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Surfing grom gets her head around NZ crown

Fresh-faced and 14, our new national surfing champion initially struggled under the weight of the title. But with a new mindset, Ava Henderson is looking forward to claiming more crowns, she tells Anna Willcox. 

In the months after being crowned the New Zealand women’s surf champion, Ava Henderson didn’t like it.

The 14-year-old from Sumner Beach didn’t enjoy the pressure that came with the title when she lined up in smaller surfing competitions. Sometimes the weight of a title can hang over you – and you don’t want to lose the Canterbury champs when you’re the national champ.

But Henderson has since changed her mindset, detaching herself from that pressure and knowing that her best effort is all she can give on the day.

“I’m not going to let the title define the surfer I am,” the Year 10 student at Avonside Girls' High says.

Eight months on from winning the women’s open division of the 2020 national champs, Henderson is just getting used to the fact she’s the second-youngest champ in history - a title she never expected so early in her career. And at an event she’d had to beg her mum to let her enter.

It’s time now to tune the ukulele and take you back to where it all began…

 
 

Henderson’s childhood sounds a lot like something out of a vintage Hawaiian surf film, but instead of coconut trees and the pumping waves of Oahu, it’s Sumner Beach in Christchurch.

She grew up with a tribe of siblings - three stepsisters and two brothers - who all join Henderson nearly every day in the waves that crash on the beach down the road.

Joining her on the hunt for daily ocean shakas is Henderson’s dad, mum and step-dad - who are also keen surfers.

Henderson’s mum, Donna, is a competitive surfer to this day. She took her own national title in the over 40s division alongside Ava this year.

(I told you those ukulele tunes were needed for this story.)

Ava Henderson took out two titles within a few hours at this year's national surfing champs at St Clair. Photo: Getty Images

At the age of seven, there was only one thing on Henderson’s Christmas list, and it definitely wasn’t a Barbie doll. Henderson got her first surfboard and began her journey to becoming one of the best surfers in New Zealand. It’s a humble journey that includes plenty of sunblock, stocked chilly bins and never quite dry wetsuits.

“In the summer holidays we would just go down to the beach in the mornings, we’d take down the BBQ and everyone would surf all day,” she says.

And by the sounds of it, it wasn’t just her family who had this ritual.

“All my mates that live in Sumner surf too; there's quite a tight surfing community,” Henderson says. Her mum also runs a surf school at the beach.

Just a year after picking up a surfboard Henderson got her first taste of competing through her local surf club, North Wai. For a salty fizzed-up eight-year-old, entering the competition was a no-brainer.

“There was a club comp on and we entered it, because you know...why not?” she laughs.

That carefree spirit combined with Henderson’s talent won her that first competition, and then she had a taste for winning. Understanding how to compete from such a young age has made Henderson the competitor she is today.

Her foundations of surfing under a time clock, alongside another competitor and utilising the often less-than-perfect waves that roll through during a heat have given Henderson a competitive edge that’s proven hard to beat.

“Once I was on top, I just wanted to stay there and go bigger and better,” she says.

Henderson set the bar high for herself from the get-go, which wasn’t hard since many of the competitions she entered didn’t have enough girls for their own division so she was forced to compete against the boys. She strived to be the best, no matter the gender of the surfer out the back with her.

To this day it’s clear Henderson still has that mentality, and it hasn’t gone unnoticed by Surfing New Zealand’s general manager of events, Ben Kennings.

“I love watching her surf, and most people do. Purely because she goes for broke, she doesn’t have that upper ceiling boundary,” he says.

Henderson competed at her first national championships in the North Island when she was 11 years old, and it was then and there she felt a shift inside making her want to give everything she had to the sport she loved.

As a preteen what this decision truly meant was: “saying no to a lot of things for surfing.”

Though passing up on birthday parties and sleepovers wasn’t a hard call for Henderson, she had the belief that she could win the national title, though she hadn’t expected it to happen so soon.

As the waves rolled in at St Clairs Beach in Dunedin in January, Henderson gathered herself for the unprecedented challenge of competing in three different divisions, against the advice of a few sponsors, past coaches and her mum. They wanted Henderson to focus her energy on her two age categories instead of over-committing and adding the ppen division to her plate.

Though I bet it’s hard to say no to a 14-year-old with a cheeky smile and unshakeable belief. “I want to do all three,” she told them, “and I know I can do it.”

The day began with Henderson claiming third place in the U16s, a result she was obviously unhappy with.

”It got me fired up for my next event,” she admits. “I was so mad, I told myself I need to do better in the next one”.

A few hours later, Henderson did just that - claiming her first title of the day by becoming New Zealand’s U18 champion. There was no time to pop the grape juice, as she took the momentum through to the open women’s event.

Sitting in front in her final against Piha’s Gabrielle Paul, an exhausted Henderson willed the clock to tick down faster - eventually timing out and leaving her pinching herself out the back of St Clairs.

Even as she paddled in, the win simply wasn’t sinking in. “It was the strangest feeling, I was so excited but then at the same time I kept asking myself is this real?” she says.

“I looked at the beach and my mum was in absolute disbelief, with a look on her face like ‘Did that just happen?’”

When you delve a little deeper into the surfer that Henderson is, you realise how far from a fluke this accolade was.

Perfect rolling 2-3ft off-shore waves rarely come to the party on competition day in surfing, a huge part of competing in a sport dictated by the elements is frankly playing the cards (or waves in this matter) you’re dealt.

So what are Henderson’s ideal surfing conditions?

“Honestly growing up in Christchurch, it’s onshore the whole time,” she laughs. “You get grateful when you've got waves; you can go a couple of weeks where it’s completely flat. So as soon as there’s a swell, you're out there making the most of it.”

Being able to maximise a crumbly onshore wave is what sets Henderson apart at competition, here and overseas. “You go to comps and suddenly everyone is always complaining about the waves,” she says.

Henderson’s mentality is simple, just make the most of what you’re given.

“If you’re used to riding perfect waves and then suddenly you’re in a comp with small crappy waves you won’t know what to do,” she says.

There’s no question that Henderson knows exactly what to do, and with seven years of competitive experience already under her belt - along with a carefree, yet determined, attitude, there’s no telling how far Henderson will take her surfing.

Now that it’s an Olympic sport - making its debut in Tokyo next year - Henderson could be a strong contender for the New Zealand team in Paris 2024 and Los Angeles 2028. It's definitely something she'd love to do.

For the time being though, with international competitions on hold thanks to Covid-19, you’ll find her with her tribe of fellow frothers out back in the waves at Sumner Beach, catching whatever comes her way.

You can finish strumming your ukulele now.

The daily grind of life in cricket quarantine

On this week's Extra Time, White Ferns cricketer Suzie Bates reckons the trials and tribulations of quarantine in Brisbane ahead of matches against Australia are all worth it.

It may take them an hour a day to get the team up and down the service lift in their hotel, they're only allowed a couple of hours outside to train each day and they've endured four Covid-19 tests so far. 

But after six months off cricket, Bates says the White Ferns are fizzing to play in the T20 matches, starting next weekend, followed by the Rose Bowl one-day series.

But there are perks in quarantine too - the coffee is great, straight from the hands of barista team-mate Katey Martin. 

And the All Blacks will play test match rugby this year after all. Two Bledisloe Cup tests against Wallabies have been confirmed for Wellington and Auckland and the side will then head to Australia for the rugby championship...although that seems to be up in the air with doubts over whether South Africa and Argentina will play.

There are doubts, too, over whether some key All Blacks will make the trip, and suggestions some may opt out of the tour. The ramifications are discussed by this week's panellists - New Zealand Rugby Players Association chief Rob Nichol, RNZ rugby reporter Joe Porter and commentator Hamish Bidwell. 

* Extra Time is brought to you by RNZ, LockerRoom and Stuff

Youth worker wants to share Black Fern jersey's power

Cristo Tofa is already making a difference in the lives of many young people, but she knows she can inspire them even more by playing at next year's Rugby World Cup. 

On this day in exactly a year's time, Auckland Storm front rower Cristo Tofa could be lining up on Eden Park in a Black Ferns jersey for the opening game of the Rugby World Cup. And there will be many familiar young voices cheering her on.

