Expecting her first child in a month’s time, Black Ferns captain Les Elder hopes her plan to be fit for next year’s Rugby World Cup will help future players coming back after pregnancy.  

If having great timing is one of the key components of being a good openside flanker, then Lesley Elder’s timing is impeccable.

The Black Ferns captain has a long hoped-for first baby due at the end of May. And with a Rugby World Cup on home soil next year, she has designs on helping retain the trophy – with her little one watching on.

But while the timing of her pregnancy couldn’t be better rugby-wise, it hasn’t been the smoothest journey for Elder and her husband, Johnny.

Elder concedes she’s a very planned and structured person and starting a family was no exception.  But planning in this instance was part necessity, after the couple had struggled to conceive over the past few years.

“It just hadn’t happened, so in 2018 we registered for the IVF list,” Elder, 33, says.

“We were actually meant to start in March 2019, but I’d just been named [Black Ferns] captain. So Fertility Associates – and I’m so thankful for this – allowed me to start treatment in September post the Black Ferns campaign, which they’d never usually do. They were so supportive.”

Having been warned to prepare for an emotional journey, Elder says she and Johnny were very fortunate.

“We got pregnant in the first round of treatment. We’ve got friends who’ve been doing it for two or three rounds. So if I put that into perspective, yes it was interesting and emotional, but compared to what others go through we count ourselves very lucky,” she says.

Elder has her sights firmly set on the World Cup to be held here in September next year, and it will be something of a test case in more ways than one.

Returning to elite sport after having a baby has become commonplace in some codes, but not quite so in rugby – let alone for the captain of the national team.

Carla Hohepa played for the Black Ferns last year for the first time since 2017, having had her second baby in that time, while another mum-of-two, Kayla Ahki (nee McAlister), is also attempting a comeback to the national sevens team and has regained a contract with New Zealand Rugby.

Les Elder breaks through for the Black Ferns against France in Toulon, 2018. Photo: Getty Images. 

Elder, who also works for Bay of Plenty Rugby, came off contract with NZR at the end of January and worked through the logistics with the Rugby Players Association and her manager.

“I’ve been lucky that they’ve kept me pretty connected with the [Black Ferns] group,” she says. “I’ve been involved in some meetings and catching up with coach Glen Moore. And then once I’m ready to start training again, then the conversation starts about what the contracting model looks like.”

Elder is full of praise for the work done by the RPA and team management to accommodate mothers and their babies while maintaining the needs of the squad. Having Hohepa’s baby son on tour with the Black Ferns last year created a whole different and enjoyable dynamic.

While the World Cup is the long-term goal, Elder is actually eyeing a return to play late this year should the Black Ferns schedule go ahead. She’s trained fully (excluding contact) right throughout her pregnancy, adapting exercises where needed and says it’s given her a new level of determination. Elder hopes her experiences will help others in the future.

“I’ve put myself forward as a bit of a guinea pig for New Zealand and Bay of Plenty Rugby to get some learning, do some research and trial different things, as I don’t think I’m going to be the last pregnant rugby player that has ambitions to come back,” she says.

Elder has been recording what physical work she’s been able to do, times taken to run certain drills and what adjustments have been made. Along with Black Ferns trainer Jamie Tout and BOP Rugby’s Slade King, Elder has also been working with physios Anna Ness and Alice Taylor. Women’s health guru Dr Stacy Sims has also provided support and advice.

“I am a first-time mum so I could be quite naïve about wanting to come back this year, and there might be a few mums out there laughing at me,” Elder says. “But at the same time, I’m flexible. I don’t know how my body will respond or if the baby might be more needy.”

Elder has a proven track record at bouncing back. In 2016, she suffered a badly broken leg, but tenaciously worked her way back into the Black Ferns squad who won the 2017 World Cup.

As organised as she is, Elder concedes she almost got caught out just over a month ago. With the Covid-19 lockdown coming nine weeks before her due date, the couple suddenly realised they were not close to being ready should Level four conditions be extended or if the baby came early. 

“We went crazy at Baby City and bought everything. A lot of our friends have kids, so the amount of gifts and hand-me-downs saved us – people were dropping stuff off right up to the day of lockdown,” Elder laughs.

It was one small blip on the path towards becoming parents that, while planned to a point, has also been winding – like it can be for so many.

As if a World Cup at home wasn’t inspiration enough, for the Black Ferns captain it will be extra special.   

“Being able to represent your country, put the black jersey on and be chosen to do that is special. But to be able to do that at a World Cup on home soil – I can’t even explain what a real dream come true that is,” Elder says with a sparkle in her voice.  

“To overcome the challenge of bouncing back after giving birth, knowing I’ll have my baby there with me is pretty exciting, and something I like to visualise to help bring that dream to reality.”

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