart College and Baradene College of the Sacred Heart it turned into a monumental weekend, both their U18 eights getting gold at the famous regatta which has been held since 1937.
Since that time, the area around venue Lake Pupuke has become more built up. With more traffic, more competition to book the lake on a Saturday in summer and more resistance from residents to the noise and congestion. And let’s be honest, the weather doesn’t always play its part.
So it almost seems like a miracle, considering recent rain events, that by the time the U18 eights hit the water for the final two races at Pupuke there was only a “light-ish” tail breeze and the famous bank at Sylvan Park was soaked in sunshine.
Baradene walked their boat down to the dock in the late afternoon motivated by a special spirit at the school. They only launched it in November and while they’ve boated it a few times, they’d never had the chance to race it in front of the woman whose name is scrolled in beautiful cursive writing on the bow.
Up on the hill by the finish line, Sister Anne de Stacpoole was perched eagerly on a deck chair, watching on.
She joined the order of the Sisters of the Sacred Heart in 1948 and six years later went to the convent on the site of the college where she’s been a huge part of school life ever since.
At 94, she still hits the exercycle and swims at the school’s outdoor pool. She rates the rowers - for their discipline and dedication. Being a sports nut herself also helps.
“Sister Anne watches the girls train after school and always has an interest in what they are training for. She’s always keen to know the outcome,” says Baradene principal Sandy Pasley.
The outcome can often be a bit sketchy at Pupuke, the finish line is a bit unclear and there are no individual lane markers. It’s a mad 900m dash to a line you can visualise but can’t really see.
It’s a great visual spectacle for the crowd though; they can see down to the start and it’s not too hard to follow the race for the short few minutes.
But in the girls’ eight, identifying separation was a bit trickier, with Baradene and Westlake Girls’ going bow to bow from start to finish.
Here’s how stroke Emma Gerrand and cox Natalie Salmon remember it on 'Sister Anne':
Salmon: “It was amazing that wind we did, it was like the last 300 metres. [From the video] it looks like we took them in three strokes.”
Gerrand: “We got off the water thinking [there was] a smidgeon of hope, like ‘Did we take them?’ But then they were celebrating. We were like, ‘Oh, we got taken, we got second’.”
It took a few minutes after they got off the water before the official result came through.
The girls U18 eight race in the 2023 Head of Harbour regatta
Gerrand: “As we're putting the boat away, Mike [coach Mike Burrell] was like sprinting, and holding up just one finger and it was just like ‘The hit, like we did it finally’.
“So, we put the boat down and sprinted to Sister Anne and all gave her hugs, and she was a little overwhelmed.”
Salmon: “But she was so happy. And we knew we'd done something for her."
Last weekend, they finished third in the U18 eight at the North Island secondary schools championships, and they'll be taking Sister Anne (the boat) - and the spirit of her namesake - to the Maadi Cup, starting March 27.
The same year Sister Anne was joining the order in 1948, Sacred Heart boys were cementing their place in schools rowing history, winning the esteemed Maadi Cup/Head of Harbour double.
No one was surprised to see Sacred win the U18 four at Head of Harbour this year - they are one of the Springbok Shield favourites for Maadi. But it’s been a long time since that last Head of Harbour win in the eight of '48.
“Seventy-five years and we haven't had one eight that can just beat eight other crews, seven other crews,” says U18 eight cox Jacob Avery. “And then for us to come along in a makeup boat and just win it is quite crazy.”
The crew included one novice rower and they’d never rowed the boat together before. “Our coaches, Brent [Leach] and Mike [O’Brien] come up to us and they're like ‘This is probably the last time some of you guys are gonna run that 18 eight except for like maybe one or two of you.’ And so we took that to heart.”
Avery took the boys through a few practice starts which he reckons were pretty scratchy, and then they got in the blocks in their boat ‘Chris Klaassen’.
“We did our race start, and that was probably the best we've ever done,” he says. “Like, maybe 10 strokes I'm on [Auckland] Grammar’s bow ball and in [another] 10 strokes I was on King’s [College] two seat. It was just an unbelievable race, really.”
