Black Ferns Stacey Fluhler and Ruby Tui, with Portia Woodman in the middle, celebrating Portia’s try in their match against Japan at Eden Park on September 24, 2022. (Photo by Hannah Peters/Getty Images)

There’s never been an occasion in New Zealand sport quite like the final tonight, at a sold-out Eden Park in Auckland, between New Zealand’s Black Ferns and England’s Red Roses to determine who wins the Women’s Rugby World Cup.

Contemplating the prospects more than a month ago, it was logical to assume that the Roses most likely would carry on winning because they’ve been paid handsomely for a few years to do just that. And they’ve become a formidably powerful, talented and well-drilled side, now without a single hitch in their last 30 matches.

The Black Ferns used to rule the rugby roost. In fact, they’ve won the World Cup five times, including at the last tournament in 2017. It’s just that Covid meant they didn’t get much international play for a while — and when they did, according to scientific analysis, they weren’t much chop. Especially on an overseas trip early this year when they suffered a couple of big losses to England and then a couple more to France.

Things change though. Including coaches. Fitness. And tactics. And among the consequences of that is the four huge wins in their first four games in this competition and, even more important, they squeaked home in the semifinal against France.

But it’s not just a matter of their wins. It’s also been the dashing and high speed daring of their attacks and their grim and, at times, brutal defence. There’s also been such joyous abandon among them on and off the field that even diehard non-rugby followers have warmed and swarmed to their games.

Will they be up to matching and overcoming the Roses? We’ll soon see. And, whatever the result, we’ll become more familiar with — perhaps even more adoring of — the players we’ve been getting to know through this tournament and, before that, as the Sevens Sisters working their gold medal magic in the Olympics.

Sarah Hirini, Portia Woodman and Ruby Tui are already household names. But there’s a bunch of teammates who deserve that status too.

One of them is Stacey (Waaka) Fluhler, and we’re taking this opportunity, thanks to her chat the other day with Dale Husband, to help you get to know her a little more before the kickoff tonight. Dale began by asking her about her names and her whānau.

(UPDATE: The Black Ferns won their sixth World Cup in a thrilling final, beating the Red Roses 34-31. Stacey came in late in the first half, scored a try in the first minute of the second half, and then beautifully set up what turned out to be the match-winning try.) 

 

The always-smiling Stacey scoring a try in the Rugby World Cup semifinal match against France at Eden Park on November 5, 2022. (Photo: Hagen Hopkins—World Rugby/World Rugby via Getty Images)

Stacey: I have a lot of names which can be annoying when you have to fill in your full name on various official forms. Of course, there’s Stacey, which is what my nana Gloria named me. And that makes me the odd one out in my family because my siblings and my mum and dad all have names ending in the letter “n”. There’s Shannon, Bronson, Beaudein, Raewyn (my mum), Simon (my dad). And me, Stacey.

But my mum let her sister name me — and she gave me my second name which is Jamie. Then my third name is Aroha, and the fourth is Kirsten.

So here I was: Stacey Jamie Aroha Kirsten Waaka. And then, nearly three years ago when I married Ricky Fluhler, I became Mrs Stacey Fluhler.

The Fluhler surname comes originally from Switzerland but Ricky is Kiwi born and bred and he’s lived in Hamilton his whole life. My Waaka whakapapa goes back to Tūhoe in the Rūātoki valley where I have a massive whānau.

Dad has 17 siblings. So you can imagine how many cousins I have. I think I have more than 70 first cousins. It’s cool having such a huge whānau, and I feel special when I go back to Rūātoki. It keeps me grounded and humble.

And I absolutely love going there. No shops and hardly any people. But it’s cool because there’s such a big Waaka whānau, and no matter what, I’m always gonna see rellies.

We’re quite competitive and we’ve all got those sporting and competitive genes. Whenever we have family gatherings, there’s always competition of some sort. Cards is a massive one. And touch is another. That’s a big connection to our Waaka whānau.

