Right up her Alley

Rikki Swannell
Written by
Rikki Swannell

Author short introduction. Three to five lines of brief description.

Chelsea Alley of the Waitomo Chiefs fends against Hayley Hutana of the Blues Women during the Women's match between the Blues and the Chiefs

Chelsea Alley has just started a new job and she’s loving every minute.  

It’s one she always dreamed of having, but also one she never really expected to get. However, it has clearly already given her a renewed energy and a different kind of determination.  

Alley is one of 30 female players to begin 2022 with a full-time professional contract, the long-awaited evolution from the semi-pro conditions leading players have operated under for the past four years.  It means no more 5am wake-ups to get to the gym before work, no more of the job-rugby-life juggle where something has to give, there’s attention to rehab and recovery and time to perfect their skills.  

For Alley, the 29-year-old 26 test Black Fern, who’s been playing at the top level for 11 years, it is a somewhat surreal moment.

“It’s a massive lifestyle change and I feel nothing but happiness and there's also a bit of relief. It has been a grind and I've been in the trenches many times in the last 11 years and now it's made that little bit easier.”

When they aren’t with their Super Rugby Aupiki sides or at Black Ferns camp, the newly contracted players will train on a daily basis at one of five high performance hubs dotted around the country.  

“It’s going to take a bit of time for the body to get used to full on days, back-to-back, but the beauty of it now is we're going to become much better athletes and have a much higher tolerance for training. It’s life changing,” Alley says.

With money comes scrutiny, pressure and even more trolling from some on the internet who begrudge female players earning a living from the game. Alley knows being a high-performance elite athlete is cutthroat and these new contracts may open her and her colleagues up for more criticism. She believes they’ve had those expectations on them for years anyway, but they now have the resources and support systems to do things properly.  

That scrutiny was hard to stomach when the Black Ferns suffered record defeats to England and France on their northern tour in November. While the results may not have been a total surprise for some observers given the completely professional programmes they were up against and the fact New Zealand hadn’t played a test for two years, the manner of the losses was not only alarming but hard to watch at times.

“My emotions were really high after that tour, I really struggled with the performances we put out and how much we were beaten by. It was hard for us as Black Ferns to be portrayed in the media the way we were and being talked about like that, so it was a huge learning experience for all of us.” Alley recalls. “A few months down the track now I've had so much time reflecting and I've realised we were very underdone and it was a bit like going into the lion’s den, but also, the huge wake up call we needed and NZR probably needed as well to show we can't compete anymore as semi-professionals.”  

Alley says players can no longer just show up and rely on their natural ability.

“Everyone’s had a kick up the arse and just seeing the way the girls in our Waikato hub have come back this year, so focused, physically and mentally in a much better place after all the lock downs, we're going to start this year in far better shape than we finished last year, going into the most important season we'll ever have.”

As the squad was rotated and changed, senior players found themselves on the bench or out of the matchday 23 all together. Alley started the first and fourth tests and didn’t play at all in the other two. While she says she’d been hitting certain physical standards, the tour showed just how underdone she was having only played six games all year.  

“My performance under pressure wasn't where it needed to be and my contact skills weren't where they needed to be, so I took a whole lot of learning from that,” she says. “I'm quite self quite aware and realize where I'm deficient in the game on the international stage and what habits I need to get out of even when I’m playing at FPC level to be able to be one of the best in my position in the world. The cool thing is, I now have the time to be able to go out and do it, to perfect my craft, so I’ve got no excuses this year.”

The tour showed glaring deficiencies in the women’s programme. Some of the issues were down to the individual, some can be blamed on covid, but others go back to the slow pace of change in the years since the 2017 Rugby World Cup. While England and France accelerated, New Zealand stood still. [Text Wrapping Break]

It’s why Alley, her team-mates and everyone involved in the game sees Super Rugby Aupiki as a vitally important way to start bridging the gap. The four-team competition will run through March, but despite it being a positive step in that every single player is paid to play, it remains a part time commitment with squads only assembling four days a week. Alley is a lifelong Chiefs fan and is hugely proud of being able to play for the club, but agrees the inaugural Aupiki competition is just a start.

“For us to grow as a nation in women's rugby and to be better as Black Ferns we need this level above FPC where we are getting more quality competition and performing under pressure. This is a start and I think it's going to be really successful; I can't believe it won't be with the teams that are going to be put out, and then it's over to NZR to help it grow to a bigger more meaningful comp.”  

A new year often brings the feeling of fresh start, and it certainly appears the full-time contracts are just that. But looming above everything is October’s World Cup and the nagging question of whether the Black Ferns have enough time to close the gulf to England and France and fix the large cracks that appeared last year. Alley knows the next few months are vital in sorting out the foundations for their World Cup defence.  

“Being really honest, there's work to do behind the scenes to get everything ticking and humming along nicely and aligned. The performance on the field is just the end of everything else that happens, so there's work to do but we've got an amazing leadership group and management team behind us. I know we're all working really hard to ensure we've got the best and most successful environment in a women's rugby team in the world.”

Rikki Swannell
Written by
Rikki Swannell

Sports broadcaster extraordinaire

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