The idea of being a part of such an historical event brings a silent pause and then a quiver to Tofa’s voice as we speak over the phone.

“Oh man, I'm getting a little emotional,” says the 32-year-old, who only took up rugby six years ago and made her Black Ferns debut in 2018. 

“I guess for me being in that black jersey and being at home is an opportunity to say thank you to my partner, Jason, who has been so supportive and awesome, and to our son.

“They’ve made so many sacrifices for me to play. Just being able to thank them and my family is what that moment would mean.”

Once she’s regathered herself from explaining the magnitude of that moment, Tofa quickly thinks of another group of people this could mean a lot to - the children she works with in her day job as a youth worker, and those she coaches and manages in a couple of rugby league teams.

“For the kids to see that, they might think ‘Oh, if our coach can do it, then we can too’,” says Tofa.

 
 

Working with communities and young children is a way of life for Tofa, her partner Jason Taufua, who is also a youth worker, and their 12-year-old son, Penita.

“This is probably going to sound cheesy but my interests outside of rugby are serving. God has put so many blessings in my life and being able to do the stuff I do, I really love it,” she says.

“I love that after work, I have to rush off to their league trainings because I feel like being with those kids and seeing their little wins and growth is what I live for.”

Cristo Tofa with partner, Jason, and son, Penita. Photo: Supplied. 

A couple of years ago, Tofa and Taufua set up an academy to help young children transition into intermediate school. The academy works with children aged between eight to 14.

“We both understand the struggles a lot of our kids are dealing with at the moment,” Tofa says. “If we really help push the same messages their parents are sharing, then hopefully they will be comfortable with who they are and confident to do what they want, especially our young Maori and Pacific boys.

“Our 1:9 Academy, which is from Joshua 1:9, is about being bold and courageous.”

Being brave and teaching skills by being honest and keeping the children accountable is important to the couple.

“If they can pick up these habits from a young age then we hope they’ll be able to take them into school, and apply them in their learning. Or at home when they’re doing feaus [chores], or in whatever sports they play,” she says. Some of the academy kids have gone on to get scholarships with high-profile secondary schools.

“We’re really thankful to play a small part in some of these boys' journeys when they’ve picked up scholarships at Kings, St Kents or St Peters,” says Tofa.

The same skills are emphasised in the U12 Mount Albert and Toa Samoa rugby league teams the couple coach and manage. Of course, son Penita is a member of both.

“With our kids we try to build a culture around them understanding the importance of brotherhood and the reasons why you play,” Tofa says.

The young league teams have fundraised and travelled to Australia, and more recently Christchurch, to compete in tournaments. On both occasions, they’ve walked away with the main prize.

“It's cool for them to win but I think the big picture stuff for me and my partner is really driving the importance of who they are. And making sure they always have a purpose behind everything,” says Tofa.

She’s been in youth work for over a decade and just like the academy and coaching commitments, the end goal is trying to prepare children with necessary skills.

Auckland's Cristo Tofa attempts to stop Canterbury's Cindy Nelles in last year's FPC clash. Photo: Getty Images. 

“Our main goal is to try and get them back into the community, teach them life skills, as well as help them and their families into some sort of employment or education,” Tofa says.

“Touching base with some past students and seeing what they’re doing now reminds me why I love the job that I do and why I do it.”

Playing rugby came later in life for Tofa. She took up the sport only six years ago, and it was more of an attempt to get fit and healthy. Some sound advice from her father-in-law meant she needed to reconsider the reasons why she wanted to play sport.

Similar to the ethos she carries in all of her activities, her father-in-law questioned what she wanted out of playing rugby.

“He basically said if there is no end goal out of all of the time I’m going to sacrifice away from my son and family, then it’s not worth it,” says Tofa, who grew up playing netball and basketball.

The decision to stick with the game paid off when Tofa made her debut for the Black Ferns in 2018 against Australia.

Her rugby career had been bumpy with setbacks, so the debut was massive for Tofa and her family.

After trying to make the Auckland team for a while, she made the decision to move over to North Harbour in 2017 for the Farah Palmer Cup season. The week after her first club outing with East Coast Bays she was in a Black Ferns camp - selectors noticing her versatile skills.

The last couple of seasons have been tough with injuries tormenting Tofa.

“Last year, I was really lucky to have picked up a contract [with the Black Ferns] which I thought would never happen. And then injuries came into play for me. I got injured very early in the year which took me out of camps and the first part of the club season with a broken finger,” says Tofa.

And then again at the end of the year, in the FPC semifinal against Wellington, Tofa broke her thumb but carried on to play in the final against Canterbury before going under the knife.

“Just those little injuries set me back so this year I wasn’t included in the contracts, which is cool,” she says. “I guess for me, it's getting myself ready for each stage. Winning with Ponsonby was a big tick, and now with Auckland I’m focused on just doing my role, learning and really working on some areas.”

Covid-19 has set back the Black Ferns' plans for 2020. This season they were slated to play eight tests at home as a build-up to the World Cup, but border closures mean the test schedule has been replaced with a Possibles v Probables match in November, with a Black Ferns side chosen to play two games against a New Zealand Barbarians side. 

In the meantime, Tofa will concentrate on the Storm. She says the Auckland side have prepared well for the FPC season.

“What’s really cool is they’re pushing more around working on ourselves. As long as we are well prepared and are doing what we are meant to be doing then hopefully that will reflect in our game,” she says.

The first two rounds have shown the limited lead-in time teams have had together - and the games against Taranaki and Northland truly tested Auckland, but they came out on top.

This weekend, the Storm take on the Counties Manukau Heat at Eden Park for the 'Te Toki Mareikura' taonga – which loosely translate as ‘champion noble female’. Auckland secured the trophy last year in the inaugural match-up, but Tofa says it’s going to be a tough game.

“I’m so excited to play Counties. They're such a talented group and you can see them carving up,” she says. “But Auckland is definitely ready for the challenge.”

This time next year, Tofa and her family could be blessed with another challenge at Eden Park when the 2021 Rugby World Cup kicks off.

Fleet-footed cop can't eat on the run

In spite of the unprecedented challenges Mel Aitken faces taking care of New Zealand's police, the Kiwi ultra star keeps running every day - and at record pace.  

She’s one of New Zealand’s top cops, and one of the fastest ultrarunners in the country too.

But sometimes Mel Aitken is guilty of not taking care of herself as meticulously as she looks after the well-being of her police colleagues. 

Take her latest race – a six-hour global solidarity event she ran in Wellington a fortnight ago.  Aitken was one of a team of eight Kiwi women and men who competed in the virtual race – running wherever they live in New Zealand, against 400 other runners doing the same thing around the world.

The event was organised by the International Association of Ultrarunners to bring solidarity to the running community in the face of the global pandemic that has scratched almost every international event this year.

The 43-year-old Aitken - whose day job sees her responsible for the wellness and safety of the 14,000 people in the New Zealand Police – was the quickest of the New Zealand runners.

And her distance covered over the six hours – 73.2km – was an unofficial New Zealand record.

 
 

As “stoked” as Aitken was to run as far and as fast as she did, she also admits on the Dirt Church Radio podcast she didn’t exactly look after her own well-being.

During the entire six hours running non-stop, she barely ate a thing.

“One of my biggest downfalls in all my running - and I'm quite open about it - is my poor nutrition when I'm racing,” Aitken says. “So, I know I need to put fuel in, but I can't bring myself to do it.”

During the race she ate one-and-a-half little packets of energy gel, smaller than your hand.

Mel Aitken was first woman home in the Taupo Half Marathon last month, her first race out of lockdown. Photo: supplied. 

“I have this like mental block where I know I should take stuff in and then I think ‘I'll just keep going a bit further, and a bit further’. And then I sort of hit the wall of ‘I really should have taken something’ but then I just can't face consuming anything,” Aitken says.

“So, I suffered. Nobody’s perfect, and it’s something I just need to work on and make myself take stuff in.

Even her husband, Steve, could convince her. “[He] was going along beside me, but he knew not to say ‘Mel, eat something.’ He was looking at me like ‘No, you really need to’. But he knew better to just keep the trap shut,” she laughs.