Like the girls’ race, Sacred weren’t totally sure they’d pulled it off either.
“We'd crossed the finish, but I wasn't sure, I started second guessing myself because I heard a buzzer and I was like, ‘Maybe that's my mind playing tricks on me’. So we just kept going and then once we saw King’s and Grammar stop, we just started splashing around.”
Sacred Heart couldn’t repeat their win in the eight at the North Islands, but they did pick up five other gold medals in the Under 18 division.
Chris Klaassen started rowing at Sacred Heart in 1973. He’s been involved with the school’s rowing programme in some shape or form ever since. What better way to celebrate 50 years, than by having the boat named after you get the win after such a long time.
Whether Sacred boats the ‘Chris Klaassen’ in the 18 eight at Maadi is anyone’s guess. But it will definitely be on the racks at Karāpiro at the end of March. Just like the hundreds of other boats waiting for another crew to add something new to the story of a boat and the name behind it.
* This story is published with permission from Rowing NZ.
SailGP hits New Zealand waters for the first time this weekend. Can the global sailing series capture the imaginations of Kiwi sports fans, in the same way as the America's Cup?
SailGP is often compared to the fast-paced action of motorsport's top-tier competition, Formula 1.
Nine foiling catamarans out on the water, reaching speeds of up to 90km/h as they race for line honours.
Eleven events all around the world, in places like Bermuda, Saint-Tropez, Copenhagen, Sydney.
And this weekend, Christchurch will get to experience the action.
Sailor Phil Robertson, originally from Auckland, will be out on the water, competing in New Zealand for the first time in his professional career.
But he's not on his home country's team - he's leading the Canadians.
He describes sailing on these yachts as "probably close to flying".
"I actually took a guest for a ride ... he jumped on the back [with] probably about 20 knots [about 40km/h] worth of breeze and we instantly went from zero knots to 50, which is 90km/h.
"I looked back and could see his face was pretty white and I asked him afterwards 'What was it like?' and he said 'It was like going down the highway doing 100km/h, standing on the roof of a car, whilst being high on ecstasy'."
Many of Robertson's family and friends will be cheering him on in Christchurch.
"They'll be decked out in Canadian gear, but the way they'll put it is they say 'It's great, we've got two teams so when one's not doing very well, the other one's there to support as well' - so they get the best of both worlds."
SailGP, which made its debut in 2019, is the brainchild of Kiwi sailing legend Sir Russell Coutts and American rich-lister Larry Ellison.
The pair came up with the idea after Oracle Team USA lost the America's Cup to Team New Zealand in 2017.
This weekend is the first time Christchurch has hosted an international sailing event.
Richard Gladwell - New Zealand editor for Sail World, the world's largest sailing news website - says the city's main harbour is "made for spectators".
"What they look for in these events is what they call a stadium venue, so Lyttelton Harbour with the Port Hills and everything surrounding it... it might be the ultimate stadium venue."
He says SailGP is a completely different event from the America's Cup - and SailGP helps sailors get "race-sharp" when the competition for sport's oldest trophy rolls around again.
Suzanne McFadden, editor of Newsroom's LockerRoom, says SailGP has also made strides in boosting women's participation in top-level sailing.
"For the first season, each team had two women and they were really training partners, learning how to sail these incredibly fast, crazy boats. In season two, every crew had to have one female sailor on board the six-person crew, so that was a real breakthrough.
"We're really seeing the women playing major parts on the boats, now that we're into season three and I love to see it. It's definitely progress, you've got to start somewhere, and I think they're probably ahead of the curve, as part of bringing women on to boats.
"But what they have to do is follow up on it... carry on creating role models for young women who want to get into sailing or who are in sailing."
Hear more about the fast-paced action we're expecting to see on the water over the weekend in the full podcast episode.
You can find out how to listen to and follow The Detailhere.
You can also stay up-to-date by liking us on Facebook or following us on Twitter.
