In another of our For the Love of the Game features, Black Fern Chelsea Alley looks back on her early days in rugby and how she hopes she inspires other girls to follow in her footsteps.
On a frosty winter morning down at the great Tokoroa Memorial Sports Grounds I stood on the sidelines watching Nate, my older brother (by 15months) play rugby for Southern United Rugby Football Club (SURF). Every single Saturday I’d beg my mum to let me play! I was still too young. At only four years old I was determined to get out on that field. But, for now, I was forced to watch these boys who were one year older than me go between honey-potting around the ball and running to the sideline to stand on the towels their parents had laid out for them because their bare feet were so cold they were numb. Let's be honest - half of these boys were there for the half time oranges! I think deep down my Mum was hoping that by the time I was old enough to play, I’d realise there were no other girls playing rugby and I’d follow my friends and decide to do netball or soccer. Sorry Mum but that was never going to happen!
My opportunity came that very same season.. The boys were playing on an extra freezing, extra frosty day, extra early, on a field with extra long grass with stones scattered through it in a place about 20minutes from Tokoroa called Mangokino. It didn’t take long before over half of the boys were on the sideline moaning about how cold their feet were! Yes, there were even tears. With numbers of the J15 boys SURF team who were actually on the field dwindling it was almost looking like the game would be called off. Mum couldn’t say no now!! Sure enough, my whinging paid off and I was given a team jersey to chuck on. My gumboots came off and I sprinted away from the comfort of my Mum's side and out onto the field. What a moment. I couldn’t feel my feet and I was getting weird looks from my own new ‘team’, the other team and all the parents on both sides. But I didn’t care. I play rugby now - I belong to a team.
For as long as I can remember I would get up at any time of the morning to watch the All Blacks play with my family. I only lived with my Mum and Nate but my grandparents were always a massive part of our lives so we would often spend time with them and go to their house to watch big games. Tests that were played in the Northern Hemisphere were extra exciting because it meant that Nate and I could have a sleepover in the lounge and we would be allowed to have a Milo and some marmite on toast at 4am! I always knew every single player on both teams and my walls were covered in posters of All Blacks, Chiefs and Waikato players. My favourite players were Carlos Spencer, Christian Cullen, Jeff Wilson, Bruce Reihana and Roger Randle - all try scorers obviously! My favourite weekend outing would always be going to Rugby Park to watch the Mooloo men play. I’d paint my face and take my cowbell and Nate and I would yell and be some of the most vocal supporters in the kids corner!
When anyone asked me what I wanted to be when I grew up, I'd tell them very matter of factly that I would be an All Black. I didn’t listen or pay much attention when people would say that I couldn’t because I was a girl. I played rugby every year in an older grade because I always wanted to be in Nate's team. I didn’t like the opposition knowing I was a girl as I didn’t want them going easy on me or treating me any different so I learnt early on that wearing headgear helped with this. It hid my long blonde hair which meant that they wouldn’t find out my little secret until they got up really close and realised. I loved the boys I grew up playing alongside - they were my mates and my older brothers at the same time and they always treated me like anyone else in the team. Plus I got to be first in line to have the hot milo and sausage sizzle after the game up in the SURF clubrooms!
I made my first representative team at 10 when I played for Tritons Goldfields as a No8. The following year I made the Tritons Gwynne Shield team and then following on from that I was the first female ever selected in the Waikato Boys under 13 team. I remember feeling excited, proud and so scared all at the same time! It was pretty daunting going to my first training with the best rugby players in the entire Waikato. I’d always had the comfort of knowing the boys in my Tokoroa team but I didn’t really know anyone here. I had to travel 70 minutes each way to Hamilton three times a week after school to train. We trained all winter for the big, week long, Northern Regions tournament which was held in Napier. When the tournament came around and team lists were entered, there was a massive uproar about Waikato having a girl in their team. The night before the tourney kicked off there was a meeting where the men in power were going to decide whether I'd be allowed to play or not. It was horrible waiting, I felt like I was on the stand waiting to hear my verdict. It came down to a vote and fortunately the votes only just tipped in my favour and I was allowed to play. I remember feeling shaken up by it all as although I grew up constantly hearing people make comments about a girl playing rugby, I'd never been told I wouldn’t be allowed to play the game I loved. Looking back I was very naive.
When I head down to watch Saturday morning rugby now, I'm blown away by the amount of young girls playing! There are full girls teams who are just as skilful, fast and fearless as the boys teams. It makes me proud of what I achieved as a young girl who just absolutely loved the game and never gave up. Rugby has taken me so many places, allowed me to make lifelong friends, given me so many amazing opportunities and helped create some unforgettable memories. I may not have achieved my goal of becoming an All Black, but getting to be a Black Fern for a decade and win a World Cup has more than fulfilled all of my dreams. My favourite part about being a NZ womens rugby player is being in a position to encourage and inspire the young girls around the country who also have big dreams. I see myself in a lot of them. I’m grateful for all of the trailblazers in our game who have paved the way to give the next generation of female rugby players more opportunities so that hopefully none of them will ever have to stand in front of a jury who decides whether they're allowed to even play or not! Gone are those days! Let Her Play!