Ruby Tui is a rugby player with Sāmoan-Pākehā whakapapa who has come through tough times as a kid and now, as a 30-year-old, can look back at years in the limelight as one of New Zealand’s top sportswomen.
For instance, she has a gold medal from the 2020 Tokyo Olympics for her part in the Black Ferns Sevens. Three years ago, she was chosen as the world sevens player of the year. And now, over the next couple of months, she’s lining up with the Black Ferns 15s in their bid to add yet another world cup to the five they’ve won since their first in 1998.
The chances are that she’ll be in the headlines again not just because of her performances as a flashy, try-scoring wing and her take-no-prisoners tackling, but also because of her humour and effervescent personality.
Ruby has told her story in Straight Up which has just been published and she hasn’t held back from explaining how difficult life was for her when her mum and dad often had such a stormy relationship. But then there’ve been heaps of good times too, especially since she made it to university where she discovered rugby and rugby discovered her.
Here’s an edited excerpt where she focuses on a coach who has played a huge part in the fortunes of Ruby and her sevens sisters.
I was all set to leave the team. I couldn’t do this anymore — exhaust myself trying to weave together players that I felt were being driven apart by the culture and coach. No way. See ya. But then, the day after the final, our team’s assistant coach, Allan Bunting, said he wanted to have a chat.
We’d always got on, and I always appreciated his honesty, but because of the culture in the team we weren’t tight as, so it was a surprise.
“I’m done,” I told him. “Gotta get on with my life. My relationship’s stretched to the frickin’ nines from me being away all the time.”
This was true. My partner at the time found it really hard with me being away so much, and putting first a team of people that weren’t always that nice to be around — the rugby life is definitely hard on the families. Also, I told Bunts, I’m not even happy when I play now. I want to do something else. I’ll probably go study media or something.
He told me he’d had an offer to go and coach in Japan. He’d played there in his days as a professional rugby player, and spoke Japanese, better Japanese than he did te reo Māori at the time.
“That’s what I heard,” I said. “All the best, bro, like, all the best . . . you’re gonna do amazing over there.”
I meant it. His sevens brain was special. Then he said the thing that changed my whole world: “You know the head coach is leaving.”
I had heard he was applying for the men’s coaching role so I had a feeling he would leave. “Yeah,” I said, wondering what that had to do with anything.
“Well, what would you say if I applied to be head coach?”
It was such a shock to me. Bunts. Head coach of our team. He was probably the one person who would actually speak up for the other players, especially the ones that were more hard-done-by. And he was like: “Maybe I’m too young. Maybe I’m not good enough.”
But I was hardly listening. All these things started clicking together in my head — how Bunts runs all the tactics anyway, takes all the training, designs all the moves, always deals with us with honesty — and then I came to. Wait, Bunts, what do you mean you’re not good enough? You are the most qualified person in the world to be the coach of this team. Of course you can do it, and who cares if you’re only 41 and you’re Māori. Not everyone in rugby has to be old and white and bald.
I was suddenly so excited I couldn’t stop talking. Just apply, and if they don’t pick you, they’re stupid.
“Okay,” he said. “I wanted to see what you thought. I’ve been thinking about it and if I apply I’m going to base it all around Māori culture. I’ll put culture at the centre, and we’ll have a player-led environment. All the senior players who stay on, I’ll make them the leadership group and I won’t chop and change it.”
This is the kind of thing coaches often say, that they’ll include the players, but then they don’t really, because it can be quite a scary thing to put your job in the hands of others. But when Bunts said that to me, I don’t know why but I knew I could trust him. I knew he was for real. This was the kind of team I wanted to be in. One with a real culture.
Even at our worst moments during that Olympics final in Rio, I’d known beyond certain that our team had all the ingredients — the best players in the world — but there was something wrong with our recipe. This guy’s got the recipe. I instantly knew it, and I knew I wanted to follow him into battle.
Bunts, I told him, if you go for that job and you get it, I’ll stay. I’ll follow you to the Tokyo Olympics.
Our team is a waka, and we leave mana in our wake.
From that November of 2016, when Bunts officially became head coach of the Black Ferns Sevens, we were on a journey together — of him finding out more about who he was as a coach, putting into practice all the instincts and knowledge he had around leadership, and of us learning what it meant to be trusted, have accountability, learning to understand ourselves again as a team.
Straightaway, Bunts got me, Niall Williams, Tyla Nathan-Wong, Gossy (Sarah Hirini nee Goss), Kelly Brazier, Kayla Ahki (nee McCalister) and Portia Woodman as his leadership group, and he appointed his best mate, Cory Sweeney, as assistant coach. They’ve known each other since primary school, and sometimes it’s real suss when coaches appoint their friends, but we quickly saw that Cory was humble as, so knowledgeable, was working at a coaching academy, understood the tactics really well, and we saw that altogether the new management team was frickin’ unreal.
Bunts got his new leadership group together and straight-up told us: “I don’t want to take another step forward without your input. How do we work this out together?”
From that day forward, we were part of every decision. For example, one year they couldn’t decide between the last two or three contracts to offer, and it was inevitable that someone was going to lose their spot in the team. So they got the whole leadership group in and they were like: “This is the situation.” They told us their perspective on the team as a whole, the balance they were looking for, so we could understand the overview of why someone needed to be replaced.
Everything we might have said behind their backs, bitching to each other with only a bit of the information available to us, we said directly to management and were listened to and responded to, and we left that room upset but knowing that the right decision had been made for the plan they had for the team. Coaches never usually do that.