Despite her diminutive stature, Mickey Robertson can hold her ground against anyone on the football pitch. And after personal tragedy, the Wellington Phoenix forward had to rediscover her love for the game.
Michaela Robertson’s love of football started as a young girl on the sideline of her dad Tim’s games, and has taken her to great heights, including the Tokyo Olympic Games with the Football Ferns.
But when her dad passed away in 2018, she found her passion for the game disappearing.
“When I lost him, I felt like I’d lost my reason for playing, too,” Robertson says.
Affectionately known as Mickey, the Wellington Phoenix forward shared a love of football with her dad and her younger sister, Jemma. Tim checked in on his daughter's game via text minutes before his unexpected passing.
“Having to adjust to not having my dad around, coaching me from the sideline, being at all my games and just being my number one supporter, I’ve had to find my own reason for playing and what my passion is,” the 26-year-old Robertson says.
Making her A-League Women's debut for the Phoenix in Wellington, her home town, this season was a special moment, carrying her dad’s name with her on the pitch.
“[I’m] no longer playing for him, but playing for myself and for the love of my game,” Robertson says.
Robertson made history as the first female player to join the Wellington Phoenix Academy fulltime in 2020.
“It was kind of unknown territory, like I stepped into that having to pave a new pathway,” the speedy forward explains.
“The boys also weren’t familiar with having a girl running around alongside them, so I had to show them what I was capable of and that I could compete at that level.”
Standing at under five feet tall (147cm) Robertson laughs that the boys almost didn’t know how to tackle a player so small. But their competitive natures - and not wanting to be "beaten by a girl" - meant it didn’t take them long to figure it out.
“It was challenging, they tested me in lots of ways," she says. "It was a much faster ball game than I had played, keeping up with their tempo, and the physical component they brought to the game.
“It took a while for them to become comfortable with me being in their environment but also for me to prove I was good enough to be there.”
Robertson split her time between Auckland and Wellington once she was in contention for the U20 World Cup and after making the Future Ferns domestic programme. But Wellington was always home for her, especially after her dad’s passing.
She balances football with working for the Ministry of Education as the lead advisor for the construction observation team - a team of 21 who look after all the construction projects happening on schools around New Zealand.
Mickey Robertson gets a little extra height for her Sky Sport interview. Photo: Phillip Rollo.
From the moment she heard whispers about the Phoenix entering a team in the Women’s A-League in 2021, Robertson knew she wanted to be part of it.
“The first season, it didn’t quite line up for me. I’d just come back from the Olympics and was really needing a break and to reassess where I was at,” she says, knowing the team would be based in Australia all season because of New Zealand's Covid restrictions.
But discussions with Phoenix head coach Nat Lawrence continued, and when she was officially offered a contract for the team's second season, her family were the first people she told.
Robertson was familiar with most of the players in the Phoenix squad, having grown up playing with many of them, including fellow Wellingtonian Emma Rolston.
“Although it was a new group of players who'd just come together, aspects of it felt like it was a team that wasn’t so new,” Robertson explains.
“I think we still needed to learn how each other played, like we hadn’t all played together as a team, so it took a while for connections to be made. But in terms of just being comfortable around each other and a team culture and family feeling, it was created almost instantly which was cool.”
Football Ferns centurion Betsy Hassett is someone Robertson looks up to in the team, and a good friend.
The duo planned a goal celebration if either scored in their game against Canberra United, and with Robertson on the bench when Hassett scored, the celebration was forgotten.
Luckily, Hassett scored a second in their 5-0 win, and jumped on Robertson’s back, utter joy on both their faces.
Robertson scored her first goal for the Phoenix in a 1-1 draw against the Western Sydney Wanderers at home at Sky Stadium on January 2 - a moment she describes as “unreal”.
“To score my first pro goal and it to be in our home stadium, in front of family and friends, it was a pretty special feeling. And one I want to replicate many times over, it was surreal,” she says.
Robertson has had multiple Football Ferns call-ups, but is yet to earn her first cap.
