In some ways, it was the pure symmetry that appealed to Honey Hireme. Having begun her sporting life as a Dragon – of the Putaruru variety – book-ending it with a stint at St George Dragons just felt right.
That is, of course, if a new adventure that begins in earnest on Sunday evening at Suncorp Stadium, with a match against the Brisbane Broncos in the fledgling NRL women’s competition, proves to be the 37-year-old cross code superstar’s last hurrah.
She’s hinting that it might be.
“I’m not sure what I’m up to post this,” Hireme chuckles. “I’m definitely considering retiring. You can quote me on that. But I did have an article 10 years ago where I said that!”
For Hireme, a prodigious talent who graduated from the ranks of junior boys’ rugby league into a senior women’s competition at 12 and then on to represent her country in league, rugby union and rugby sevens world cups, the NRL women’s competition has come both just in time and a few years too late.
Having the best part of a month in Wollongong training as a fully professional league player, Hireme wonders just how good she could have been had she enjoyed that luxury for her entire career. Then again, having paid her own way for much of her storied career, she has a deep appreciation of the opportunity now presented by an NRL contract.
“I wake up and all I have to worry about is training,” she says four days out from her Dragons debut. “And then after training it is like ‘Cool, that’s my job’. And obviously having the security of knowing that my family is being financially looked after back home while I’m doing what I love doing, that makes a big difference.
“It makes me probably wish that I was 10 years younger, so I’d be able to experience this a bit longer. But I’m actually really grateful that I’ve come through where I’ve come through, where we were paying for it, that makes me so much more grateful.”
Hireme’s generation will go down as true pioneers of women’s rugby, a sport that is now flourishing in New Zealand primarily via the union code and in Australia thanks to creation of the women’s NRL competition. Hireme was in fact one of the first women to receive a professional contract from New Zealand Rugby to play sevens, but the majority of her career was played purely for the joy of it.
“It was cool to be a part of that,” she says. “To see the young girls coming through now, they can literally step out of high school and into a full-time professional sporting career. But all of us that have come from that era, even if they didn’t give us contracts for this competition, we probably would have found a way to be in it.”
And so to the call of the Dragon. Hireme started her footy career playing with boys for the Putaruru Dragons as a seven-year-old. She grew up idolising Wally Lewis and Mal Meninga, and later Stacey Jones. For much of her childhood, she was optimistic she would grow up to be them.
“I grew up playing against boys so my role models were males. It wasn’t until I got to like 12 that I realised that, actually, I can’t be those people because they are males.”
With that realisation came the reality check that she would never be an NRL player. Or so it seemed for the longest time. When the opportunity came up nine months ago, Hireme was widely expected to be a key cog in the Warriors. She was, however, top of several clubs’ wish lists and, ultimately, the Dragons won the battle for her services.
“It is the biggest question I get asked: ‘Why not the Warriors?’” Hireme says.
“I started out as a Dragon with Putaruru and it felt right to become a Dragon again.
“But it was also about getting out of my comfort zone and trying something different. You don’t know what you don’t know unless you give it a go. In order to continue to grow and learn, I thought trying out a different environment might be good for me.”
And it has already been good for her – particularly soaking up the excitement the competition has produced in one of rugby league’s true heartlands.
“I go down to my local coffee shop and, obviously I stick out a bit being a Kiwi, but they are like ‘Are you here playing the league?’ And every newspaper that I have opened almost every day I have been here has something about the women’s comp. I’m like ‘Far out that is really cool’.”
She doesn’t think the ‘defection’ of the likes of herself and fellow Kiwi Ferns star Teuila Fotu-Moala – who joined the Broncos – will dent the Warriors’ prospects.
“Obviously most of those girls are very good friends of mine. I’ve played alongside most of them through the Kiwi Ferns. So I know they have got a ton of skill and talent and experience in that team. And what the New Zealand teams are known for is that mongrel, that aggression.
“They have got so much talent to pick from anyway. Even with a few of us coming out of there, the girls they have picked in those positions are awesome players.”
While the inclusion of just four teams created plenty of angst among clubs who missed out, it will ensure a high standard of play – which will be vital for the competition’s credibility in its inaugural year.
“It’s good that they have made it a small competition to start with because it is going to be a tough competition, and that is what you want,” Hireme says. “For credibility, you want it to be tough. That’s exactly what they’ve done.
“I’m nervous but excited. I think the teams are evenly spread. And because this is the first competition it is really hard to know what to expect. On paper some of these teams are like ‘Wow’. But then I look at our team and it might not be the best on paper, but I train alongside these girls and think ‘Man, you are going to shock some people’.”
And, of course, this is just the start. Hireme expects the competition to grow rapidly.
“I wouldn’t be surprised if the competition doubles and then gets keeps bigger from there. Just as women’s rugby is on the rise in New Zealand, women’s rugby league is here – I have just been overwhelmed with how much support it has here.”
While she hints at retirement after this campaign, it’s hard to picture Hireme walking away just as the sport is taking off.
“But I’m 37 and I’ve been playing for 30 years really,” she says. “I’ve got a photo of me as a little Putaruru Dragon seven-year-old.”
Now, she has another photo for her collection.
— HoneyHireme (@HoneyHireme) September 6, 2018