Sport | Black Ferns

Black Ferns Sevens ready to take on the world again

Reigning world and Olympic champions the Black Ferns Sevens will rejoin the World Series Sevens circuit this morning, more than 800 days since their last tournament.

Captain and New Zealand Rugby player of the year Sarah Hirini (Ngāti Kahungunu) says the team has quickly slipped back into the usual routine as they count down the days to taking the field in Langford.

"It's been, I think, pretty seamless. We've travelled quite nicely. It's an easy flight to Canada, time difference maybe not so much. But being here being in a hotel, seeing other teams, it feels I don't want to say 'normal' but it does feel pretty normal.

The Black Ferns Sevens last played on the sevens circuit in February 2020 at Sydney, before the global Covid-19 pandemic cancelled the rest of that season. Since then, the side has captured Olympic Gold at Tokyo 2020. Hirini says they're aware they have a target on their back as they re-enter the series with just two tournaments left.

"We do a lot of analysis. We watch a lot of games and some teams that don't necessarily play too well against some countries we know, when they play us, they're going to be better than what we've seen in the tournament.

"Teams want to beat us. We walk around here at the hotel, and there are a few women in other teams who come up and introduce themselves. And then they're like, 'Oh, we're really excited to play you guys this weekend, we've never played New Zealand before.' And just hearing that these teams want to beat us, you can see the times that we have got beaten the country goes absolutely nuts."

Experience key

Coach Corey Sweeney has been fortunate to call on an experienced squad of 13, including 11 who won gold at the Olympics. Hirini says that will help the squad rejoin the circuit, in what will be a heavy three months that includes defending their commonwealth and world championships, while also helping to bring young players like Jaz Hotham into the fold.

"You can see her hunger in training and wanting to kick us' old girls' out, which is great. That's what you want in a team. I think our experiences are really up there in pressure moments of winning in tough games. But our hunger and our drive from the girls who haven't necessarily got the minutes or experience on the World Series, continue to build the group, and I'm really excited."

It will be the Black Ferns Sevens' first tournament without former co-coach Alan Bunting (Tūhourangi), who was this week appointed to the newly created role of cultural and leadership manager with the Black Ferns fifteens team, a role created in the wake of the recent report on the culture and environment of the team.

Hirini says Bunting's ability to create an environment that reflects the individuals in the squad that in turn creats a winning culture will be beneficial in turning the tide in women's rugby in Aotearoa.

Courage to perform

"He adapted his coaching style to suit who we had in our programme, and his big philosophy was having authentic people. That started right from him. He completely led it right from the top.  I felt no judgment from him or from the other management.

"We all come from different backgrounds, different experiences. When a head coach stands in front of a room, in a generally serious meeting, right before training, normally, it's about training, what we're going to do, who we're playing next. He would stand up, and firstly, tell us what he's grateful for, which was generally about how he gets to wear Adidas clothing, that he gets to drive a free truck. And then he would sometimes stop singing or dancing - he can't sing or dance - then he would say, 'if I need you guys to have the courage to perform on the field. If I can't even have the courage to stand up and do something I don't want to do in front of my group, then, I can't ask for the players to be doing the same thing."

The Black Ferns Sevens kick off their return to the World Series this weekend in a tough pool containing England, USA and Olympic bronze medalists Fiji. With just two tournaments left in the series, the Black Ferns can't retain their title but will gain vital game time ahead of the Commonwealth Games and World Cup later this year.