But still she ran further than anyone on her team, including fellow top ultra-women Dawn Tuffery, Emma Bassett, Emily Solsberg and Fiona Hayvice. The next fastest runner on Kiwi soil was Aucklander Andrew McDowall.

“There was no pressure; I wasn't trying to beat anybody,” Aitken says. “I was just going out and running for fun and I sort of surprised myself.  

“It was just a really cool, different way of still feeling united globally. We can't get across the ditch or we can't travel to other countries to do our races. Cheering the different teams that were racing across the globe, and then seeing the results afterwards was just cool because you still felt like you were part of that whole sort of team and race feel. But in the virtual world.”

Running on her own, on a course she’d mapped out around the capital, Aitken almost bungled her race plan early when she took a wrong turn and ended up down a dirt track leading nowhere – on the wrong side of the Hutt River.

“I hit this whole fear of ‘If there’s a bogeyman in these bushes then I'm buggered because no one's going to find me’, so that made me turn around and run pretty quickly back to the start and get back on the road again,” she says.

Aitken’s impressive distance would have been a New Zealand record, but it can’t be counted because of the unusual nature of a virtual race. She’s not perturbed, though – she’s going to try to better the six-hour record again in November in the Sri Chinmoy races at Auckland’s AUT Millennium Stadium.

It’s been a very quiet year racing trails for Aitken, whose 2019 was action-packed with victories in the Tarawera Ultra 50km race, the 85km Old Ghost Road Ultra, second overall – man or woman - in the national 100km championships, and a bronze medal at the Xterra trail running world championships in Hawaii.

But on the other hand, it’s been an eventful year in her day job. Aitken was the police area commander on the West Coast before taking on a role in at the NZ Police headquarters in Wellington as national manager for the Safer People initiative.

Mel Aitken has seen so many changes in the police force in her 21 years on the beat. Photo: supplied. 

“It's basically overseeing wellness, health and safety, physical education, medical and return to work for all our people within the police. So, yeah, it's pretty awesome and a real change in role within the police for me,” she says.

“Where up until this role, my whole job has been external facing, looking after the community, this is now about looking after the wellness of our own employees.”

Aitken, who’s been in the police force for 21 years, says healthier police should translate into a healthier interaction with the public.

“Our staff see some pretty horrific things and for a long time we've had good support mechanisms and initiatives in place. But what's been amazing in the time I've been here is the appetite for a real prevention focus,” she says.

“So keeping our people fit and well, rather than wait until we have to respond to, you know, adverse things or people falling over, whether it's physical or mental injury. We're really driving breaking down the stigma around mental health.

“It's a really great time to be able to be in a position where I can hopefully influence and help our people do what they do and remain well.”

During her almost two years in the role, she’s helped to take care of police involved in the Christchurch terror attacks and the White Island eruption, and now looking after their health and safety in the Covid-19 pandemic.

This latest situation has meant preparing the police with PPE gear, and drawing up procedures to avoid possible exposure to the virus.

“For me it's a bit of a dream job, in that I live and breathe wellness. I'm passionate about my running, passionate about my diet - other than when I’m out racing and then I forget about it,” she quips.

“But I genuinely love wellbeing and everything that contributes to it. It’s a demanding job, a big job. But I’m doing something that I can actually speak from the heart and be really authentic about and, you know, walk the talk.”

As an essential worker, she was able to run to and from work every day during Level 4 lockdown. And coronavirus also led the highly-competitive Aitken to discover she loves the journey leading up to a race, as much as the race itself. 

Her calendar is filling up with events again, now. Next weekend she has the Rotorua Marathon, then the Crater Rim Ultra on Christchurch’s Port Hills two weeks later, and a fortnight after that the Auckland Marathon before her Sri Chinmoy challenge.

Aitken had a few big overseas races planned this year that didn’t happen. But she’s pragmatic about it.

“Hey, I'm in the same boat as everyone else. And the really cool thing is that we can still run. It’s not like you haven't got competition, so you can't do sport,” she says. “You can still go out and do it.”

* Dirt Church Radio is a Kiwi trail running podcast hosted by Eugene Bingham and Matt Rayment. Learn more at dirtchurchradio.com

Aunty of rugby league takes on new challenge

The "aunty" of New Zealand rugby league, Carmen Taplin, is used to working in the background, but Covid-19 has put her role managing players' well-being under a spotlight.

Carmen Taplin has a history of being someone athletes turn to.

She has welcomed young players into her family home and toured for long periods with professional players offering guidance.

However, the NZRL well-being manager has a new challenge with the Warriors women players based in Australia for the duration of the NRLW.

That a well-being manager is even part of the small team from New Zealand who've made the journey is a sign of the emphasis on athlete welfare during a turbulent time.

"It's been hard over the years, footy has always taken precedence over well-being managers as they were not really seen as a priority back in the day," Taplin says.

But Covid-19 has helped change the sport's focus during 2020 NRL and NRLW seasons that nearly did not happen.

 
 

"I feel that definitely there has been a shift and I hope it stays that way going forward. I just think it is so important that we nurture all aspects, not just the physical," she says.

"We refer to it in our campaign now Te Whare Tapa Whā - around supporting the physical, the spiritual, mental and emotional in our whānau of relationships."

In 2010 Taplin was brought into the Kiwis management team to help with logistics, but her role quickly expanded over the four years she was with the men's national team.

"[I was there to] bring the female element to a footy staff and to add that 'aunty' kind of feel to the squad," she says.

Carmen Taplin is enjoying the opportunity to keep an eye on the NZ Warriors women in quarantine in Australia. Photo: Getty Images

Her caretaker position was a natural fit and she took it even further. Eight seasons ago, Taplin and her husband moved to Sydney with a plan to support young players.

Taplin says a couple of youth suicides in the under-20s in Australia motivated the pair to put their hands up to be house parents - an arrangement that the Sydney Roosters NRL club welcomed.

They ended up with a house full of 10 boys, including Australian representative Latrell Mitchell, who now plays for the Rabbitohs, and Kiwis and Roosters player Joseph Manu during the year they spent across the Tasman.

It was the time in Sydney that cemented Taplin's decision to pursue a career path associated with well-being on her return to New Zealand.

NZRL's links with the Warriors' women's programme means she was called on as a support person for this unprecedented season, which will see the players spend a 10-week period away from home with quarantine periods in Australia and New Zealand on either side of the five-week competition.

The Warriors' captain Georgia Hale, with Hilda Mariu, Madison Bartlett, Crystal Tamarua and Kanyon Paul, have all committed to the temporary move to Australia to take part in the four-team competition.

"Women are so different, which I love. We're very much in tune with our emotional self and I think they really appreciate that nurturing," Taplin says.

"I don't do anything magic, I'm just that ear, that someone that they trust and respect and they're comfortable to come to if little things are getting them down.

"I'll sit down and have breakfast with someone without the intention of having a catch-up or a well-being chat. But it always eventually turns into that and I am really blessed that I am able to have that with these girls."

Taplin spent eight weeks on tour with the Kiwis in the United Kingdom earlier in her career so says she was prepared for what a long stint working away from home would be like, but she's in awe of what the women were prepared to do to be able to play this season.

"The NRL men, their work is rugby league, so that was probably never an issue. But these girls have had to consciously say 'Well can I actually get the time, 10 weeks away from home, from my work? Are my kids going to be okay?' And the crazy thing is they made that decision on not a lot of information," Taplin says. 

"We still didn't have exact details, so these five girls have made the ultimate sacrifice. For a while they weren't sure who their coach would be; they were unsure who their teammates would even be."

Australian Jillaroos coach Brad Donald has since been confirmed as their coach for this season. But the players are still waiting to meet the other women who will make up the majority of the squad.

Georgia Hale runs with the ball for the Warriors at the NRL Nines earlier this year. Photo: Getty Images. 

The New Zealand-based players who couldn't make the sacrifice are not far from the players' thoughts, Taplin says.

"They are very conscious of the girls who wanted to be here just as much and couldn't, so they are a big part of our journey as well," she says.

