Farah Palmer: On a rugby board that’s no longer so male, pale and stale

by Dale Husband
Sun 16 Apr 2017
16 min read
  • Image: Massey University

Of course you could argue that Richie McCaw and his All Black teammates faced more formidable opponents than Farah Palmer and her Black Ferns did. But the fact remains that Farah led her players to three successive titles in their three Rugby World Cup campaigns. And, as Dale discovers in this chat with Farah — the first woman elected to the board of New Zealand Rugby in its 124-year history — the end of her playing days hasn’t put an end to her impact on the game, or on other sports too.

 

Kia ora, Farah. In fact, kia ora, Farah Rangikoepa Palmer. Now those three names really are an unusual combination. I wonder if you might explain how they came about.

Well, I’ll start with the Farah. My mum chose that, I think, because when I was born back in 1972 a Princess Farah was visiting from Iran — and my mum really liked the name.

I’ve since found out that it means “freshness” and “beauty” which are kind of nice things to be associated with. My second name Rangikoepa is a family name. It was the name of my great-grandmother on my koro’s side. My koro was Dan King from Taharoa.

The whānau chose that name for me — and I’ve passed it on to my daughter. I’ve been told it means a flash of lightning or a bolt of inspiration. One or the other. 

I know that you’re from the Huia whānau from Piopio on your mum’s side. Is your dad Māori too?

No. Dad, Bruce Palmer, is Pākehā. I often get asked if I’m related to the Palmers from Matakana Island. But, no, the Palmer name is my Pākehā whakapapa. On my mum’s side, there’s the Huia whānau from my nana, Ruby Huia, and the King whānau from my koro, Dan King.

On my Huia side we are Ngāti Waiora (hapū) and Ngāti Maniapoto (iwi). Ko Herangi te maunga, ko Mokau te awa. Ko Mokaukohunui te marae.

On my King side we are Ngāti Rangitaka (whānau), Ngāti Mahuta ki te hauāuru (hapū) and Waikato (iwi). Ko Orangiwhao te maunga, ko Pineki te awa, ko Te Koraha te marae.

What about your dad’s lines?

They came from Cornwall in England, or so I understand. I’m not that familiar with my Pākehā whakapapa. My dad’s parents travelled around Aotearoa with his father who was a surveyor. They were in the South Island a lot and then retired in Te Kuiti. My dad lives in Piopio, still on the family farm. And my mum lives in Te Kuiti.

And your siblings?

No brothers. All girls in our family. I’m the eldest by a long shot. I was about nine when my younger sisters started arriving. I used to wish they were girls so I thought I was pretty clever when Mum had three girls after me.

Were you a farming family?

Kind of. I was brought up originally with my nana, koro, my uncle Edward and my mum (Judith) in Piopio. We used to live down Kuratahi Street which is the same street where Jenny-May Coffin (Jenny-May Clarkson now) was born and bred. When I was seven, we moved on to the sheep and cattle farm with my dad and mum on the outskirts of Piopio.

Did you dream of being a city kid, or were you satisfied with your lot?

I was very happy where I was. I loved being in the village and sharing fun times with my cousins and neighbours. And then I probably went through a bit of a culture shock moving to a farm where it was just me for a while and that was lonely, but I learned to be self-reliant. Mum and Dad used to give me little jobs to keep me busy.

I imagine you became comfortable around stock and around farming people — and, still to this day, you could dag sheep with the best of them?

Dad never really encouraged us to be farmers but we used to do the basics — like rounding up the sheep. We’d help with the dagging, too — as rousies, although they now refer to them as wool-handlers. I’d be out in the paddocks as well, chipping thistles. All sorts of odd jobs around the farm. I enjoyed getting out there and doing stuff.

When did you recognise that you were the product of a cross-cultural relationship?

I suppose when I was about seven. Up until that point, I didn’t have any idea that I was any different to anyone else. I had Māori cousins around me. Māori neighbours. And there was the marae, Mokau Kohunui, just up the hill. So, I was totally immersed in the Māori world.

And, when I met my dad’s side of my family, I realised that not all people did things the same as us — and that there were different ways of celebrating birthdays and Christmas. And I was getting looked at by my Pākehā cousins because I was different from them. So that made me realise that there were two parts to my culture.

Like many other parts of New Zealand, the King Country has had a chequered history in race relations. So perhaps you came across some red neckery and unacceptance of Māori ways.

To tell you the truth, I didn’t notice any of that when I was growing up in the ‘70s and ‘80s in Piopio. I do remember thinking that my Pākehā friends tended to be from families owning the farms — and that my Māori cousins and Māori friends were either working on the farm or living in the village.