“My focus has been on having a good first A-League season and enjoying it and doing that would hopefully open opportunities and doors for the future,” she says.
“I’m not playing football and sacrificing things for no reason, I’m playing because I want to grow and better myself and also push myself to make the national team and get back into that environment.”
With a home World Cup fast approaching, the chance of a Ferns recall is in the back of her mind.
“I’m doing everything I can to put my best foot forward for that and showcase what I can do on the field,” she says.
“There’s still time left, I hope I am given an opportunity. But at the same time, I’m also just focusing on myself and bettering my game for the benefit of this team.”
The Phoenix currently sit on the bottom of the table, but after beating the top-of-the-table Sydney FC, 1-0, last week, they have the chance to move their way up and avoid the wooden spoon.
With two wins and three draws, they continue to grow from their inaugural season last year, and Robertson has seen a lot of personal growth through her time with the team.
“I was really unsure when signing this contract if I was good enough to be here and compete at this level,” she remembers.
“I’d almost been fearful of the opportunity that I would crumble under the pressure or I wouldn’t be good enough for it.
“So for me, just stepping into this environment and being able to keep up, and also dominate in some areas and just grow and keep pushing - it’s been huge for my self-confidence and just knowing I am at this level and I can compete.”
*The Wellington Phoenix take on Perth Glory at Wellington’s Sky Stadium on Saturday. Catch the game live on Sky Sport Select from 5pm.
Before heading to the first SailGP Lyttelton event, top sailor Liv Mackay returned home to the devastated Esk Valley to help with the clean-up. And she knows she'll have her community behind her on the water this weekend.
Dressed in her swannie and gumboots, Liv Mackay wades through the mud and floodwaters still covering her family's orchard and farmland in the Esk Valley of Hawkes Bay.
Far removed from the glamour of sailing foiling cats around the globe, she scratches her farm dogs under the chin and takes in the devastation Cyclone Gabrielle wreaked in the valley she grew up in.
Mackay has just spent five days back at her home, getting to work collecting the debris strewn through the orchard. Odd kids' shoes, mattresses and “so much plastic rubbish, that’s been blowing into the ocean”. She shared a video of the destruction and disarray.
“I wanted to document it – that’s the most important part of my life,” the professional sailor says. “It’s been really devastating; seriously brutal.
"Our house was saved, but we’ve lost a huge amount of land – our avocado and mandarin orchards and the farm - that's been badly damaged. The hard thing is Dad’s worked on that land for 35 years, and my granddad helped him work on it, too. It’s a huge part of who we are."
On the day the Esk River overflowed four weeks ago, Mackay’s dad, Hugo, went across farmlands and through surrounding orchards in a jet boat, rescuing neighbours stranded on their rooves in the rising floodwaters. “It’s hard to comprehend,” says Mackay. “But it could have been a lot worse.”
Liv Mackay posted this video of the scenes at her family orchard and surrounding countryside in Esk Valley
The people of Esk Valley continue to lean on each other.
“The community is super-powerful. Everyone went through an extremely traumatic experience together, and they’re all still helping each other,” Mackay says.
Now she's asking her dad to drop his shovel, leave the clean-up, and fly to Christchurch this weekend to watch her sail.
As tough as it is, Mackay has had to switch her focus to one of the biggest regattas in her career – joining her New Zealand SailGP team-mates in Lyttelton for the first SailGP event to be contested on Kiwi waters.
“I feel like I’m good at switching off and switching on to racing when we head out on the water,” she says. “It’s been great to be able to reset and have something really positive in Christchurch to look forward to.”
The previous event on the SailGP circuit in Sydney – when New Zealand was still reeling from the supercharged tropical storm - was an emotionally challenging experience for Mackay and some of her team-mates. The New Zealand team all wore black armbands for those who lost their lives in the cyclone.
“When I flew over to Sydney, I hadn’t been able to speak to my parents properly. I was distraught,” Mackay says. “Mum had called me at 5.30am to ask if we were okay. She said: ‘The valley is fully gone and your dad is out helping rescue people’. And then the call cut off.