Allan Bunting, Bunts, is one of those people I can so easily create a safe space with. He values clear, open, honest communication, and immediately. If there were ever any whispers or conversations about someone or a situation, straight away he would set up a conversation about it, even if it screwed up the schedule. To me, if you wait for a more convenient time, the problem simmers away and becomes far bigger.
Bunts and I agreed on the importance of honesty and of facing the harder conversations head-on. It goes without saying that neither of us would make good managers who have to keep everything ticking along so that all appointments happen on time.
Bunts used to tell us that his whole thing was to coach so well and so hard that his role as a coach would become redundant. A huge selfless call to make by a coach. That’s what it has to be on the field, because when we get to that point it’s just us. The coaches have helped us with everything they can up to that white line, but after that, we’ve got to take responsibility. We can do this. We are unleashed. We are responsible.
Even at our biggest games, even at Tokyo, Bunts will be running the water out for us at half-time, and that’s it. He won’t talk in any of our huddles, he lets us do the talking. Trusting us to know our jobs, trusting us to trust each other. Sometimes he even walks away, and that can’t be easy. But that’s how much he trusts us.
Bunts letting us take the huddles was extremely uncomfortable at the beginning. We all have specific areas of the game to lead, but there’s still a learning process to know what to say in the heat of the moment when you are extremely fatigued and emotional. But this is a whole other level of leadership awareness. You go from worrying only about yourself in a team huddle — getting a water, waiting for the coach to say something that might help — to constantly being aware of every aspect of the game because you need to have the answers now, not the coach.
How long do we go, how is our depth on attack . . . I need to tell Goss to take the kick for touch at our next penalty because they aren’t even contesting in the lineout . . . Why are we slipping off tackles today? The growth we had as leaders just from Bunts’ trust was quite incredible.
True leadership is the opposite of individualism, the opposite of one person standing above the rest. It’s an encompassing, inclusive thing.
I never like the top-down way of leading. Even if I’ve been here for years, I shouldn’t walk around like I’m a better human than a newbie or treat them badly. I love to do things through conversations and mutual agreement. In our team, it’s either unanimous or we need to talk more. And if you can’t say it up-front, then you shouldn’t be saying it behind anyone’s back. I always work hard to make sure that we, as players, have an open platform to share things and be up-front.
As a leadership group, you get to know much more than the average player, and I always want to pass on as much as I can to the rest of the team — after all, we’re representing the whole team with our decisions and discussions. And some things we’re actually unable to lead and need help with from other players. Like selection, for example. How do players want to find out that they haven’t made the team? As leaders, we often make the team, so speaking on behalf of those who don’t make it can’t be done accurately so we will ask other players for help.
What I saw with Bunts was that he understood all this — that the essence of a team is its culture and its bond, and he threw himself into helping us develop those things. For me, it was what came naturally anyway. It was what I’d always wanted. A family full of good people making the right choices in life.
Ninety per cent of the women in our team are Māori or Pacific Island. Bunts himself is Māori. In fact, it was funny because when we arrived at the Olympics in Rio, we were so colourful we altered the ratio of the New Zealand team overall — it had been tipped towards Pākehā but when the sevens teams arrived we made the ratio real pleasing to everyone.
The thing about Māori and Sāmoan and other Pacific cultures is everything’s for the family. It’s why people go to gangs, right, so they can feel they belong. So if this team becomes our family — a family outside of our family — we will do just about anything for it.
Bunts took that Māori identity and put it at the heart of the team — totally culturally accepting and welcoming to all. He used te reo when he coached us, but more than that, he connected us to something that’s a whole lot bigger than rugby. So we could represent not ourselves as individuals, but our culture and our ethnicity.
His idea of the team as a waka is a Māori metaphor and made sense to all of us — the waka is what we make together. Mind, body, culture. It is quite a common theme in teams now, but back then not many people had done it; Bunts may have been one of the first in a professional team. He has since been approached by other professional coaches to help them follow the same theme.
The tauihu is the prow that cuts through the water with puhoro — speed and dexterity — guiding us, leading us through unknown waters. We paddle together, our strength nothing without the others. And in our wake we leave mana. And that means our footprint on this earth, the thing that is left once we’ve passed.
Every single day, we would talk about these things in our team meetings. All teams have important guiding ideas and metaphors they use, but the cool thing about us is that it was cultural, it was deeper, it was literally about who we were. It was the story of our team, but it was also everyone’s personal story. And for me, that was engulfing because if I’m going to dedicate my life to something it has to mean something. We mucked up in Rio, but where are we going to go next? Where’s the waka headed?
I don’t have a drop of Māori blood in me, but man I felt New Zealand, part of this powerful culture that we were creating together where people can be themselves and still belong. “Tahi, rua, toru” were our calls, our haka our full expression of us, of respect for our opponents, of love for all who love us. “Ka pai” when we did something good, and “tino pai” when we really smoked it. When Bunts said “tino pai”, you knew you’d done a really good job.
I’m here to make New Zealand great. I’m a Kiwi. I honour the Māori side of Aotearoa. I am a New Zealander and I’m proud, and Māori culture is part of my country’s culture, therefore it’s part of what I’m representing, so I respect and love that too.
People often comment on how they love to watch us because of our obvious closeness as a team, and the joy we have towards our game and each other. What you’re seeing is real, but not simple. We’ve built that through having tough times, through not being afraid of honesty — whether giving or receiving. We’re all different people, but what you’re seeing is the team culture that we’ve built, and that’s a real thing.
There’s nowhere I would rather be. Straight up.
This is an edited excerpt from Straight Up by Ruby Tui, published by Allen & Unwin NZ, RRP $36.99.
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