Theresa Fitzpatrick has put her medical degree on hold to help a sizzling Black Ferns Sevens side, on a 24-game winning streak, defend their world title. Taylah Hodson-Tomokino reports.

At just 23, Theresa Fitzpatrick has won a rugby World Cup, a world sevens series, Olympic silver and Commonwealth Games gold.

Now the Auckland medical student – who grew up playing sport with a pair of All Black brothers, and her Silver Ferns sister – is hoping to add a sevens World Cup title to her impressive collection.

When the sevens World Cup kicks off in San Francisco in 10 days’ time, it’s a chance for the Black Ferns Sevens team to take care of unfinished business.

The ‘Sevens Sisters’ are in lethal form coming off a Commonwealth Games gold medal and three consecutive world sevens’ series tournament wins in Kitakyushu, Langford and Paris. Despite their current dominance, it was Australia who took home the world sevens series title after New Zealand got off to a slow start last December at the Dubai leg of the tournament.

Fitzpatrick describes her team’s latest victory in Paris as “bittersweet.” They thumped Australia 33-7 in the final, but were just three competition points short of snagging the series. “We didn’t start the season as well as we could, but we’ve taken good learnings from that and we’ve been able to build from there,” she says.

And build they have. New Zealand topped the series statistics with a whopping 153 tries, and are on a 24-game winning streak since their loss to Australia in the Sydney sevens final. The team recorded their highest-ever score and winning margin against the Aussies in the Langford sevens final with an emphatic 46-0 win.

Although Fitzpatrick has become a regular in the sevens’ game-day squad, she never takes wearing the black jersey lightly.

“It’s something extremely special that I never take for granted. To be able to represent not only your country, but also your family, on the world stage is, it sounds cliché, but a dream come true.”

Fitzpatrick describes her parents as her number one motivators, and attributes a lot of her success to her family. “They are my biggest critics, but also my biggest supporters. Everything I do is because of them and I’m truly grateful to have such an amazing support system,” she says.

Her sister is former Silver Fern and in-form Central Pulse defender Sulu Fitzpatrick. The two played in the same sports teams as children and “are both very competitive, but also both love joking around and having fun”.

The sisters share a close bond because they understand what each other is going through – in training, being away from family, and the general pressure of games and tournaments. Theresa, the younger of the two, says she was able to get a gauge on what the professional sports environment was like from her sister before she entered the New Zealand sevens environment.

Fitzpatrick also shared a rugby team with current All Black brother duo Akira and Rieko Ioane, in the Ponsonby under 13s.

I was also very privileged to play representative touch rugby for Auckland alongside Fitzpatrick – although I don’t come close to the calibre of those players!

But what I can attest to is her humility and determination to work hard in every team. She epitomises what it is to be a supportive and reliable team player – and also the player we searched for on the field when we needed a miracle try.

Fitzpatrick is a special talent on and off the field. Before being contracted to the Black Ferns sevens team, she was studying a bachelor of medicine at the University of Auckland.

Travelling the world on sevens duties and studying full-time isn’t possible, so she tries to fit in a paper here and there towards her health sciences degree. The university has reserved a place for her at the medical school once her career draws to a close.

Her immediate task is to win gold in San Francisco, as the Black Ferns Sevens defend their 2013 world title.

New Zealand and Australia have a strange see-saw battle for supremacy in sevens. Australia won the Rio Olympics, New Zealand won the series. New Zealand won the Commonwealth Games, Australia won the series.

“There will always be that big trans-Tasman rivalry between us and, as the world series champions, they will be a threat. But so will many other countries, especially with the knockout format of the World Cup,” Fitzpatrick says. “Every game will be treated like a final and we’ll need to perform and show up to every game no matter the opposition. There are no second chances.”

Unlike any of the other world series tournaments, the World Cup starts with a round of 16. If you win a game, you progress. If you lose, you automatically drop out in to the lower-tiered competition. It really is do or die for these teams, and something no one on the circuit will be used to.

It’s not uncommon to drop a game in pool play and go on to win a tournament – but with this format, that’s no longer possible. Because the competition splits up in to a top and bottom eight from the first round, some teams can play as little as two games, and a maximum of four. New Zealand and Australia are ranked first and second seeds respectively and, by way of the draw, should meet in the final if they win all their matches.

Fitzpatrick says the Black Ferns have trained hard during “a big couple of weeks” of trial camps and in-house games at their base in Mount Maunganui.  “Everyone has put their best foot forward these past couple of weeks to best prepare for our last tournament of the season,” she says.  

The Black Ferns sevens and XVs teams have been making waves with their fantastic results, and female rugby participation in New Zealand is the highest it’s ever been. A win in San Francisco can only build on that momentum.

“Knowing there are people out there looking at us as role models for inspiration, and that we’re motivating younger ones, also motivates me,” says Fitzpatrick. “The culture of our team is definitely a priority for us and that means that, wherever we go and whoever we meet, our goal is to leave mana in our wake.”

Taylah Hodson-Tomokino is a former national BMX champion and Samoa Sevens rugby player, sports commentator and LockerRoom columnist.

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