As the ANZ Premiership finally returns tonight, Suzanne McFadden speaks to Jenna O’Sullivan, who holds down two very different careers demanding excellence – one on the court, the other in the paddock.
In the back of Jenna O’Sullivan’s ute, there’s a pair of gumboots and a pair of netball shoes, which hold equal importance. There also used to be banks of bull semen back there, which her Magic team-mates found hilarious.
But O’Sullivan doesn’t mind the ribbing.
She’s living her best life – playing elite netball for the Waikato BOP Magic, while playing ‘matchmaker’ to the best cows and bulls in the country.
How the 27-year-old manages two full-on careers is staggering. “I love both things equally, and I would have hated to have to make a decision between them,” she says. “But I think I do a reasonable job at fitting in both.”
The Magic defender reached the heights of elite netball later than most – having followed her farming dream to the United Kingdom, then realising afterwards how much she’d missed competitive sport.
In her day job, O’Sullivan is a regional breeding manager for CRV Ambreed, one of the world’s largest herd improvement companies.
It’s a full-time job helping dairy farmers “achieve the best possible herd”, and as the ANZ Premiership cranks into gear again this weekend, she works, she says, whenever she’s not at netball.
O’Sullivan grew up in a Taranaki family of farmers who were also mad about sport – which for her turned out to be the perfect combination.
“Ever since I was little, I loved cows,” she says. “I loved the breeding, the family lines and milking nice cows. That was where my passion was – in the genetics of farming.”
At the same time, she was playing netball – making Taranaki age-group rep sides from the age of 15, and continuing to play while she studied for a Bachelor of Agri Commerce at Massey University.
“I think everyone grows up wanting to be a netballer. But I had a bit of a different pathway,” O’Sullivan says. “I didn’t think I could make netball my career, so I decided to go overseas instead.”
On a novel kind of OE, O’Sullivan worked on dairy farms across the UK and Ireland; farms that were using New Zealand grazing systems.
When she returned after two years and settled in the Waikato, she understood how much she’d missed the physical and mental challenges of netball. “So I decided to give it another crack, and one opportunity led to another,” she says.
In 2018, the rangy defender made the Waikato side in the Beko League, but with some impressive performances, leapt up into the Magic towards the end of the ANZ Premiership season covering for injury.
She earned a permanent place in the Magic squad last year, where she was able to learn from up-and-coming Silver Ferns star Kelly Jury, and one of the legends of the game, Casey Kopua, in her final season.
“As a kid, Casey was an idol of mine, so I felt really privileged to put on a Magic dress alongside her and Kelly in the defensive end. It was a great opportunity to learn from a fantastic player you aspire to be,” O’Sullivan says.
This year she’s holding up the defensive end alongside Silver Ferns development squad members Erena Mikaere and Holly Fowler, and rookie Georgia Tong.
“I was a little bit older making the Magic, but I suppose having good life experience and maturity means I’ve been able to handle the demands of it a bit better,” says O’Sullivan. “I’ve had lots of other experiences that help me now as an athlete too.”
For one, she’s used to being on the road. O’Sullivan lives in Matamata, so on days when the Magic have court training, she drives almost an hour around dawn to join the team in Hamilton, then heads off to work in her office, also based in the city. On the other days, she trains and works from home, or is out visiting farmers.
Throughout lockdown, she worked full-time and trained alone: “It made me realise how much I missed having a team around me.”
For the next month, O’Sullivan and her team-mates will catch a bus to Auckland every weekend for the ANZ Premiership – heading north on the morning of their match, and driving home that night. Their first game against the Mystics tonight is the opening clash of the revamped season.
O’Sullivan isn’t convinced many of her team-mates understand what she does away from the court.
“For people who aren’t connected to the dairy industry, it’s very hard to explain what I actually do for a job. So I just say I make bulls for a living,” O’Sullivan laughs. “Sometimes it’s quite technical, but it’s a lot of fun too.”
In essence, her role involves identifying the best dairy cows in the country, then working with farmers to create a mating that will produce top bull calves, which her company then buys.
She finds the cows on a national database, poring over their traits and breeding values. She looks for cows with, among other things, good udders, efficient milk production and strong fertility to create “the perfect package”.
“Quite often, the owners of the animals want to work with us, because it’s quite prestigious. They’re really excited that a cow has been identified as one of the best and a breeding company wants to work alongside them,” she says.
O’Sullivan says she’s privileged to work for CRV. “There are only two of us who do the role. They are few and far between,” she says. “And I’m lucky to have an employer who’s happy to support my netball goals as well.
“I’m very lucky that I get to pursue two dreams. Not many people do.”
Before O’Sullivan was in her breeding role, she worked as a field rep: “I worked with farmers around their whole herd needs, like delivering the bull semen off to the farm.
“Most of the [Magic] girls would giggle that I carried banks of semen in the back of my ute. It’s an essential part of life on a farm, but if you don’t come from a farm, you don’t have much of an understanding how it all works.”
As far as future goals go, O’Sullivan hopes to keep doing what she’s doing, both on the boards and on the land.
“I’m pretty content at the moment with how my life is going. But I’ll still jump on opportunities as they arise,” she says.
If balancing work and sport was not enough, O’Sullivan and her partner are also building a house in Matamata. “I like being busy. If I was just doing netball on its own, I’d be bored,” she says. “I just have to be organised and prepared, because there’s so much going on.
“That’s why I keep a spare pair of netball shoes behind the seat of my car, just in case I forget them.”
Training in gumboots just wouldn’t be smart.