“I couldn’t get through to them again for two or three days. A few other people in the team are from the eastern region – [grinder] Louis Sinclair is from Wairoa, and a couple of others in our wider team. So we had a really strong connection to those areas badly affected, but some of us hadn’t heard from our families.”
The team struggled on the water, too, battling with technical issues on a borrowed boat after their F50 catamaran, Amokura, was out of action - struck by lightning in Singapore (after New Zealand won their third grand prix title). The second day of racing in Sydney was abandoned after a rogue storm swept through the SailGP base, causing serious damage to wingsails and boats.
But the New Zealand team, headed by Pete Burling and Blair Tuke, managed to stay in second place overall - behind Australia - leading into the final event to garner points towards making the top three boats to sail in the US$1 million winner-takes-all grand final in San Francisco in May.
“You can really feel the excitement in the team,” says Mackay, who’ll be the sole woman on board the repaired Amokura in Lyttelton. “Racing at home in our black boat again is a special thing.
“It’s important for us to approach it as just another event, and we’re here to perform. We’re definitely here to win. But everyone has this underlying feeling of excitement and pride that we finally get to share this with New Zealanders.”
The global SailGP regatta, created by Kiwi Sir Russell Coutts, is in its third season, but this is the first time it’s reached New Zealand shores. Plans to bring the event to Christchurch in 2022 were scuppered by Covid restrictions.
All nine boats in the series will line up on Saturday and Sunday afternoons to race in the harbour’s natural ampitheatre, with most of the damage from the two freak weather events now fixed. The New Zealand F50 has been through rigorous testing and repairs in Warkworth, after the lightning travelled down the wingsail and out to all four corners of the boat.
“It feels like it’s been a massive effort from the team to get to this point,” Mackay says. “You can definitely feel the buzz around. I can’t really believe it’s all happening – it felt like a far-off dream.”
She’s excited her supportive parents and friends from the Hawkes Bay will be there to witness it.
Mackay has sailed on Lyttelton Harbour twice before, as a young teen sailing and Optimist and a 420 dinghy.
It’s been a hectic time for Mackay, who’s also spent six weeks working with Emirates Team New Zealand, driving one of the two AC40 boats in their first two-boat trialing programme in a decade. She’s hoping to be onboard New Zealand’s AC40 in the first Women’s America’s Cup event in Barcelona next year.
“The experience was so good in so many regards. It was six weeks of intense learning,” she says. “The boats are epic, and the team were great.
“I really got chucked in the deep end, which I loved. It was windy for the first two weeks, and they were ‘Just jump in’. I think it’s the best way to learn.”
Soon, Mackay will head to Europe to prepare for a second season helming the Live Ocean Racing crew on the ETF26 foiling catamaran series.
Sailing under the banner of Live Ocean – Burling and Tuke’s environmental mission - Mackay has become more aware of the ocean’s health. And that’s been important while she’s been in the Hawkes Bay.
“The scary thing is the amount of rubbish that’s blowing into the sea – it’s everywhere,” she says. “It’s a huge conversation Dad and I have been having. He’s the one pushing to get rid of it - to get in and pick up the rubbish before it goes into the ocean.”
Her New Zealand SailGP team have been supportive, she says, encouraging her to go back home as often as she can to help with the clean-up. And she’s discovered the people back home are counting on her to lift their spirits through her sailing.
“All the neighbours say: ‘We see you on TV and it’s amazing; it’s so cool you’re from here and doing this'. They’ll be watching on the weekend and that means such a lot to me,” she says.
“We laughed about making sure Dad gets on that plane.
"It’s really cool to know the people where I’m from are behind me, and they know I’m behind them too. The most important part of me is there.”
* Racing in the SailGP Lyttelton event runs over the weekend, with starts at 3pm on both days. There's live coverage on Sky Sport 2 on Saturday, and Sky Sport 4 on Sunday.