So I did understand that there was an uneven distribution of the resources. And I used to question some of the history we were being taught at school. That was at Piopio Primary and Piopio College.

There’s been quite a bit of sporting talent coming through that school, hasn’t there? Not just Farah Palmer, but also Jenny-May Coffin, and Rob Waddell, an Olympic champion rower. David Fagan, too, who’s been a superstar shearer. And the Hudson whānau who’ve been BMX champions.

Yeah. And that’s not all by any means. In my day, it was about 50/50 Māori/Pākehā with a roll of 330 or so. It has only half that number of kids now, but I found it a very happy environment to be educated in. The teachers were really encouraging.

What about dancing? Were you a Highland or tap dancer?

Yes. I think every girl in Piopio went to Highland and tap dancing, including the Hudson and Coffin girls. For some reason, we had a Highland dancing teacher in Piopio. And it was awesome. We learned discipline and focus and the ability to perform on the stage. Those were really cool things that I remember from my childhood.

Applicable, too, to your sporting career later on. Would you describe yourself as a tomboy or a girly-girl?

Neither, really. Not high maintenance but not tomboyish either. I’d just get stuck in. I just wanted to do stuff. So that was the approach I took to any activities going at school. If there was a choir, I’d join it. If they were doing a play, I’d try and get into that. In sport, where there was a girls’ team, I’d get involved. And, if there wasn’t, I’d want to know why.

You went on to captain New Zealand in rugby. But, as a youngster, were you a natural leader?

I never thought of myself that way. I just remember in primary school, I was made the captain of our longball team which won the competition. That was my first taste of captaincy. Then I captained various netball teams.

I don’t know if I was a natural. I don’t know what it was. Maybe I just liked talking. But I always gave 100 percent in everything I did. Somebody must’ve thought that’s what you needed to be a captain.

In provincial areas, particularly in the King Country, rugby occupies a special place in the community — and perhaps even more so in your family where your dad played more than 50 games for the King Country reps. That must’ve made some impact on you.

Actually, just the other weekend, I was in Piopio and watched Piopio play Waitete in the club competition. And you can’t help thinking about how rugby has been such a central part of rural life.

It gives communities, where people are spread far and wide, a reason to come together. Something to focus on. To get excited about. And to celebrate or commiserate together. Rugby and maybe netball and even hockey have had a key role in creating a sense of unity in their community.

So who won that club match?

Waitete.

Bloody Waitete. Geez. They’re always winning.

We’ll turn in a moment to your studies and work that have taken you away from Piopio for lengthy periods. But I wonder what your feelings are when you come back for a visit.

I just love Piopio. It’s my spiritual centre. It’s where I feel at home. It’s my tūrangawaewae. It’s where I can just be me and relax. So going back there is a way of restoring myself. But it also brings a tinge of sadness because my koro and my nana aren’t there anymore. I go down Kuratahi Street and look at their house. The memories come flooding back. And yeah, it’s sad.

Nana and Koro were there when I started playing rugby. My nana was a little bit worried for me. She’d be watching nervously on the sideline, but then she’d get into the groove and was probably the loudest of the spectators.

My koro watched just one game and he was fascinated by it. Gave me a few tips. Told me stories about when he was playing rugby. And that was cool to share that experience with them.

Women’s rugby is well accepted these days. But, for a long time, a lot of people had reservations about females playing contact sport. It was viewed as too physical and too unfeminine. What do you make of the change in the public’s attitude?

Yeah. There’s more acceptance of women’s rugby now. That’s partly because we now have some big names in the game — like Portia Woodman especially. But there’s still a small part of society that doesn’t think women’s rugby is real rugby.

The younger generation, though, don’t bat an eyelid about women playing the game. They see it as just something that some women and some girls do.

I understand that you played much of your rugby in Otago. How come you headed down there?

Well, while I was thinking about where I should go when I finished at Piopio College, I heard that there were scholarships to go to the phys ed school in Otago. That appealed to me because I really liked physical education.

And, at that time, the Hlilary Commission, through Waimarama Taumaunu and Howie Tamati, were encouraging more Māori to be phys ed teachers. The scholarship I got was from the Māori Women’s Welfare League and the YWCA. So that gave me a ticket to go and study at Otago University. That was a huge step for me because I was the first from my family to go to university.

Being so far from home, you may have needed a bit of support — a bit of mentoring.

Waimarama definitely supplied some mentoring. And, because four of us were on this scholarship, she would regularly come down and check up on us. She’d invite us out for kai. Free dinner. No student turns down a free dinner.

