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Compelling photograph of three women embracing and crying with joy.
Sarah Hirini, Portia Woodman and Kelly Brazier embrace after winning Olympic gold in 2021 (Photo: Dan Mullan/Getty Images; Design: Tina Tiller)

BooksAugust 9, 2022

Leave mana in your wake: a new story of the Black Ferns Sevens

Compelling photograph of three women embracing and crying with joy.
Sarah Hirini, Portia Woodman and Kelly Brazier embrace after winning Olympic gold in 2021 (Photo: Dan Mullan/Getty Images; Design: Tina Tiller)

Arizona Leger reviews Rikki Swannell’s book Sevens Sisters, the story of how our women’s sevens team reset – and triumphed – after their heartbreaking loss to Australia at the 2016 Olympics. 

Growing up, rugby sevens was a beautiful mystery. I had heard about it, seen it played a couple of times on TV and I knew my dad had played it, but for the longest time I couldn’t comprehend the sport despite the title being a dead giveaway. The 2012 Epsom Girls’ Grammar School rugby sevens team marked my first attempt at giving it a go. We made the national schools tournament that year. I quickly fell in love with the sport and the culture surrounding it.

Later that year, my coach called to ask whether I’d like to play for the Auckland women’s sevens in a one-off tournament, as they were short on numbers. Within 48 hours I was sitting in the same van as an injured rookie superstar who would go on to make her mark on the world as Tyla Nathan-Wong. She had no idea who I was, but I had every idea who she was. That’s been my constant experience with women’s rugby. We’ve grown up alongside some of the best in the game so it hasn’t been hard to be a proud and staunch supporter of them over the years. We essentially witnessed history unfold as childhood superstars became national sporting heroes.  

Portia Woodman, Sarah Hirini (or Goss as she was at the time), Gayle Broughton and Tyla Nathan-Wong were some of my childhood icons. They have been household names for many dedicated rugby fans and aspiring athletes for a long time. I held them in the same regard as the Richie McCaws of the world, and I still do. They were proof of how talented women are on the rugby field. It was because of them that I believed I could give rugby a go. 

That might be why I found reading the stories and direct quotes of these women throughout the new book Sevens Sisters such a powerful experience. I learned that Gayle Broughton’s nana once offered a $20 bribe to get her to trial. Tyla Nathan-Wong reminded me of the power of provincial rugby: “It reignited the love. To go back home and represent the Cambridge Blue of Northland.” And Niall Williams on the human side of high performance: “I always say a scoreline should never define you as a person, how you treat someone in your team or how you look at them, because no one goes out to lose, drop a ball or make a mistake.” 

Photograph of three women's rugby players. One is curled up in a ball on the ground, the others are bending to comfort her. They look strong but devastated.
Portia Woodman, Huriana Manuel and Ruby Tui after the loss in Rio (Photo: Alexander Hassenstein/Getty Images)

It felt as if they were talking directly with me – and it dawned on me that a conversation younger me only ever dreamed of will now be a reality for many young wāhine who encounter this book. That’s because there has been a monumental shift in the identity and confidence of aspiring women and girls in rugby. And it’s precisely why we need to keep recording and retelling our own histories.

In her 15 years as a sports broadcaster, author Rikki Swannell has commentated countless the HSBC World Rugby Sevens Series matches and attended multiple Olympic and Commonwealth Games. Having been there to witness and articulate so many of New Zealand’s biggest sevens moments, she’s the perfect person to write this book.

A special keepsake to the past, present and future of women’s rugby, Sevens Sisters (subtitle: How a people-first culture turned silver into gold) shares the true and transparent story behind building, coaching and becoming a Black Ferns player. It’s an insightful and emotional read filled with teachable moments, even beyond the world of sports. 

Head and shoulders portrait of a blonde woman in blazer; her book cover featuring photograph of women rugby players embracing.
Rikki Swannell (Photo: Supplied)

I’m an easily distracted millennial who reads a chapter per day at best. (The last sports book I read properly was Irene Van Dyk’s Shooting for the Top and that was when I was 11 and dreaming that I might one day become a tall, athletic, South African Silver Fern.) So I opened the first page of Sevens Sisters at 6pm on a work evening with average hopes for my attention span. Almost immediately I was highlighting lines that I connected with and felt inspired by. Sentences that confirmed that the Black Ferns Sevens culture is underpinned by Māori values, the importance of “people first” cultures and leaving mana in your wake. Four hours later I had finished all 11 chapters and almost every line was fluorescent pink. 