Nāhina marae is our Tūhoe base. But that’s on my dad’s side. My mum, who was an Allan, is from Te Arawa. I don’t know much about her side of our whānau, but it’s definitely a goal of mine to find those connections and her whakapapa.

Dale: Were your dad and mum sporty people?

Absolutely. Dad played rugby his whole life and could’ve played professionally. But he chose love, apparently. He chose to chase after my mum. They went to Australia together and I grew up there. But I heard that Mum was a bit of a gun at multiple sports when she was growing up — athletics, gymnastics, tennis and netball.

She had all the tricks of the trade. So Dad has always told us that we get our sporting genes from our mum. Which is quite nice because all the Waaka whānau back home seem to think it’s from their blood.

What about your reo, Stacey? Did you grow up speaking te reo at school?

Well, I didn’t have te reo in the first eight years of my life because we were living in Australia. But Dad’s been fluent his whole life, and he still is. He and his siblings. But he never taught us, and I was quite gutted that he never did.

We picked up a little bit here and there, and then a bit more when we came back to Rūātoki. But we were quite shy, and we told Mum and Dad we were too scared to go to a full-on kura kaupapa. So they took us to a mainstream school about 15 minutes out of Rūātoki and we kind of did Māori classes and whatnot. But to this day, I’ve never learned how to speak fluently.

I’ve got better. I’m definitely much better. I know so many words now and, if someone speaks to me in Māori, I’ll probably understand it. But I’m still trying to get the gist of the sentence structure and still trying to find the confidence to speak it.

This is definitely a journey that I’m still on, and it’s my dream and goal to speak it all the time. I try, anyway. I add in words here and there, whether we’re on a rugby tour, or I’m at home.

I speak a lot more back home, which is nice because all my four nieces and nephews are more fluent than me. They all go to kura kaupapa back in Rūātoki and it’s cool because I get to learn off them. But, yeah, one day I’ll be 100 percent fluent.

Stacey with her nephew and whānau at Eden Park, after the Black Ferns’ Rugby World Cup semifinal win against France, early this month. (Photo by Hagen Hopkins—World Rugby/World Rugby via Getty Images)

Let’s touch for a moment on your time in Australia. Where did you live in your early days?

We were in Melbourne. Mum and Dad moved back and forth between Melbourne and Auckland a few times. All my siblings were born there — I was the only one born in New Zealand. But me and my brother Beaudein used to come home every Christmas to visit our nan Kiri on the farm. And one year, we just didn’t want to go back.

So they decided to pack up and move back home. And I’m so glad they did. Otherwise, I could’ve been wearing a yellow and gold jersey in this tournament, instead of a black one!

I’m told that everyone in the Rūātoki valley knows how to ride a horse. So I imagine that you’ve had a favourite horse — and that you’ve had some memorable rides.

A horse is definitely our second vehicle in Rūātoki. Yeah, we grew up with horses and I loved it. We grew up on a big farm and I remember that amazing feeling of riding around in the field and going on adventures around the back of the farm.

We had this one family horse called Biatchy and that’s clearly because of what she was. She was always a “biatch” for all of us. And one strange memory was of her biting me on the cheek when I was six or seven. I must’ve been annoying her and she came at me, and I had this massive mark on me for ages. I’ll never forget that.

But my best rides would’ve been going up into the bush. And there was one family ride when one of my cousins fell off into the river. We got him out, and I was lucky I managed to hold on. But yeah, lots of memories from riding horses, and it was kinda cool because everyone did it back then.

How do you think growing up in the valley has moulded your personality?

For me, I think the biggest thing has been that it’s probably given me a good perspective on life — and it’s encouraged the confidence that you don’t have to come from a massive town and you don’t have to be given everything to make it.

We didn’t have much when we were growing up in Rūātoki. We lived far away from everything, and it was a struggle trying to get to training, a struggle to pay for school sports fees, and a struggle to get to tournaments. There was always a lot of fundraising going back home. I remember how much time Mum and Dad would put in for me so I could go on a touch or netball trip.