Taplin admits what she has left behind is on her mind, too.

She has a 17-year-old daughter living at home and a four-year-old, and she is still a house parent for one of the Warriors players.

"The real mamae, or hurt, comes when we start to miss our families and I feel it. It was my son's 22nd birthday on Thursday and it's the first time I have really been away from him, so I felt that. But the girls, they know and they support me just as much as I support them in that well-being space."

But Taplin did not think twice before committing to the campaign. "I was always going simply because I knew how tough it would be for these girls to be away."

The Warriors women and two support staff - plus fellow New Zealander Amber Hall, from the Brisbane Broncos - are based on Milson Island, an hour north of Sydney, while they wait out their quarantine period. 

Taplin says they are becoming a tight-knit group given the unusual circumstances.

Each morning the group karakia by the water, share what they are grateful for and sing before the physical work starts.

"In high performance sport what I've found is probably 80 percent or more is based on performance and physical," Taplin says. "But I don't think we spend enough time on those other areas, and as Te Whare Tapa Whā goes if all walls of the house are not strong, you're at the risk of the house falling down."

There is plenty to be grateful for while they are in "paradise", Taplin says, but she's also happy that the eight of them staying on the island are able to bring some relief to an area that has been hit hard by the fallout from the restrictions around Covid-19.

"Because of Covid they've had no one on this island for six months and it's a school sport and recreation camp and it's paradise," she says. 

"So the girls are getting VIP treatment because the staff haven't had anyone here. So they're pulling out all stops and there is nothing that they won't do for us and I think that put into context for us.

"We've made this sacrifice but we see these beautiful businesses and how it is such an amazing space and they've had no one."

* This article was originally published on RNZ Sport, and is republished with permission. 

Finding GOATs amongst the Silver Ferns

Since her retirement, the word GOAT [Greatest Of All Time] has been consistently linked to Laura Langman.

But understandably, it’s an acronym that sits uncomfortably with the former Silver Ferns captain. The question remains though - is she?

Is the team’s most capped player in fact their greatest? Or would she even make the face of the Mt Rushmore of Silver Ferns?

Alex Chapman spoke to some of the country’s sharpest netball minds to discuss GOATs in black dresses.

Jenny Woods: the voice of netball, commentator for Sky Sport.

Rikki Swannell: netball commentator and journalist.

Dana Johannsen: former netball reporter, now Stuff’s national correspondent in sport.

Suzanne McFadden: longtime sports journalist and editor of LockerRoom.

(Both Swannell and Johannsen emphasised they hadn’t seen as many play as their two colleagues).

Here are their four picks each for the greatest Silver Ferns of all time:

Irene van Dyk played 145 tests for NZ (and 72 for South Africa). Photo: Getty Images. 

IRENE VAN DYK - four votes

JW: She was a match-winner and had longevity. I can’t remember her ever being injured or recall there being a time where she left the court or wasn’t available through injuries. Time and time again, when people were saying things like ‘Oh Australia have worked her out’ she’d evolve, she’d change her game, she’d do things differently. She was a smart player and avoided becoming predictable.

RS: She excelled across eras. When she first came onto the scene with South Africa in ’95, and to then go on to 2003 [when NZ won the World Cup], that’s a different generation. And then to continue on as she did until she was 40, there’s plenty of longevity. She also changed what a tall, strong, holding shooter can be, and while she may not have been the most athletic person in the world, as a package, she had everything.

 
 

DJ: She continuously added strings to her bow and became this unflappable rock. Players like [Australian defender] Liz Ellis would come in and get in her face and try to rattle her and she’d just position herself under the goal and get them in. Also, who shoots at 90 percent for that length of a career?

SM: It’s not just about the way she played for me, always reinventing herself, but the way she became the face of netball. Even when she was born in a different country and in 1995 denied us a place in the World Cup final… but the way this country took her into their hearts as well, I mean, she was voted one of the most trustworthy New Zealanders for a few years in a row. And I loved that she smiled and clapped every time she scored. She loved the game.

Out of retirement, Casey Kopua made a huge impact for the Silver Ferns in their 2019 World Cup victory. Photo: Getty Images. 

CASEY KOPUA (NEE WILLIAMS) - three votes

JW: Whenever I think of Casey, I think of two tests - the Commonwealth Games gold medal match in Delhi in 2010 where she was just enormous, and the 2019 World Cup final where she just won ball. What I really admire about Casey is she epitomises that humble, no-nonsense New Zealand attitude. She’s not flash, she’s not shiny, but just such a solid individual.

RS: Casey played to her absolute limit every single match I ever saw her play, and every one I didn’t. Even when absolutely broken, on one leg, she’d find a way to pull out something incredible. She made everyone around her better, and it’s no coincidence that last year Jane Watson played her best netball with Kopua. She pushed herself to the nth degree and looked absolutely exhausted and became a great leader too, purely through her actions.

SM: Physically she was incredible. She pulled off some of the best leaps and intercepts I’ve seen, most notably in last year’s World Cup final, which really cemented that victory. She was a natural leader who didn’t really love the limelight – you don’t see Casey selling cornflakes. And she was very loyal, she played for the Magic her whole career and when Noeline [coach Dame Noeline Taurua] called to ask to come back to the Silver Ferns, she answered. She was just a beautiful netballer.

SANDRA EDGE - three votes

JW: Sandy would always be there for me, although, it probably helps that I played with her! [Woods proceeds to talk about how they were part of a Hamilton Old Girls team in the 1980’s.] In the black dress she was about flair and speed. She could turn a game and do things in the air that I still haven’t seen many others do, just the way she’d leap and turn and pass… she must’ve been a dream to be fed into the circle by.

RS: Anyone my age, for rugby in that era, there was Michael Jones, Sean Fitzpatrick and John Kirwan. The same era for netball was Sandy and Wai Taumaunu. Edge was my first real sporting hero so there’s probably some nostalgia there. But I also know I can appreciate her years later with how good and revolutionary she was. She was brilliant on attack and defence, won a World Cup, and when you look at the teams she’s coached, you can tell she has a real netball brain.

SM: The greatest midcourter ever. She had amazing vision, presence, she never kept still and was one of those people who could read the game a couple of phases ahead. She had the ability to get the ball in the air, twist, pass and then land. She was humble too, she always saw herself as just that kid from Tokomaru Bay.

Laura Langman made history with her 163 test caps for the Silver Ferns. Photo: Getty Images

LAURA LANGMAN - two votes

RS: I’ve been lucky to see as much of Laura’s career as I did. Laura really set high standards and you wouldn’t have wanted to let her down, and she herself rarely had a bad game. There may have been games where we didn’t notice her as much, or she was quieter, but she didn’t have a shocker. And just the stamina and way she looked after herself is shown by her playing those 141 consecutive tests, at times multiple days in a row at World Cups and Commonwealth Games.

DJ: 141 tests on the trot is proof of her consistent excellence. Apart from when she was blocked from selection [due to playing in Australia], she was one of the first names written down. I remember [former Silver Ferns coach] Ruth Aitken saying that she wished she could clone Laura because she was so good at wing defence and centre. She’s such a strong, tracking defender, which is also why she fitted in so well across the Tasman, as they play a different style over there… she’s criticised for taking every second pass, but people don’t understand how hard you actually have to work to do that.

JOAN HARNETT - one vote

JW: Joan got netball up and out of being a ‘game for gals’ and into being a national sport… I’ve put her in because I’ve talked to some people and her name just kept coming up and I think it’s a nod to the players before the television era. Without players like that, there wouldn’t be the television era because they put out results to get the coverage.

WAIMARAMA TAUMAUNU - one vote

SM: Wai was such a formidable force. I’m still in awe of her because of the mana and presence she has about her… she doesn’t suffer fools. Wai wasn’t extremely tall, but that intimidation factor she had made her 10 feet tall. And along with Tracey Fear and Leigh Gibbs they formed one of the greatest-ever Silver Ferns defensive ends, who won the 1987 World Cup. And she went on to be a respected Ferns coach too.