We were brown faces amongst a sea of non-Māori. So that was really great to have that little group encouraging and supporting each other. And Wai would take us out for dinner, then, halfway through, she’d whip out these report cards and ask us to write down what we were getting for our assignments.

That kept us honest — kept us focused on the reason we were there. There was also a Māori student support centre down there and they were really welcoming, and would help us out. And we had a Māori head of the Phys Ed school, Professor Les Williams. He was very encouraging and wrote me a letter encouraging me to do honours and eventually a PhD. So, we had these little pockets of brown support to keep us going.

What did you focus on in the course of your phys ed studies?

Well, I was attracted to phys ed because it combined my love of biology and physiology. But the humanity aspects appealed too. I’ve always been interested in why society functions the way it does. Then in my third year I was asked if I wanted to do an honours degree in PE — and I had the option of focusing on psychology or sociology.

I chose sociology and came under the wing of Dr Rex Thomson who’d been one of my scholarship mentors in my first year. Sports sociology was something I really enjoyed. It gave me the opportunity to challenge stereotypes and try figuring out why some people in society are the haves and others are the have nots — and see how we can use sport to try and change that. That’s where my passion for that kaupapa came from.

After your years of study and research and work, no doubt you have a pretty good grasp of how sport and the community influence each other.

Well, it’s interesting territory. I see sport being, in some ways, a mirror of society. But it can also influence society. And there’s an especially interesting Māori perspective.

Originally sport was used as a way of colonising Māori. And then there was a change through the 1980s when there was that cultural renaissance. And Māori were saying we want to have our own sovereignty and our own self-determination. So sport was used as a form of protest and cultural pride.

You just have to think about the 1981 Springbok Tour protest and how deeply Māori were involved in that. And now we’ve moved into the space where we’ve got sports that incorporate Māori values and are totally immersed in the Māori worldview.

For instance, you’ve got kī-o-rahi and waka ama, sports that have been embraced by Māori as a way of enhancing their wellbeing and sense of identity.

Let’s zero in now on your rugby career. And you have me wondering what made you such a successful player. It wasn’t your size, was it? Because I see that your playing weight was only about 70 kgs.

Mum used to say I had a killer instinct and that I’d never give up. I’d just keep going, and encourage those around me to keep going too. I’ve probably always had mental toughness. And that never-say-die attitude suited rugby.

Then I had good leg drive too and the ability to get in a low body position and keep pushing. Those attributes were ideal for a forward. And, because I like to talk, I was probably a good communicator on the field. I wasn’t bad at motivating and getting a bit more out of everyone around me.

I see that you played 35 tests for New Zealand, and umpteen games for Otago, Waikato and Manawatu as well. So you’ve had a host of wonderful moments in rugby. And some great feelings I imagine. There must’ve been a time when you thought: “Yes. This is why I do it.”

I don’t remember many of the final scores of the games I played. But I do remember the feelings. Like when I was in Otago and our club (Otago University and later Alhambra Union) would win the club final. That was such a liberating and exhilarating feeling, having been with that group of women for a whole season in the freezing cold of Otago.

When you’re playing for your club, you’re with people who know your good and bad points. They accept you. They embrace you. And when you win with those who know you well, it’s a wonderful feeling and gives you a real sense of pride. So it was always really cool playing for my clubs.

And then being selected for the New Zealand team the first time. That was a bit of a shock because I never thought I’d make the Black Ferns. But it kept getting better because we won the World Cup three times. Unbelievable.

I have little synapses going off in my brain whenever these things occur: “I can’t believe this is actually happening.” And you’re standing there. You’ve sung the national anthem. You’ve done the haka. You’ve played your heart out. You think you can’t breathe anymore. And you’ve won. You’ve won. It’s such a cool feeling.

The first time, in 1998, it was just amazing — because nobody knew who we were. The second time, in 2002, was a huge relief because I was feeling the pressure as the captain and everyone was expecting us to win.

And then there was our third World Cup win in 2006. That was quite emotional because I knew it was going to be my very last game for the Black Ferns. I was so happy that I was a part of this. You know, who gets to go to World Cups and win them? You feel very blessed to be in that environment.

You’re now known maybe more as an academic than as a former captain of the Black Ferns. I wonder whether your academic successes — like your Bachelor’s and then your PhD — have given you the same thrills and satisfaction.

One difference is that it’s your own private little journey as a student and as an academic. You’re not doing it on a world stage. You’re not performing in front of people. You’re often in your office or in the library with your head in a book, trying to write something. It’s a different kind of experience but it’s still satisfying.