And it wasn’t just Mum and Dad. There was all sorts of community support and help from cousins and friends. So I’m really grateful for all that. And I feel like I owe this to so many people back home, because they knew I had talent but that I still needed help.

There have been some great displays of footy talent through the years not all that far from Rūātoki. That’s at the annual Whakatāne touch tournament. Benji Marshall was one who shone there before he became a magician in the NRL in Australia. When you look back, who caught your eye?

Definitely my brothers Bronson and Beaudein, and my cousin Tumanawa. He used to carve up all the teams he met on that touch field. He’s over in Japan playing rugby now. He and my brothers played together and they had this real cool connection — and they’d always be setting up all the tries or scoring them.

So it was cool growing up with all those cousins. Touch was definitely our favourite. We’d play in a whānau touch tournament every year just after Christmas back home. And it’s so competitive. Honestly, you have to pretty much trial for our team because there’s so many of us and they’re cut-throat as.

And, looking further afield, who were your sporting heroes as a young woman?

Well, seeing I wanted to be a Silver Fern, netball was definitely my number one sport and I always looked up to Maria Tutaia, or Maria Folau as she is now.

It was just cool to see another brown face who absolutely smashed it on court, especially as she was Goal Attack and that was my position back then.

Then there’s Lisa Carrington who’s just kept winning Olympic gold medals for canoeing, and she’s from Whakatāne too. She’s just so bloody amazing.

She is. She is remarkable. And we’ll move on in a moment to talk about some special footy players, too. But before we do, let’s note that sad event for the Tūhoe community, and for the whole country really, in October, 2007. That was when 300 police raided Rūātoki and Taneatua on the assumption that Tame Iti and others were doing terrorist training.

You were probably a schoolgirl there, about 12, at that time. What do you recall?

We’d moved back to Rūātoki in 2005, so this happened two years later. I remember it clearly, and just the other day, one of the girls was asking me about the film Muru and about the roadblocks and the raids.

I usually went to school on the bus, but that day I’d asked Dad if I could go early with him. I just loved going to school. And I remember we got stopped by the Armed Offenders Squad. But the only thing I was gutted about was that they let the school bus go through to school, but none of the cars.

So, I didn’t make it to school that day. And I was like: “Dammit. I wish I’d gone on the bus today.” As kids, we were confused because we didn’t understand what was going on. But it was definitely scary with all the police and their guns. And houses being raided, although none of my whānau had that experience, and then later on, the trials and the jailing.

So, yeah, it’s sad what happened to our small town, but I’m so glad that we pulled through even though it was a pretty shit scenario.

During the Rugby World Cup semifinal match between the Black Ferns and France early this month. (Photo: Joe Allison/Getty Images)

Tēnā koe, Stacey. Now let’s talk rugby. What is it about the game that’s appealed to you so much?

I played because it was the first year our school had put a rugby team in and all my friends were playing and I didn’t want to miss out. And I just loved the freedom on the field. I loved the contact. And I loved running around and scoring tries.

And then I heard that there was an opportunity that the game would become professional one day. Then they announced it was gonna be an Olympic sport. And I thought that would be pretty cool. I’d always dreamed of going to the Olympics one day, although I didn’t even know at that stage who the Black Ferns were.

This was in 2011 when I was 16. Then I heard of the Black Ferns because I saw some ads on TV about them getting ready for the “Go for Gold” programme in 2012, and I realised there could be a chance to play rugby full-time.

I didn’t have any goals to play for New Zealand that quickly, and when I made the Black Ferns three years later, it was mostly just about enjoying it with my friends and then representing the Bay in sevens tournaments.

Then I made the New Zealand team for the 15s, and next it was for the sevens. And here I was, a small-fry Rūātoki girl coming into the big team and we got paid about $150 a day. So that was one of the big things. I was like: “Oh my God, Mum, guess what? We’re gonna get paid to play rugby.” It was like the best thing ever. And we got all this free kit as well. It’s my dream job now.