Temepara Bailey (right) and Maria Folau celebrate NZ's gold at the 2010 Commonwealth Games. Photo: Getty Images

TEMEPARA BAILEY (NEE GEORGE) - one vote

DJ: She was just the most amazing player to watch. Incredibly strong, incredibly dynamic and amazing vision. You’d watch her bomb it halfway down the court and just wonder ‘what is she doing?’ and it would just land with pinpoint perfection. That 2003 World Cup when she was sent off, and then to come back onto the court and nail the intercept to help win the final, is credit to her. Also, testament to her that she came back to play as a grandmother in the ANZ and was talked about as a potential Silver Fern.

BERNICE MENE - one vote

DJ: She was the player I idolised growing up, and I wasn’t even a defender! She was a Silver Fern at 17, and was the archetype of the New Zealand defensive style of play; she always stayed off the body of her opponents and came through for the spectacular clean, aerial intercepts we all love. It really was a shame she retired so young.  

Notable mentions: Maria Folau, Ria Fatialofa, Margaret Forsyth and Leana du Bruin.

Kiwi 'rural rider' taking cycling world by storm

After her cycling season was put on hold, Mikayla Harvey is making up for lost time in Europe. The Kiwi sensation is rising through the ranks and her rivals are taking notice.

Mikayla Harvey can't hide in the peloton anymore. The white jersey of her Équipe Paule Ka team doesn't blend in, even when it's covered in dust.

She used to get a few stray nudges and elbows in the bunch. Now she's getting the same treatment from the TV commentators, who mention her name as the 22-year-old shifts through the gears.

The self-proclaimed rural rider from Wanaka, who arrived in Europe "pretty clueless", is quickly solving the cycling mystery.

"I really feel like people are starting to notice me which is nice," she says from Switzerland. "You do get a bit more respect as well, and it makes it a lot easier moving around and positioning yourself in the race."

That respect has been hard earned. Harvey flourished on the dusty gravel roads of the prestigious Strade-Bianche last month, guiding team-mate Leah Thomas to a podium spot, and finishing a stunning 12th overall, winning the Under 23 classification in the process.

 
 

"I've never had a result like that before and I wasn't expecting it. Getting that result has really made me a lot more confident in my racing and I'm just so excited that I'm able to race up there now with the top girls."

And now Harvey has produced a brilliant start to the multi-stage Giro Rosa, which got underway on Friday.

During Stage 2 of the pinnacle event, she aced the gravel sections and finished an incredible seventh, earning the white jersey as the best young rider in the race. She’s also moved up to fifth overall in the general classification, a position she’s maintained after Stage 4 too.

Mikayla Harvey (left) recovers with her Équipe Paule Ka team-mates after the gruelling Strade-Bianche. Photo: Sean Robinson/velofocus.com

Like many of New Zealand's greatest cyclists, Harvey is always willing to sacrifice herself for the good of the team. While that often means chasing down moves and protecting her leader, her strong form means she's now being given the chance to go for personal results as well.

"It's been a bit of a change for me. Having the girls ride for me is quite different and it's a bit of pressure but I really love the opportunity," she says.

Well-known cycling journalist Orla Chennaoui recently named Harvey as her rider to watch, while English team-mate Lizzie Banks singled her out for her hard work during the Grand Prix de Plouay in France.

So it came as no surprise when Équipe Paule Ka offered her a two-year contract extension following her stunning Strade-Bianche performance.

"I'm able to focus on myself and my training now knowing I've got this amazing team backing me and I'm so grateful for them. I really got taken under the wings of them, and I've developed so much," Harvey says.

The journey she’s been on this year makes her form even more remarkable.

She wasn't even sure if she'd be able to get back on a bike again this season, after fleeing Europe for the South Island during the first wave of the coronavirus pandemic. Once she arrived back in Aotearoa, she had a fortnight in isolation to contemplate a calendar decimated by Covid-19, as well as dealing with the state of her team, who lost their two main sponsors.

A crowd-funding campaign was launched to try and salvage some of the season, and, thankfully, French clothing company Paule Ka came on board with a four-year deal. When the sport's governing body, the UCI, drew up a new schedule, her hopes of returning to racing were back on.

Mikayla Harvey on the climb in La Course, the one-day race run by the Tour de France. Photo: Sean Robinson/velofocus.com

After returning to Europe, she's been living out of a suitcase, waking up every day feeling like she's in a new country. The sport is as normal as it can be in 2020, with riders getting tested for coronavirus twice before every race and donning face masks all the time.

Although it may be different to what she's used to, Harvey's just grateful to have any racing at all.

"You don't want to take it for granted because you don't know when the next race is going to be,” she says. “It might be cancelled, so you have to give it 100 percent because it's so special... when it's taken away from you, you realise how much you really love it." 

In a turbulent year, Harvey faced another frightening moment last month, when the team were forced to pull out on the eve of the Giro dell'Emilia in Bologna.

"We woke up at our hotel the day before the race, we went down for breakfast, and we could tell something was off. We ended up hearing that all our race bikes had been stolen,” she says. “I was super upset, and so was the rest of the team."

Harvey's bike was one of those missing, and they still haven't been found. Unfortunately, it's relatively common in Europe, with the same thing happening a week earlier to the Trek-Segafredo team at Strade-Bianche.

Harvey was back on her new machine in time for La Course at the end of last month, which is the one-day race run by the Tour de France

The event was held before the first stage of the men's race, offering the women rare and much-needed live TV coverage around the world. The racing didn't disappoint either, with British world road champion Lizzie Deignan edging out Dutch legend Marianne Vos in a thrilling sprint finish.

The Équipe Paule Ka team who rode this year's La Course. Photo: Sean Robinson/velofocus.com

The New Zealander was in the thick of the action alongside fellow Kiwi Niamh Fisher-Black. While they couldn't make the decisive split on the final climb, Harvey was thrust right into the mix at the end of the race.

"I've never been in a full bunch sprint and had my team-mates lead me out before. We were trying to get me some points for the Under 23 jersey, and I definitely learnt a lot, and I still managed to come 12th."

The superb showcase of women's cycling has led to calls for a fully-fledged women's Tour de France to be launched. Organisers ASO have responded saying a multi-day race will be in place in 2022.

"I don't see a reason why we can't have one,” Harvey says. “All the procedures are already set up there for the men. We just hope over the next few years it keeps developing, instead of moving a step backwards. We want to keep moving forward with women's cycling."

Preparing for the pinnacle race in women’s cycling, the multi-stage Giro Rosa, a host of the team’s best riders went head-to-head during the training camp in Switzerland, vying for six spots in the Italian event.

Harvey made the final cut, and has already proven herself a vital addition in the team time-trial, and on the gravel she loves. While she’s riding in support of her team leader, she will also want to hold on to her lead as the best young rider, a classification she finished fifth in last year.

While you can’t always tell with the mask on her face, it’s obvious Harvey is loving every second of life at Équipe Paule Ka.

Just 16, and already has Hearts in a spin

Spotted with a special talent, schoolgirl spin bowler Fran Jonas has been given an opportunity to develop the skills needed to become a White Fern 

She may have just signed on the dotted line of a contract with New Zealand Cricket, but Fran Jonas still has to ask her mum or dad to drive her to training.

Jonas has been recognised as a potential star of the game in New Zealand, thanks to the valuable weapon at her fingertips. But at the tender age of 16, she’s only just got her hands on a steering wheel with her learner's licence.

The left-arm orthodox spinner is the youngest of eight players from around the country who’ve been given development contracts with NZ Cricket for the approaching summer season.

A breakout star in her debut - at 15 - for the Auckland Hearts women’s side last season, Jonas will now come under the guidance of some of the best coaches in the country, and just as crucially, have her well-being as an elite sportswoman taken care of too.

It was a surprise, she says, to be seen as a prospective White Fern when she’s still in Year 11 at Baradene College. “But it’s so cool,” Jonas says. “I just want to develop my game and learn from other people.”  

She’s already learning a great deal from her Hearts captain, White Fern Anna Peterson, who's a spin bowler too.

Jonas remembers being "star struck" having a one-on-one session with Peterson when she was younger. And now they're team-mates. 

And Peterson, who’s just turned 30, may just learn a thing or two from the teenager.

