My love affair with rugby started with a teenage crush on an All Black.
It morphed into Sunday afternoon matches in muddy cow paddocks in Dunedin, hilarious after match functions, some crazy injuries, then moved to serious rugby in my 20s with proper high-performance training and Government funding, and a lifelong relationship that has enriched my life in so many ways.
I’m so glad my dad introduced me to the game. It was 1987 and I was watching the final with him at home. What a match! JK with his glamorous blonde locks and outrageous gallops down the pitch and David Kirk – the love of my life at the time - lifting the cup.
That 1987 World Cup win was the first time I’d felt pride at being a Kiwi – world beaters – and it lit a little kernel of light inside me that started to make me wonder if I could be an All Black too.
Hilarious that late last year I’d had all these missed calls from David Kirk on my cell phone. He’d been trying to get a hold of me to tell me I’d won the Kirk Award for service to rugby. How wonderful, my dad would’ve had a giggle.
Back in my day girls didn’t have much opportunity to play club rugby. No schoolgirl competitions to speak of and a social norm that young women played netball or nothing at all. So, I had to wait until 1992 for the opportunity to play when I got to Otago University to complete a physical education degree.
I turned up with my mate Nikki Fogden, neither of us had played ever. There were about 60 girls which was crazy – they all looked like Rhonda Rousey – short and fit as hell.
“I was the reigning Miss Canterbury and someone had leaked it. They were all muttering, “where’s Miss Canterbury, I’m gonna smash her”.
Lucky for me I can really dress down and I looked as rough as the rest of them that day so no-one had a clue it was me.
Then we got split into two teams.
I got put on the wing.
I ran at least 80ms in the first trail – sideways.
I tried to smash a few people – with my elbows.
I didn’t know what a ruck was for.
I was useless.
I limped off the field with a bloody knee, a sore elbow and a hematoma in my thigh.
“Do I really want to play this game after all…”
We had the best team at Otago University – young fit girls who all were learning the game – off current players like Nick Broughton and John Leslie – and we got to hang with All Blacks and Otago reps at our club. It was one heck of an amazing time to learn the game – no social media and the infamous court sessions.
But something started to happen - rugby’s complexities and strategies pulled us in.
Sue Garden-Bachop became the Otago coach, she suddenly converted a few of us backs into forwards.
We started to learn the micro-skills, other athletes from other codes started coming to play, we started to train properly and get fit, and we started to get really, really good at the game.
And most importantly - I had the best face fend in Dunedin!
Oh, and I loved breaking the rules!
I can’t explain to you how exciting it is to go from being told, as a girl, that you have to be polite and nice and follow all the social rules, to suddenly discovering the game of rugby and being able to be as rough as guts and physically dominate someone else.
I loved it.
It was deliciously empowering.
Back then there were a few downsides. Hand me down jerseys, paying for our own strapping tape, begging for referees to come and officiate our games, and of course, the disapproving looks you’d get when you told your friend’s mum, or dad, that you played rugby.
Rugby still wasn’t cool for girls to play.
But who cared – it rocked. And I had a bunch of best mates who loved the game as much as me and they are still my best mates.
Skip forward to the Black Ferns in 1996 – the first year the New Zealand women’s team went on a fully funded tour to Canada via Australia. NZR chairman Rob Fisher and George Scudder were instrumental in getting that approved. We had a ball and we started to set our team culture which was based on the All Black’s culture but morphed into our own. And we announced to France, the USA and Canada that we were here to play, beating them in record scores with 283 points for, and 11 against in three matches.
Then in 1998 we were off to the first official rugby World Cup, in Amsterdam,where our coach Darryl purposefully put us in an isolated hotel in the countryside so we wouldn’t be distracted.
Suffice to say I still snuck off to the red light district with the two Richards sisters Anna and Fiona.
On that tour we were trying to figure out what to call ourselves – one of the two options was ‘The Shiwis’. Luckily, we settled on Black Ferns instead of the transportable female urination device!
But more important than the name was the performances by our team – we won the Rugby World Cup unbeaten and untouchable. And for the first time little girls from Kiwi schools were sending us faxes and messages. Even Paul Holmes interviewed our captain Farah Palmer. And our final was live on TVNZ with Keith Quin and Sue Garden Bachop commentating.
And Rob Fisher was there. And he put his credit card on the bar.
And when we won the 2002 Rugby World Cup in Barcelona Rob put his credit card on the bar again.
We loved Rob Fisher because he backed us. He was one of the people who put the initial investment into the game so that young girls have more opportunities now. Rob, Darryl Suasua, Sue Garden Bachop, Laurie O'Reilly, the list goes on.
I retired early at 28 because I had a dream to commentate for Sky TV. You can’t play rugby if you want to talk about it I guess!
That was a dream job, following teams, analysing the game, staying in nice hotels, working with some fantastic people. [Editor’s note, Mel is being modest. She was the first woman to comment fulltime on TV on rugby in New Zealand.] I worked alongside Murray Mexted and Ian Jones, who put up with me patiently for many years as a co-host. Andrew Mehrtens was definitely the best to tour with and spending time with him at the RWC in 2019 was more like an episode of The Office, rugby style.
I left Sky TV so I could move from commentary to behind the scenes management where my passion is to push for more coverage of women’s sport – and particularly proving the commercial case for women’s rugby.
I threw myself out of my comfort zone and got a Masters in Business Administration from Auckland University.
I feel privileged that the experience and friends I gained from years playing or talking about rugby has set me up with amazing opportunities that I’m involved in now.
For instance, I’m an international players representative on Rugby World Cup Limited which is responsible for overseeing Rugby World Cup’s strategy, business models and operations including international broadcast deals.
But my most rewarding job of all last year was coaching the Saint Peters under 13s and seeing them improve, have fun, and start to love the game as much as I do.
And finally, how fantastic that in 2018 and 2019, the Black Ferns, in peak viewing times, attracted around half a million viewers. That women in the XVs game are paid to play, that the sevens team has pay parity with the men’s sevens team, and New Zealand is hosting a women’s rugby world cup after winning five of them since 1998.
And more young women than ever before are putting their hands up to play.
That is why I love rugby and have never regretted picking up that oval ball.
Mel has asked for her fee for writing to The Wonderful Group who advocated for women in sport media and coverage of women’s sport.