Sport | Rugby league

Nathan-Wong follows 'Sevens Sisters' across the ditch

Black Ferns Sevens player Tyla Nathan-Wong (Ngāpuhi) has signed with the St George-Illawarra Dragons for the upcoming NRLW competition.

New Zealand Rugby has granted the 28-year-old leave from her contract at her own request, to make the switch during the Black Ferns Sevens off-season. She says it's an opportunity to achieve another goal of hers, while also refreshing her mentally and physically ahead of another tilt at an Olympic gold medal next year.

"I just needed something new to really go back to that person who is the learner, the one that is being challenged a lot more. So I think this is exactly what I needed at the right time, because I know it is just going to make me better as a whole, not just my game, but me. That's going to mentally refresh me as well."

Nathan-Wong has been involved in the Black Ferns Sevens programme since her debut in 2012 at the age of 18 and has been a pivotal player for the Black Ferns Sevens during this time, achieving a number of milestones on the world stage. Notably, she has won two Sevens Rugby World Cups, Olympic silver and gold medals, and Commonwealth Games bronze and gold medals, alongside seven Sevens World Series titles.

She becomes the third member of the "Sevens Sisters" to make the switch to the NRL, following Gail Broughton in 2022 and Niall Williams who will also play in the NRLW for the first time this year.

Tyla Nathan-Wong wants more challenges from a different rugby code.

Black Ferns supportive

"It was so cool to see her [Broughton] make her mark and how she has over these last couple of seasons in the NRLW. I've been cheering her on and message her every now and then about how proud I am of her just for taking that step because you're coming from such a professional environment such as the Sevens that has been like that for so many years, and you're jumping into something that you have no idea about."

Black Ferns Sevens coach Corey Sweeney is supportive of Nathan-Wong's new challenge.

"Tyla has been a huge part of our team for some time now. It is unsurprising to have an athlete of her calibre to be sought after by another code. While the timing is not ideal being a year out from the 2024 Paris Olympics, we wish her all the best with this next chapter in her career. We will certainly be staying in touch with her about a possible return to the programme with a view to being a part of next year's Olympic campaign."

Nathan-Wong is obviously excited by the opportunity, but she says she is equally excited by the direction women's sport is heading, particularly for rugby and league players.

Joining the queue

She is the latest of a number of players taking time away from the Black Ferns Sevens setup ahead of a busy 2024 year. Ruby Tui, Stacey Waaka, Manaia Nuku, Tysha Ikenasio and Kelsey Teneti will play in the USA Sevens Series, Sarah Hirini and Kelly Brazier are taking coaching and playing opportunities in Japan.

"I'm glad I'm the age I am and being able to still be at the peak of my game and to be able to experience it all, you know, and I'm excited for the future.

"This is gonna be a vast variety of opportunity out there for them to really experience the professional level for female athletes."

She says the Dragons were an obvious choice for her, with indigenous coach Jamie Soward a big drawcard, and NRLW Dally M medalist, Raecen McGregor (Ngāti Whātua).

"That's one question I had, what's the culture like within the team? Do you embrace the different cultures and yeah, he said that he does. They're big about not only just the players being able to be who they are, and embrace their culture, as well as embracing the other cultures around them. That was massive for me too, especially coming from a sevens programme with that, it's huge.

"Seeing her [McGregor] as the number seven and the potential of partnering her in the halves, man, I could learn so much from her because I'm going into this as a fresh, new person, and I want to learn as much as I can as quick as I can. And I know I can learn a lot from her. Yeah, she's absolutely unreal."

The NRLW season begins on July 22. Nathan-Wong and her new Dragons team will take on reigning NRLW champions Newcastle in the first round.

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