“Spin bowling is an art. And Fran’s bowling is amazing,” Peterson says. "She has a really nice, fluid, repeatable action. She doesn’t need to overthink; the ball comes out really beautifully.

“I’ve thoroughly enjoyed having Fran in the group. The year before it was just me - and it was very hard being the only spin bowler. So we bounce ideas off each other.”

Her favourite player may be Black Caps spinner Mitchell Santner, but Fran Jonas has her "own thing going on".  Photo: Shovik Nandi/Auckland Cricket

Left-arm orthodox spinners aren’t exactly a rarity – think England women’s game-changer Sophie Ecclestone, former Black Caps captain Daniel Vettori and Jonas’ favourite player, Mitchell Santner. But they’re regarded as a valuable addition to a team.

“There aren’t many girls bowling left-arm spin…I don’t know of any other girls in Auckland anyway,” Jonas says.

Peterson is impressed by the way Jonas has kept her bowling simple, sticking to her stock ball last season, but she's now looking to introduce a few ‘change-ups’ – slower variation balls – to her repertoire.

“The two other great things about Fran are her mentality and her maturity. Pressure just doesn’t seem to get to her, yet. She’s stepped up in really big games in the big moments when we’ve needed her to,” says Peterson.

Like the final of the Hallyburton Johnstone Shield, the national 50-over championship, back in March. The Hearts beat the Northern Spirit in a high-scoring final, with Jonas claiming three wickets and bowling at the finish.

“She’s shown a maturity well beyond her years. She can handle her emotions and understand the pressure, and I think that’s just natural for her,” Peterson says.

“To get the development contract is a really just reward for what she’s done. Sure, she has heaps of talent, but she puts in a lot of work too. That’s something we really admire in her.”

Jonas started playing cricket at the age of six for the Cornwall club, where she still plays today. Like many kids, she followed her elder brother onto the pitch, and their dad, who’d never played cricket, became her coach.

She played with boys until she moved into hard ball cricket at 10. And then one day, she and her girl team-mates started mucking around at training, trying to spin the ball. And she became hooked.

“Dad tried to help me, but I’m left-handed, and he’s right-handed, so I played around with it myself,” she says. “Then in Year 7, my coach [at Baradene] was a left-arm spinner and he helped me.”

Almost unbelievably, three years later Jonas was fast-tracked into the Auckland Hearts.

Last year, she was playing for the Baradene 1st XI, the Auckland U21s, U19s and was in her last year with the U15s. She also turned out for the New Zealand U22 indoor cricket side. “Yeah that’s a lot of cricket, but it’s good,” Jonas says.

She started the Auckland women’s premier club season with a rush, taking 12 wickets for Cornwall in their first four games. And then having trained intermittently with the Hearts before the season, coach Nick White called on her to join the team for their first home game of the country’s premier women’s one-day competition.  

Making her debut was “definitely nerve-wracking," she says, "but everyone was really supportive, and all the girls were really good to me."

The Hearts have just started training for the 2020-21 season. Under Level 2.5, they work in groups of 10. Jonas has time to get home from school, do a little homework, then turn up for training at 6pm.

Young Hearts spin bowler Fran Jonas signs her autograph for an even younger fan. Photo: Phototek. 

She’s looking forward to discovering what her development contract will bring. The contracts were first introduced last season in NZ Cricket’s new Women’s Master Agreement. Each of the eight players earns $7500 to attend high performance camps and play in the two domestic competitions.

Two of Jonas' Hearts team-mates, Bella Armstrong, who's 20, and Skye Bowden, 19, also have contracts. 

Jonas wants to develop the batting side of her game. At the bottom of the order, the right-handed batswoman didn’t really get the chance to bat for the Hearts last season. 

NZ Cricket’s head of women’s high performance, Ant Sharp, says Jonas is “perfect” for the development contracts programme.

“We get to learn more about her as a person as well as developing her already exciting skill-set,” he says. “These contracts are about giving up-and-coming female cricketers a chance to develop their games by utilising the best coaching resources in the country.”

Part of the criteria for earning a development contract is players must have the potential to play professionally for their country in the future.

A place in the White Ferns is a dream Jonas has harboured since she was "quite young... I remember talking to the other girls in my team and saying ‘Wouldn’t it be so cool to play for the White Ferns?’” she says. “And it would be so cool to achieve it.”

It may not be this season, or the next – in time for the Cricket World Cup here in New Zealand in 2022.

But Peterson stresses it’s important Jonas still enjoys playing cricket with her schoolmates and other girls her own age for now.

“We’ve got to ensure the enjoyment factor is still there for her,” she says. “So many young girls are deemed too good for [age groups] or their schedules mean they can’t do both.

“But young girls need to be playing alongside their peers and dominating in their age groups, so they can come to a women’s domestic game and say ‘You know what? I took a five-for [five-wicket haul] last week, and now I can do that here’.”

Jonas is happy to take up for the challenge, and play as much cricket as she can.

* The eight NZ development contract players are: Bella Armstrong, Skye Bowden, Fran Jonas (Auckland); Katie Gurrey (Northern Districts); Jess Watkin (Central Districts); Rebecca Burns (Wellington); Jacinta Savage (Canterbury); Eden Carson (Otago). 

When sports stars keep on going... and going...

Extra Time questions what is it that keeps athletes going long after their contemporaries have retired? And why do we become obsessed with age?

Over the hill, golden oldies, old fogies, silver foxes, OAPs. There are plenty of names - some endearing, some not so - when it comes to getting on in years.

The news that former Silver Fern Anna Harrison, now 37, is returning to top level netball for the Northern Stars next season got us thinking here at Extra Time about the 'senior citizens' of elite sport.



We hear from Harrison and former All Black Adam Thompson - who at 38 is still going strong in Super Rugby - and Barry Guy is joined on the panel by Olympic rowing champion Mahe Drysdale, former Silver Fern Jodi Brown and Black Sticks hockey player Shea McAleese to discuss just what it is that keeps their passion for sport burning.

Extra Time is brought to you by RNZ, Stuff and LockerRoom.

The mighty Hohepa sisters reunite

Black Ferns 'Sevens Sisters' by birth, Carla and Chyna Hohepa are back on the same side again, hoping to do their home province proud - in the same red, gold and black hoops their parents once wore. 

It was in Dubai almost a decade ago that Carla and Chyna Hohepa first ran on to the rugby field together wearing the silver fern.

After just a handful of appearances side-by-side since that memorable moment in 2012, playing sevens for the Black Ferns, the sisters are back in the same team again for this season’s Farah Palmer Cup. And Chyna, the younger of the siblings, is leading from the front as Waikato’s vice-captain.

Chyna, who’s 30, has stamped her mark in the Waikato jersey, while Carla, 35, has played most of her rugby career in Otago. She made Dunedin her home while she studied for her conjoint degree in education and sport.

“I respect her hugely,” Carla says of Chyna. “I’d say she’s a way better rugby player than me so having her as vice-captain is pretty cool - even with me being the older sister. She definitely deserves the VC cap on her shoulders, and I can’t wait to be out on the field with her again.”

It means a lot to the Te Awamutu sisters, too, to be turning out for the province which both of their parents – Debbie and Selwyn – also played rugby for.

Waikato started the FPC season in the best way, notching up an 18-5 win over the Northland Kauri last weekend; Chyna playing at lock and Carla, who's usually on the wing, sitting it out. This weekend they take on Taranaki at home as part of a double-header with the Mitre 10 men.  

 
 

My question of whether it’s a goal for the pair to make the Black Ferns for next year’s home Rugby World Cup is met with some sideways stares and smiles through our screens as we speak over Zoom.

“We’re real funny with goals; we’re more like just ‘get out there and do it and if it happens, it happens’. But I guess in the back of our mind you always want to hit the pinnacle of your sport,” says Carla, who’s already won world titles in both the sevens and 15s game.

The thought of playing together in the black jersey at a Rugby World Cup, though, is “unreal”.