Stacey, you and all your mates, like Ruby and Portia and Kendra, have had success all around the world, but is there one occasion that especially stands out for you?

That has to be in the Hamilton sevens in 2019. I was playing in front of my family for the first time — and there I was with my name, and their name on my back. You know, you travel the world and there’s the question about why you do it. And one reason is that it’s repaying the family. They’ve sacrificed so much to support me — and I just love representing them and Rūātoki on the world stage.

So that time I wore “Waaka” on my back and they got to watch me live for the very first time representing New Zealand — that has to be my standout moment. Being on stage around the world has its appeal, but nothing compares to a home crowd.

Good on you, Stacey. But I suspect that, as a professional athlete, you’re always on the lookout to do better. Do you think you can keep improving?

Oh, I’m pretty harsh on myself. I think I’ve got a lot more improvement to go. I need to keep trying to be the best version of myself.

And when I try to analyse myself, I’ve always got my family on my back and in my ear. “You shoulda done this. You shoulda done that. Blah, blah, blah, blah. Why did you throw that pass? Why didn’t you throw that one?”

But it’s different every game, and I’m always my own hardest critic. And there are always so many skills and components that you need in a rugby game.

It’s clear that there’s a strong Māori kaupapa and vibe within the Black Ferns and it flows through the whole team regardless of whether the players are Māori, Pasifika or Pākehā. Has that helped with the squad’s success?

Oh, yeah. It’s been massive. Over half the team are Māori, but there’s a lot of Pasifika and a few Pākehā girls as well.

But we have a special sense of belonging and we’re all comfortable singing a waiata after someone speaks, or doing a karakia or a haka. It’s so cool.

We’ve also given Māori names to some of our moves. And we yell out Māori things before we run out of the tunnel. Yeah, it’s cool. And it’s special.

With Black Ferns coach Wayne Smith after winning a match against Australia at Eden Park (October 8, 2022). (Photo: Hannah Peters/Getty Images)

Then you have another bonus in the addition of your coach, Wayne Smith, who used to coach the All Blacks. He seems to be a guy that’s liked by everyone, and I know you’ve worked under many coaches. What do you think Wayne brings to the table and what do you think he’s contributing to the culture of the squad?

Yeah, he’s a character. We’ve learned so much from him, even though some of us, like me, have known him for only a few weeks. He’s a very happy and bubbly person. Very positive, too. But when we’re on that training pitch, he means business, and I love that.

Of course, as a team of women, we don’t behave quite the way he’s been used to in the male atmosphere among the All Blacks. And I know we’ve opened up his eyes to the way we operate as females.

And a prime example is him telling us that on an All Blacks bus going into a tournament, it’s dead silent. But with us Black Ferns, we’ve got the speaker blasting and we’re all singing and laughing and dancing and having fun. Which he’s got used to now.

But, man, his knowledge and his analysis is so deep and so cool. And I just love the game plan that he’s given us. It’s about playing free, playing fast, and not giving the other team an inch.

Finally, how about a word or two about the players who’ve helped and inspired you?

My first one would have to be Honey Hireme. When I moved to the Waikato in 2014, she took me under her wing. Man, she is one strong wahine toa. And she had so much knowledge to share, like the advice to play to your strengths.

Then, among the current players there’s Sarah Hirini who’s been the captain of the sevens team and is now on the side of the scrum for the Black Ferns 15s. She’s just the hardest worker and most consistent player we have. And she’s one of those leaders who leads with her words and through her actions. What an inspiration.

Well, you’re going great guns, Stacey. Congratulations. And this bloke, this blueberry farmer from Hamilton, Ricky Fluhler, obviously struck Lotto when he caught up with you.

He has, he has!

Thank you for your time and your kōrero, Stacey. I’ll let you get back to training now.

(This interview has been edited for length and clarity.)

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