There are two New Zealand rugby games on at the same time tonight, and only one of them will feature a line-up of vibrant and exciting scrunchies.
There was a lot to take in at the opening day of the Ruby World Cup earlier this month. Rita Ora crouched on the field, touched our hearts and engaged our minds. Hinewehi Mohi sang the national anthem and everyone wept. The Wallaroos were up for far too long and everyone screamed. But there was another aspect of the momentous match that I couldn’t stop thinking about throughout – the excellent array of hair accessories within the Black Ferns.
Aotearoa has a tried and true tradition of both celebrating and deriding the stylistic choices of our rugby players. Over the years we have taken note of Dan Carter’s bad fade, Jonah Lomu’s tuft, Justin Marshall’s frosted tips and Ma’a Nonu’s eyebrows and eyeliner. In 2022, the Black Ferns lookbook is just as varied. In just one game we were treated to everything from the red racing stripe in Ruby Tui’s ponytail, to Renee Holmes’ iridescent pink and blue mermaid ribbons.
But no accessory dominated the debut quite like the scrunchie, an easy-going, personality-packed, fabric-covered elastic that first rose to prominence in the 1980s. Portia Woodman sported an on-theme black and white shiny number, while Stacy Fluhler went for a beautiful rich magenta. In the Black Ferns games since, we’ve been treated to hot pink, bright red and even a sneaky paua print scrunch. Ensemble said it first: the scrunchie is back, baby.
Black Ferns back and scrunchie entrepreneur Stacey Fluhler has loved the scrunchie ever since she was a kid, “even when they went out of fashion”. When she started travelling the world for rugby, she would pick up scrunchies in different places and then test them out at games. “For me, comfort is key and making sure my hair doesn’t come out,” she explains. “It’s not perfect when you might be getting smashed into rucks and whatnot. But it’s just a cool accessory for me to feel cool on the field.”
Although Fluhler loved the aesthetic of the scrunchie, she quickly encountered a quality problem. “I’d buy all the cheap ones but my head gets real sweaty, so they would constantly get wet and stink a little bit afterwards,” she laughs. It was only when she got sent an assortment from Canadian business Aptoella Rugby that the god tier sports scrunchie was unlocked. “They were really tight and I’ve got real thick hair, so it takes a lot for my hair to kind of stay in place,” she explains. “I also love the fact that they were water slash sweatproof.”
Eventually, Fluhler’s passion for scrunchies came off the field entirely. In 2020 she launched Stacey Fluhler Scrunchies with a local business partner (“I definitely don’t have enough time to make them and, to be fair, I don’t know how”). The brand has since found popularity among local sports teams, with scrunchies being sent across the country to various netball, hockey and rugby tournaments. “I don’t make a lot of money from it but that was never the intention,” she says. “I just wanted to make people feel good and happy on the field like I do.”
With that in mind, is there any hope in hell of ever getting an official Black Ferns scrunchie? “I wish,” Fluhler laughs. “I just need to pitch that to New Zealand Rugby to allow it.”
Beyond looking cool, hair forms an essential part of the Black Ferns pre-game ritual. In the brilliant two-part documentary series Black Ferns: Wahine Toa, Tanya Kalounivale cackles as a comb disappears into her bright pink curls, while tight french braids are plaited against scalps and ribbons flutter around ponytails. “Every athlete has their own unique pre-match ritual,” sports broadcaster Kirsty Stanway explains. “With the Black Ferns, it always involves braiding each other’s hair and a lot of music, dancing and singing.”
Fluhler confirms that this is an essential part of their pre-game process. “Every time we play, we definitely have a little bit of a salon going,” she laughs. “Being females playing in a male-dominated sport, it’s important that we just feel good.” The main braiders on the team are Kennedy Simon, Amy Rule and Portia Woodman, but Fluhler is quite happy to stay the scrunchie queen. “It’s kind of funny, because you don’t want to make it too known that you can do it, because otherwise you’re going to get a whole line.”
There’s a sense of fun within the idea of picking out the perfect scrunchie and lining up for braids that sets the Black Ferns apart from their male equivalents. “Probably the easiest way to explain the difference between the men and the women – the men need to play well to feel good,” coach Wayne Smith told The Telegraph earlier this month. “The women need to feel good to play well. We have a lot of fun in the team – I won’t tell you how we do that – but there’s a lot of laughter, a lot of fun and we’re all making the most of it.”
Fluhler agrees. “For us, if we’re having fun, then I feel like that outweighs the result. It’s our whole mindset: you focus on the process, not the outcome.”
She currently has about 20-30 scrunchies with her for the World Cup, and has some strict rules about which ones she chooses to wear – no scrunchies twice in a row and they must match her outfit or kit that day. She sometimes lets her fans decide which scrunchie she should wear on her Instagram, or will FaceTime her nieces and let them choose. She keeps the black and white scrunchies for finals and one-off matches, and stays away from yellow entirely – “I’ll never ever wear the same colour scrunchie as the opposition team’s colours.”
So while Fluhler hasn’t figured out which scrunchie she will be sporting for tonight’s match against Wales, one thing is certain.
“It definitely can’t have red in it.”