“If I’m still lucky enough to be around in the Black Ferns jersey next year, I’ll be ecstatic to finish a career on home soil,” Carla says. “But to have my sister in the team with me, that would be the ultimate. So I hope she strives to make a spot in that team because it would be pretty epic. But for now, we’re just going to take one step at a time, one year at a time.”

Waikato's Hohepa sisters: Chyna (left) and Carla. Photo: Waikato Rugby. 

With the eight Black Ferns tests that were planned for this year now cancelled, the sisters know a good step forward is performing well in the FPC. After Waikato’s lone win last season, focusing on rebuilding their provincial team is a priority.

“When we came together for the first time this year, we just wanted to talk about how culture and environment is really important. And we set our standards from day one,” says Chyna, who last year took out Waikato’s female club player of the year and the Manatiaki Award, presented to the player who best personifies the team’s values.

“Everyone is on board and it’s really created that whānau feel. We’re reigniting the flame and bringing back what we've always had. Everyone is supportive and we’re really happy with how things are moving forward.”

The team are focused on building an environment where the result is secondary to the aim of leaving your best performance on the field.

“As long as everyone is happy with striving for the best then whatever happens, happens,” says Carla. “Success is coming out the end of the season with great memories, great friendships and hopefully that number one title to top it all off. Because we’re definitely not here to participate. We’re here to win.”

Wearing the Waikato jersey holds great sentimental value for the Hohepa sisters; knowing they’re following in their parents’ footsteps is “pretty cool” they agree.

“Every time we walk into training at the Waikato gym at FMG [Stadium] and see our dad’s name up on the wall as an old player, it's pretty cool to think that now his daughters are playing here too,” says Carla. “To know Dad and Mum once ran out on that field and now we’re doing it is special.

“Our family is pretty hearty when it comes to rugby and the Waikato team, so I think having us both on the field this year will probably bring out all the aunties and uncles from all over the area.”

Chyna laughs and adds: “Yeah they’re always like ‘I remember back in our day, watching your parents on this field’.”

With the help of local players and supporters, the Hohepa sisters also managed to form a women’s team at Kihikihi Rugby Club last year - the first time the club has fielded a women’s side since their mother played there.

Chyna began playing for Waikato in 2012 - that same year she made her New Zealand sevens debut alongside Carla in the world series event in Dubai. When she isn’t playing rugby, Chyna works as a dental assistant in Te Awamutu and raises her seven-year-old daughter, Aria.

She also captained the Waikato women's sevens squad last year and has represented New Zealand in touch - also with Carla.

Black Fern Carla Hohepa eludes the clutches of French tackler Maelle Filipino in last year's Super Series. Photo: Getty Images

Carla splits her time between Fukuoka, Japan, and Te Awamutu every year with her two sons and husband, Karne Hesketh, who plays professional rugby for Japan and the Fukuoka Sanix Blues.

She has an impressive rugby resumé, having been in two winning World Cup sides - in 2010 and 2017 - and world series sevens champion teams from 2013 to 2015. Carla was also named New Zealand's women's player of the year and IRB women's personality of the year in 2010, after scoring the only try in a tight World Cup final, beating England 13-10 at Twickenham.

The love of rugby and the need to bring young players through motivates the Hohepas to keep playing.

“We love the friendships, the camaraderie and the challenges,” says Carla. “Putting your body through some pretty intense things and at the end of it having success with teammates is probably what keeps me going. I just love it.”

Chyna adds: “And I've loved to inspire others. I love having new players come in and making sure they feel comfortable. And by the end of the season, if they don’t want to leave and they’ve loved their experience, that’s what gets me going.

“Once I've done my job there, I get to move on and push myself further. And striving for my daughter who is constantly with me at training and games. We just love the game.”

Weaving the experienced players with newcomers is about treating everyone the same, Chyna explains.

“We have those who have been up there [in Black Ferns] and are still up there and we use that to our advantage to teach the new coming in,” she says. “Getting our representative players to share their experiences to guide us and take us with them, brings it together.

“I think the most important thing is that we are all there together, on the same level and we’re taking that step up the ladder together and performing as a whānau.”

Carla says the young girls are confident and are also a source of inspiration. It works both ways.

“It’s quite inspiring to see their enthusiasm and the want to learn. I think all over the nation, it's not just the Black Ferns coming in and making their mark, it's also these young girls - they're all fighting and wanting to wear that black jersey one day. So it's quite a cool dynamic to have in our team this year.”

So, how would the sisters describe each other’s playing style and personality?

With no hesitation, Chyna laughs and says: “Carla is the serious one. She can’t play for ‘funsies’. It’s always competitive.

“But her skill is a whole new level compared to me. She can anticipate anything that is going to happen and read the play under so much pressure. What she can create on the field after coming back from some pretty big injuries is just outstanding." 

Carla's injury list is impressive: she's come back from two ACL tears and an Achilles rupture, a broken wrist, and she's now returning from a torn meniscus. 

“She works really hard and I think she's just someone who inspires me to push even harder because the commitment she puts in with having two boys and her husband overseas sometimes, is just really inspiring. She's an amazing athlete on and off the field.”

Carla admits she is very competitive and says Chyna is like a “brick wall.”

“I don’t know if you can say ‘mongrel’, but she is strong and fierce. She's competitive in her own way and has a great presence for the size that she is. She's probably one of the biggest hitters,” Carla says.

“She's not shy, she doesn't run away from anything. She's straight up front on the field. She’s an amazing rugby player and she does it for everyone else around her - making sure everyone on the field is taken care of first.”

These small-town sisters will be able to support each other – and their region – this season. And if they concentrate on making the small steps, they may suit up together in the black jerseys with the silver fern next year, when – hopefully – the rest of the rugby world makes its way to New Zealand for the World Cup.

* The Waikato v Taranaki game at 11.30am on Saturday will be shown live on Sky Sport 1. Two other FPC games will be live in Round 2:  North Harbour v Bay of Plenty, today 4.30pm, and Northland v Auckland, Sunday 11.30am.

BMX champ chases dreams of gold and blue

While national BMX champ Rebecca Petch races for a place in the Olympic team for Tokyo 2021, she's also chasing another goal - to become a policewoman

Thinking about a career after sport can be tricky at the best of times.

Throw in a global pandemic and for some athletes, the questions they're mulling over in their heads can intensify. This is an accurate reflection of what's being going on in the mind of top Kiwi BMX rider Rebecca Petch. 

The thought of what lies ahead of her when she finally hops off her bike has been playing on her mind during this rocky period. But there's one thing that she’s very clear on among a list of uncertainties. 

Petch wants to swap out speeding on a bike track with pounding the beat with the police.

“My goal outside of the sport is to become a police officer, so I'm also working towards that at the moment,” says Petch. "It’s always been a goal because I like helping people and have always been really interested in it.” 

The 22-year-old reigning New Zealand women's champion says the financial side of BMX riding can be inconsistent and depends on racing outcomes, so she's keeping one eye on the future. 

 
 

“It’s a bit of a gamble," she admits. "I just thought when I finish BMX I'd rather do a job where I’m going to love it instead of choosing something that I’m not."

Petch is taking her time with the recruitment process so she can still focus primarily on working towards qualifying for the Tokyo Olympics next year. If her application is successful, she plans on doing both for as long as she can. 

“I'm really lucky because I’ve got pretty understanding coaches. I guess if you want something, you find a way to make it work. That’s what I'm going to do,” Petch says.

Rebecca Petch racing at the 2019 world champs. Photo: Nico van Dartel.

At first the delay of the Olympics was hard on Petch, who's dreamed of being an Olympian since she was at primary school. But as time passed, her thinking has changed. 

“I was pretty gutted at the start. But now I’m taking the approach of ‘I’ll be a year older’, and ‘I’ll have another year of training under my belt’. There are pros and cons but we just hope it goes ahead next year,” she says. 

The extra time has also meant her training schedule could be slightly altered and new tactics trialled. 

“I’m doing quite a big block of training focused on strength in the gym. It’s quite exciting to try something new and it’ll be good to see an outcome from it,” Petch says. “If Covid didn’t happen we wouldn’t have had the opportunity to try it out. 

“I have a lot of trust in my coaches and I’m feeling good about the phase I’m in. I can see improvements which I'm really happy with.”