And it’s even more so, sometimes, because playing sport was kind of what everyone expected of me as a Māori. The attitude was, you’re just doing what Māori can do naturally anyway. That’s great. But it’s nothing amazing.

But going to university and doing well there was seen as a bit beyond what people expected of me. So that was emotionally rewarding. Of course Māori can study. We can do whatever we aspire towards. That’s what I’ve been trying to push as an academic.

When I got my PhD, we had a little celebration for Māori graduates. They said that the graduates were welcome to stand and say something. I was too overwhelmed though. I was too emotional. My nana and koro weren’t there. They’d both passed away. But I could feel their presence. So I couldn’t even get up. But I knew they’d be proud of me and what I’d accomplished.

I’m sure they would’ve. We all are. Absolutely. And now you’ve become the first wahine to be on the board running New Zealand rugby — a game, like rugby league, played predominantly by brown people but administered, almost exclusively, by non-brown people.

The NZRU seems to be a stuffy sort of establishment but they broke new ground when they invited Dr Farah Palmer to be on that board. What were your thoughts? Did you feel that you and your skill-set were being taken seriously? That the gender imbalance in the administration was being taken seriously? Or that this was, sort of, a token appointment?

All of the above. I’d been thinking about where I was heading, because I still really cared about rugby, especially women’s rugby and Māori rugby. I’d been part of the Māori Rugby Board since 2007. So, I was keeping my hand in there and contributing. I was also working with the IRB on women’s rugby.

And I’ve married a man, Wesley Clarke, who’s a rugby coach. So rugby has still been a big part of my life. I was always going to be giving back to the game that had given me so much. It’s just that I didn’t quite know how I was going to do that.

Then I realised that, instead of commenting on rugby’s failings from the sideline, it’d be better to put my name in the hat for a position with the NZRU. So that’s what I did, although I needed some persuading that I had the skills for that role.

Actually, the NZRU board isn’t that stuffy any more. It used to be in the past. It’s still very much male, pale and — because it’s a little bit on the older side — stale as well. But it is changing. I can see that. And there are some forward thinkers around the board table.

They know that we need to encourage diversity at all levels of the game. They understand that we’re lacking Māori and Pasifika voices, and that we need to fix that. So it’s an exciting time to be involved.

Now when we look back at your successes already, we can note a bunch of high profile achievements – like being inducted into the IRB Hall of Fame a few years ago. One of just six women. And then there’s the women’s provincial teams now playing for the Farah Palmer Cup. How do you feel about that sort of recognition?

I cringe. I really don’t like it. Deep down inside I’m a shy little country bumpkin who grew up knowing that you don’t skite. Ever. So, when these things come along, I feel uncomfortable. I feel awkward.

Then I try and put that aside, and I tell myself that it’s not about me. It’s about encouraging young girls or women to see what roles they can have. And it’s about acknowledging women’s rugby and the opportunities out there for women to play. So I try to put my embarrassment aside and just see it as being bigger than me.

And that whole Hall of Fame thing. That was really lovely to be acknowledged. But I managed to get out of going to the event — in Paris, I think it was? — because I had a family and had to stay home to look after them. So that gave me a good reason not to go.

And when it comes to the cup, I find that I can’t get around to referring to it by its name. I just call it “that cup”.

These days you’re lecturing in the Department of Management at Massey University, which could be a step, if you were so inclined, towards a political career. Has that been on your mind at all?

I think I’ll leave the politics to the likes of Louisa Wall. I’m really happy where I am at the moment because I’m in a position where I can contribute to Māori advancement within a university setting. And I can play a part in the university’s important role as a critic and conscience of society.

Perhaps when my whānau grow up, I’ll consider some other options. Wesley and I have Cody Matariki, who’s seven, and Paige Ria Rangikoepa, who’s four.

Farah, it’s been a pleasure talking with you. But, before you go, would you please share with us a couple of things that we don’t know about you. Not necessarily something of global significance. Maybe you play the mandolin. Or climb mountains.

Oh, gosh. Well, I did bodybuilding. I had one season where I decided to try bodybuilding. When you know you’ve gotta be on a stage in a bikini, there’s nothing more motivating than that to curb your eating — and to get stuck into your training. So, I did that.

Also, I can play You Are My Sunshine on a guitar. That’s probably the extent of my musical abilities. I love dancing and being silly with my kids in the lounge of our house and just having a great time with them. And I’m also trying to be a supportive wife for Wesley and encourage him with his coaching aspirations. He’s the assistant coach for the Black Ferns.

 

© e-Tangata, 2017