As a young wahine Māori and teine o le moana who once gave rugby a go and is now working toward delivering our women’s Rugby World Cup this year, this story makes a world of difference. It showcases national sporting success that is grounded in tikanga Māori, player-centric systems and proudly wāhine led, a leadership model that many current organisations’ diversity and inclusion strategy attempts could learn from.

From the outset, both Swannell and Te Kapa Raupango Takiwhitu (our Black Ferns Sevens themselves) demonstrate the importance of recording our own histories. That when history remembers a win, loss or draw, it is just as important to retell the stories and journeys that put those numbers into perspective. Collectively, they take us on a journey from women’s rugby sevens’ inception in 2012 to Olympic victory in 2022. A tribute to the decade of growth. I laughed, cried, and celebrated along with them.

In particular, Sarah Hirini recognising the importance of being named as one of our nation’s flag bearers for the Tokyo Olympics 2021 had me quietly sobbing. Hirini saw it as being about so much more than herself: “… Being a Māori woman and putting sevens rugby to the fore was very moving and also knowing that somewhere a young kid was watching and might one day want to do that too…”

I remember when head coach Alan “Bunts” Bunting announced he was stepping down from the role after the Tokyo Olympics. There was an outpouring of appreciation from current and former Black Ferns’ flooded social channels. In that moment, you could tell he was a special part of the team’s success, but Sevens Sisters demonstrates exactly how groundbreaking his leadership was. Although I’ve never met Bunts I’ll be starting an official fan club for him, Cory Sweeney and the wider team management in recognition of their innate ability to believe in our women, even in moments where they hadn’t quite believed in themselves. To anyone implying that women couldn’t play rugby, Bunts would reply, “Yes, they can, they just need opportunities to fail and learn.” After a few years in the programme he talks about the impact of looking after athletes, especially when the road is getting rough, saying “you can still get the best out of people and not kick them out of your environment”. 

Photo of a woman grimacing as she races with ball in hand, other players in her wake.
Alena Saili in the Commonwealth Games bronze medal match against Canada last month. NZ won 19-12 (Photo: Richard Heathcote/Getty Images)

I’ll throw my remaining bravo roses at the vulnerability embedded throughout the book. As a nation still learning the power of being honest about our feelings, it’s that tone of vulnerability that separates this story from past historical recountings. I’m sure that the team could’ve strictly recorded the highlight reel of their journey if they wanted to. We could’ve read the Instagram version of their wins, trophies and personal bests – but instead we are granted an experience that goes much deeper than the best moments.

It was in the honest, prickly sentences that I felt most connected to each of the athletes. Niall speaks vulnerably about her journey through the injury that ended her Tokyo Olympic dream. Shiray Kaka reflects on her own growth journey over the years and Gayle Broughton keeps it real about the make or break moments of her career from an early age. The reader feels the heavy shoulders of that finals loss in Rio, likewise the rush of tears when that full-time whistle blew in Tokyo five years later. It’s a true measure of the “people first” culture that they are globally known for and, as Bunts puts it, “heart performance”. “If you’ve got the hearts of your people, the high performance has no ceiling,” he says. That’s now a quote I keep close as we crunch down the final 70-ish days before hosting the women’s Rugby World Cup here in Aotearoa.

Throughout, you feel like you’re there on the field, in the gym, or sitting next to our nation’s best sevens players in their most challenging, or equally victorious, moments. I’ve a newfound appreciation for the level of discipline and resilience that it takes to be a Black Ferns Sevens athlete. But even more, I closed the book reassured that a culture underpinned by Māori values, wāhine leadership and a mutual agreement to serve a vision bigger than oneself can achieve Olympic gold outcomes. 

I challenge sports history to share more of these unseen stories, especially in the women’s sports arena. Sevens Sisters is a lesson in the importance of being the author of our own histories – and a timely reminder that there is always more to the story than the final score. 

Sevens Sisters: How a people-first culture turned silver into gold by Rikki Swannell (Upstart Press, $39.99) is available from Unity Books Auckland and Wellington.

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