Before Covid-19 put a stop to Olympic qualifying events, New Zealand had secured one female BMX spot for the Tokyo Games, and things were looking promising to gain a second. 

There's still a chance for a second New Zealand female rider to qualify, with new selection criteria being released soon. 

“We have four World Cup races next year in which we can gain points. But that’s a big ‘if they happen' because nothing is promised,” Petch says.

“But we’re making the most of the opportunity to be able to do really good training blocks through the winter and hopefully come the beginning of next year, we’ll be able to compete.”

NZ BMX riders Bayley Luttrell and Rebecca Petch. Photo: Nico van Dartel. 

Petch will be riding it out with New Zealand’s first BMX Olympic medallist, Sarah Walker, and current world junior champion Jessie Smith, to see who will be representing the nation in Tokyo next year. 

The dynamic of wanting to qualify another spot is quite complex, Petch says, as they are not a BMX team, but individual riders all seeking Olympic glory. 

“At the end of the day, they're going to send the rider with the best results. I guess not wanting to ride with each other isn’t going to help us at all, so we know we’re only going to get better by working together,” she says.

Like many BMX riders, Petch was inspired by Walker coming through the grades.

“When I was younger I looked up to Sarah. And now we train together sometimes and compete against each other which is pretty cool. She always gives me tips here and there if she thinks I need some advice,” she says.

Being an Olympic medallist is the long-term goal for Petch. She doesn’t know if that will be in 2021 or 2024, but she definitely knows it’s a big motivator. 

To keep on track during the initial Level 4 lockdown in New Zealand, Petch was at home in Te Awamutu.

“I had a little bit of gym equipment which helped with training. Now we’re not in lockdown it's quite good - I still go to work and training so everything is quite normal,” says Petch, who works in a coffee bar in Cambridge. 

Petch picked up BMX at the age of three because her older brother was already involved in the sport. She carried on throughout the years, but played other sports as well.

It wasn't until her final year at high school that she chose to ditch netball and focus exclusively on the riskier sport, when she started to reach BMX's elite level. 

“My grandparents decided to get me a bike and it’s stuck since then. My dad did it for a little bit as well so it's quite a good family sport,” she says. Her brother chose to continue with rugby instead and is now in the police force. 

If she stays on course, Petch may be linking up with him again and steering between her two ideal careers.  

Teen raring to tackle treacherous Foveaux Strait

Neither great white sharks nor choppy, chilly waters will deter 16-year-old Caitlin O'Reilly as she prepares to become the youngest swimmer to complete New Zealand's 'triple crown' by crossing Foveaux Strait. 

It’s 4:30am.

Most 16-year-olds are still deeply asleep, at least a couple of hours from waking up. Who knows, they may be pulling an all-nighter in an attempt to finish that English essay.

Not Caitlin O’Reilly though.

Her alarm’s just woken her from another sleep dreaming of the water. She drags herself out of bed and quietly, albeit groggily, tip-toes around the house.

“It’s a struggle,” she says, with laughter amidst the unfiltered honesty.

“Sometimes in the afternoons at school I’ll nod off; it’s pretty bad.”

It’s just another day in the Carmel College student’s pursuit of success. Eight swimming sessions a week, twice a day some days.

But through the frustration, the desire to stay in bed and the mental melee she has to grapple with, O’Reilly’s on a mission.

She will next year look to to swim across Foveaux Strait. If she achieves it, it’ll add to her already impressive resume of age-defying feats and she'll become the youngest swimmer to complete the New Zealand triple crown (with Cook Strait and Lake Taupo).

In 2017, at the age of 12, she became the youngest female and youngest New Zealander to swim across Cook Strait, doing it in 7h 19m. Last February, she ticked off Lake Taupo (completing the 40.2km in 13h 26m). Coincidentally, that was on Valentine’s Day.

“Swimming makes me feel amazing. I love it. I don’t know if I could live without it. It’s a part of me and always will be a part of me,” she says.

You can currently count on two hands how many people have swum across Foveaux - Te Ara a Kiwa - a 30km stretch of bitter, choppy, unpredictable conditions. Oh, and sharks, there are great white sharks. A bit different from a warm bed.

 
 

Foveaux wasn’t even supposed to be in O’Reilly’s calendar, for now at least. She was targeting the Oceans Seven - a marathon swimming challenge of seven channel swims around the globe. But, like a lot of sport around the world, her attempts were called off due to Covid-19.

“That hurt,” O’Reilly concedes. “We were planning on going to Japan [Tsugaru Strait] and California [Catalina Channel] but I guess, what can you do? It’s not in my control, and they’ll always be there. I’ve got more opportunities to do that," she says.

“To be honest, I was a little relieved that they were postponed because I felt like I hadn’t done the training for it. I’d done heaps of training, but I didn’t feel ready. I moved clubs only four months before and was still adjusting to that, I hadn’t done many longer, four or five-hour swims. Just two-hour squad trainings.”

That resulted in a switch in focus to Foveaux, and a change in mindset.

Caitlin O'Reilly isn't fazed by pre-dawn swims in her preparation to cross Foveaux Strait. Photo: Gareth Cooke/SubZero Images 

“I knew I had to up my training. So I’ve done a lot more open water training and prepped myself for the cold," O'Reilly says. "I did a three-hour swim last weekend and that was the longest I’ve done. The 12.8 degrees was a good test to see where I’m at and what I need to do to train more.

“For Cook Strait, I didn’t do much open water training at all; I did maybe three swims. And I’ve really learnt from that and know I need to spend more time in the ocean.

“I learnt it’s going to be cold. It’s going to be uncomfortable. But I’ll be all right as long as I keep a positive mindset.”

Bearing in mind, she will be doing this without a wetsuit.

That will mean adapting to the cold, though. Perhaps a trip to the supermarket walk-in chiller?

“It’s all about just getting in the cold water and swimming. I know some people have done the cold shower thing but I really didn’t want to do that,” O’Reilly says.

The direction she will swim will be tide and weather dependent. That means she could be starting on either the South or Stewart Island. The timing of it is also bound by the uncontrollable factors of wind and swell, meaning if it’s not right on her first attempt in February, she’ll likely have to wait another month. It makes the planning for it a bit of a challenge.

It’s hardly surprising though. After all, it’s a feat that when brought up with people, they’d probably question one’s sanity.

Comments like: “I’ve gone across there by boat - no way would I ever consider swimming it” are often the result of an explanation.

O’Reilly is blunt in her answer when asked if her friends think she’s mad. “Yes,” she says. “I don’t talk about swimming much with my friends. I just don’t.”

Caitlin O'Reilly training in the cold waters off Manly Beach, Whangaparaoa. Photo: Gareth Cooke/SubZero Images 

She clearly loves the grind. She thrives in the discipline required to succeed. It’s evident in her choice of hobbies of mountain biking and rowing.

Rowing: a sport that physically and mentally tests you; which requires you to go to dark places and forces you to fight a battle with yourself, never mind the water. Sound familiar?

“When I try and remember Cook Strait and Taupo, it’s all a blur. It’s just about getting one arm in front of the other and trying to keep a positive mindset. My mind definitely wanders, though,” she says, almost as if admitting a mistake.

“During Taupo, man, my mind went to some weird places! There were times when I’d be like ‘What am I even thinking about?’ Just the most random things. What am I going to have for dinner? What am I going to do tomorrow?' 

“Sometimes I think about sharks and what else could be in the water, but I just have to block those thoughts out. Kim Chambers, who’s a Kiwi ocean swimmer, one of her quotes is a favourite of mine: ‘If it scares you, that’s exactly why you should do it’.

“She’s emailed me a couple of times after swims, just saying if you need anything then to get in touch. That’s pretty amazing I have her support.”

But for now, it’s back to sleep. Back to dreaming of the dark unknown and feasting on dinosaur lollies. Just don’t tell her maths teacher.

* Meda McKenzie was the first, and is still the youngest, woman to swim across Foveaux Strait in March 1979, aged 16. Chloe Harris is the fastest swimmer - male or female - across the treacherous strait, doing it in 8h 30m in February 2016. 

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