For the first time, the Black Sticks will wear the Anzac poppy emblazoned on their chests when they play Australia tomorrow.

It won’t be a first, though, for veteran goalkeeper Sally Rutherford – but it will still hold a special significance for her.

It’s not often New Zealand sports teams have worn the poppy on their uniforms. The All Blacks played with the floral symbol of war remembrance on their sleeves in the 2017 Armistice Day test against France; the Warriors will wear a special Anzac jersey in their NRL match with the Melbourne Storm tomorrow.

No one can recall the Silver Ferns ever wearing the poppy, because they rarely play internationals at this time of year.

But five years ago, Rutherford was part of the New Zealand lacrosse team who played their Aussie rivals in a historic Anzac clash celebrating 100 years since ‘the test that never was’.

In 1914, New Zealand and Australia were preparing for their first ever men’s lacrosse test, when World War 1 broke out. While the game survived in Australia after the war, lacrosse wasn’t resurrected in New Zealand until 2000.

Rutherford, who’s led a double international career for 18 years, wore the poppy in the women’s centenary test – which New Zealand won 31-0.

After playing at three World Cups for New Zealand, Rutherford’s lacrosse career has now wound down to the odd club match. As New Zealand’s most capped hockey goalie, her international focus is purely on the Black Sticks – in this year’s inaugural Pro League, and next year’s Tokyo Olympics.

Wearing the red poppy on her blue goalie shirt, Rutherford holds its significance close to her heart. Both of her grandfathers fought in World War 2, and her “adopted” grandfather was a prisoner of war survivor.

Her biological grandfathers, Laurence Grieves and James Rutherford, were both captains in the New Zealand army, who fought in the Pacific. “One was in logistics and the other in intelligence. They both passed away before I was born,” 37-year-old Rutherford says.

But the man she “looked up to” as her grandfather, close family friend Arthur Cowan, was a sergeant who fought in Europe, but was captured after being injured in battle in Libya. Held in two prisoner of war camps, in Italy and Germany, he was then forced to march 600km west across Europe in the midst of the freezing 1945 winter, before finally being liberated by American troops.

Cowan returned home to his farm, and become one of New Zealand’s great conservationists. A co-founder of the Native Forest Restoration Trust, Cowan saved forests and rivers throughout the country. He died five years ago at the grand age of 98.

“As I didn’t have a grandfather of my own growing up, the whole Cowan family adopted me, and I was just one of the grandchildren. I was so lucky to grow up in that environment,” Rutherford says.

“We always knew what happened to [Cowan] during the war, although he hardly ever talked about it. But it was always known that his love of the land was reinforced by that war experience.”

In remembrance of brave Kiwis like Cowan, the Black Ferns will gather in a circle with their Australian counterparts on the North Harbour Stadium field tomorrow, while a bugler plays the Last Post, before they observe a minute’s silence.

The New Zealand Defence Force women’s and men’s hockey teams will play the curtain-raisers to the Black Sticks women’s and men’s tests.

A digital rendering of what the poppies will look like on the Black Sticks’ playing kit for the Anzac Day test. Photo: Hockey NZ.

Rutherford hopes wearing the poppy will give the Black Ferns a “little extra oomph” for their second Pro League clash with Australia.

“There’s always that little edge when you come up against the Aussies, and we play even better when we have that something special, like the poppy,” she says.

The last time the two teams met – on March 17 in Sydney – the Black Sticks won 3-1. It was two days after the Christchurch mosque massacre. “That really brought New Zealand and Australia together, and it gave that game extra meaning,” Rutherford says.

This test holds other points of importance for the Black Sticks. 

Ten games into the Pro League – which features the world’s nine top hockey nations – New Zealand sits in sixth spot, with just four wins. The Australians are well within striking distance in fourth place.

The Black Sticks are desperate to improve on their performances, and play their way into the league semi-finals.

“Our inconsistency is certainly something we have to work on. We’ll go out and play extremely well in one game, and really quite poorly in the next,” says Rutherford. “That’s certainly something we can control, and we need to.”

It’s also the Black Sticks’ last home game before they embark on a tour of the United States and Europe.

“We’ve come off a couple of losses to China and Argentina, and after this game, we go into a four-week break. It’s super-important for the team’s morale that we put out a really good performance so we can go into the next block of games with our heads up,” Rutherford says.

She also sees tomorrow’s match as an opportunity to honour Sean Dancer, who will end his role as the stand-in Black Sticks’ head coach with this game.

Dancer has been in charge since fellow Australian Mark Hager quit the Black Sticks in January, after 10 years at the helm, to coach the Great Britain women. The Black Sticks’ new coach, former Irish international Graham Shaw, will pick up the clipboard next week, and stand in the dug-out at their next game, against the US in Pennsylvania, on June 1.

“Sean had done a pretty impressive job in a pretty tough situation for the last few months,” Rutherford says. “So it’s important we play well out there.”

She says she knows very little about Shaw, other than seeing him with the Irish women’s team at last year’s World Cup, where against all odds they made the final.  

“He seems like a nice, friendly guy. It will be great to have fresh ideas come into the team,” she says.

Like the Black Sticks side, Rutherford says her own form has been “a bit hit and miss” this season.  “Maintaining performance over a long period is something we need to get better at as a team, and something I need to improve on personally too,” the 178-test veteran says.

“The Pro League is taking a bit of getting used to. You have a massive build-up to one game, instead of the same build-up for 10.

“But there are some aspects of it that are really awesome. Getting to play home games against the best teams in the world is something we’ve rarely had. And it’s extremely good hockey.”

* The Black Sticks women play Australia at North Harbour at 2.30pm on Anzac Day, followed by the men’s international at 4.30pm.

Suzanne McFadden, the 2021 Voyager Media Awards Sports Journalist of the Year, founded LockerRoom, dedicated to women's sport.

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