After losing their Rio Olympic gold medal match to Australia in 2016, the Black Ferns Sevens, led by new coach Allan Bunting and a diverse leadership group, pressed reset and embarked on a five-year course that led them to gold at the Tokyo Olympics in 2021. What made the difference, as this extract from sports broadcaster Rikki Swannell’s new book Sevens Sisters shows, was a “people first” culture where team members became family.
Kelly Brazier was in the northern hemisphere with the Black Ferns fifteens team in November 2021 when she received a peculiar message from her wife Tahlia back at home. It included a picture of a strange man mowing their lawns.
On closer inspection, Brazier realised it wasn’t a stranger at all, but rather assistant coach Stu Ross who’d just shown up to cut the grass so Tahlia wouldn’t have to bother. And once a week while Brazier was away, Sarah Hirini would pick up their young son Oakley for the day, just to help out.
Because those are the little things this team does for each other.
Like when Niall Williams needed to get her kids to school, so training was pushed back by half an hour, or when Allan Bunting and Gayle Broughton needed to step away to find their roots and who they were.
It was there when, within the space of a month, three players suffered heartbreaking family bereavements and the team dropped training, boarded buses and headed where they were needed to be to support their whānau.
It was there when Brazier and Woodman put their own Olympic hopes, plans, fitness and training on hold to be beside Hirini when she needed them the most. It’s as Terina Te Tamaki says: “We love people, people are who we are, so let’s make sure we take care of our people.”
For as long as anyone can remember, the team has always had a chant of “Sisters!” It’s often heard before a game or at the end of the halftime huddle, but Michaela Blyde says there was a time when it was shouted with little meaning.
“There have been different levels of sisterhood. Perhaps leading into Rio, it was a sisterhood where you just worried about yourself, so it was not very meaningful, whereas now it comes from the heart. It’s purposeful and genuine; it means we have each other’s backs and we aren’t just saying it for the sake of it.”
Gayle Broughton says it’s not just something they’ve done for show; there is meaning behind the word and why they specifically call each other sisters off the field. She thinks having family-like connections and relationships, as opposed to just being colleagues, has allowed them to be honest with each other.
“We actually love each other in real life, not just on social media where it’s easy to make it look like something is real when it isn’t. The ‘Sisters’ call has been around for a long time, but it never always felt like that, so the work that Bunts, Cory, Stu and our leaders put in to have a culture of honesty and problem-solving has all contributed to it.”
Like every family, however, things haven’t always been rosy.
“Oh yeah, we’ve had our dust-ups,” says Stu Ross. “It’s very easy to moan sideways, where there’s no real accountability and things can fester. But when you have a direct conversation with someone, we can talk it out or lick our wounds and carry on.”
Since Rio, the “brand” of the Black Ferns Sevens has grown exponentially, and some players have become household names with large social media followings, well-deserved endorsements deals and opportunities outside of rugby, mainstream media interest and large public profiles. Showing the best of themselves on the pitch has meant they have to do the same off it. They’re always Black Ferns.
“Sometimes it can get a little tiresome and I just want to stay in my little home bubble or go up north to take time out and relax,” says Tyla Nathan-Wong. “Everything does add up and we are humans at the end of the day, but we need to think about how we portray ourselves on social media and remember that we are role models. At the same time, though, I love what I do and to be in this position to inspire young girls to one day take over the jersey. We are the guardians, the kaitiaki of the jersey for this short period of time and it’s a privilege.”
What’s easy to miss among the pressures of performance, the daily grind whatever the weather, the expectation and the need to carry themselves a certain way off the field, is the fun stuff, the characters, the jokes. It can be a very noisy experience for anyone else who happens to be out for dinner at the same time as 25 of them turn up to a restaurant. Allan Bunting says enjoyment is key.
“When you’re in a high-performance environment you need to have a focus of enjoying the journey, because it’s easy to lose track of it amidst the pressure and hard trainings,” says Bunting. “When we went away on trips, we changed our schedule, so we’d do all the hard work back home and then have a couple of days off to enjoy the country we were in. That became a factor in their performance as well, as it meant we didn’t just get the rugby and the body, we got the mind and the soul.”
In a group of 20 to 30 people with a range of ages, backgrounds and interests, fun for one person looks completely different than it does for another . . .
“One night in Tokyo, Neeks, Ray, Alena and I were doing absolutely nothing, so we decided to make up a random dance,” says Broughton. “We took the speaker into the other room to show Gossy, Ruby, Portia, Kelly and Bunts our moves . . . and I don’t want to speak badly about anyone’s age but while we were working on a dance routine, they were playing cards and having a cup of tea!” she laughs.
Woodman also found the two distinct groups amusing.
“These young girls come rocking in and we’re literally just being old farts with cards and a cuppa. But that’s always been the great thing about our team, that there are groups within the group and it’s never a problem. Kelly, Gossy and I are super close, Mini and Terina live together, Ruby and Niall are tight, Stacey and Theresa are best mates, but while we all have our people to lean on, we can all mix and mingle together.”
This is an extract from Sevens Sisters: How a people-first culture turned silver into gold, written by Rikki Swannell and published by Upstart Press.
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