We hear her name every weekend in the country’s top women’s rugby competition. But former Black Ferns captain Dr Farah Palmer would rather toil quietly behind the scenes, making major strides for women and Māori in rugby.
Mana. It’s a well-known word and yet it’s true meaning carries so much significance and weight beyond this world.
Its supernatural force is said to be inherited from gods. And those who are gifted mana are able to lead, care and make decisions for their people.
It goes without saying Dr Farah Palmer’s mana is felt in all the arenas she stands in. And there are a few. But mana is also a word the former Black Ferns captain uses to describe her time on both the New Zealand and Māori rugby boards.
“How do I help with enhancing mana? Through what I do on the Māori Rugby Board for Māori rugby, and with NZ Rugby for all people involved in the sport. For me, that’s the driver,” says Palmer, who became the first female on the NZR board in 2016 and is now chair of the Māori Rugby Board, where she’s served for nearly 15 years.
In her day job, Palmer is associate dean – Māori – at Massey University’s business school in Palmerston North, where she and her family live.
An Officer of the New Zealand Order of Merit for services to women’s rugby and sport, she was also appointed to the Sport New Zealand board in 2018.
You get the feeling that working at a level where looking towards a vision and being analytical is her superpower.
“I’ve always been a big picture person,” says Palmer. “I loved playing rugby, but if I can help people see other opportunities to build confidence, feel good about themselves and then go and do other things, that’s what I see as the greater benefit of sport.”
By the end of her NZR term – it’s not planned anytime soon – she’s hoping to leave “structural and constitutional changes.”
“I’m also hoping to continue reinforcing the value of women’s rugby and women’s sport in general,” Palmer says.
She’s already making metres in those areas. Bridging a connection between the NZR and Māori rugby is one strategic move for the World Rugby Hall of Famer.
Among the achievements on her watch, the Māori rugby board presented their strategic plan and vision to NZR for the first time, and the regional Māori boards are now part of the forum for provincial CEOs and chairs.
“I’m trying to embed it into the system now so that it’s normal,” says Palmer.
And in the Massey University environment, she has a similar purpose. Palmer’s role is trying to help the business school with applying Tiriti-led principles in everything they do.
“If I disappear or that role no longer exists, it’s built into the strategy and policies,” she says.
Perhaps her strategic mindset was the reason she stayed on top of a rugby career for just over 10 years, only losing one test out of her 35 in her time in the international game. Thirty of those test she captained the Black Ferns, and lifted the Rugby World Cup three times while at the helm.
Palmer did take some losses after her retirement from playing in 2006, when she tested other roles before finding her calling in academia and governance.
“I wanted to give back to the sport that had given me so many opportunities, but I didn’t quite know how to do it,” says Palmer. “I tried my hand at coaching, but I was not very good at that.”
She even tried her hand at television presenting, on Māori TV’s sports show, Code, but “I was terrible at it,” she laughs.
“I’m not really good at thinking on my feet and being the funny front person. I find it quite exhausting because I’m more introverted. So for me being in front of the camera was hard and being a coach was the same.”
Even though Palmer realised those roles were not areas that “filled her cup”, they were still good for her.
“I love watching people coaching but it wasn’t the area I felt I could contribute to, so that’s when I figured I was better behind the scenes,” she says.
“I’m better at having time to think about something and then presenting my argument. Put me on a rugby field and I can think on my feet – but not anywhere else.”
As she found her way off the rugby field, Palmer enjoyed being a player development manager for the Manawatū Turbos men’s team. And she also had her two children – Cody in 2009, and Paige in 2012.
She’s always been inclined to influence areas to make a difference. In her high school days at Piopio College, Palmer was up-in-arms over the school not having a girls’ cricket team, so she wrote a letter to the school administrators. She then became the student representative on the school’s board of trustees – gaining valuable governance experience towards her transition from player to board member later in her career.
Governance, Palmer says, is like teamwork on a rugby field. “Everybody has their different strengths but together that’s where the magic happens.”
It’s scary to think her ground-breaking path may not have happened. She only picked up rugby after leaving her family farm in Piopio – having received a scholarship to attend the University of Otago in 1991.
Palmer took up one of four scholarships that were part of an initiative to get more Māori as secondary school physical education teachers. She wouldn’t have been able to attend university without it.
Once her foot was in the door, she went all the way to PhD level and focused on Māori women and girls in school sports for her doctorate research topic. She looked at the impact sport and physical education had on their identity, their opportunities and well-being.
“I’m a bit of an opportunist. I don’t think I ever had a clear idea of where I was going to end up; I just liked to do my best at whatever I was doing at that point in time,” says Palmer, who was the first in her family to attend university.
Next year she will experience the first World Cup in the Southern Hemisphere for the women’s format, when the 12 teams arrive in New Zealand for the pinnacle event on the 15s game calendar.
“I am fizzing, I’m absolutely excited. I have my fingers, toes and eyes crossed hoping that everything works out well. There aren’t many moments where I feel giddy and when I won the World Cup as a player, I felt giddy,” says Palmer.
“Then when I went to World Rugby in Ireland to try to win the [World Cup hosting] bid and we got it, I felt that giddiness again. I’m just so happy and excited that we can share with the rest of the world our love for rugby and women’s rugby in particular.”
Palmer is on the RWC 2021 committee and the best-case scenario for the tournament would be full stadiums in Auckland and Northland.
Another significant moment in Palmer’s career was being named the first woman on the NZR board – breaking a 124-year drought.
“It didn’t hit home until I had a mihi whakatau to welcome me. And I thought ‘shit this is big’,” she says.
This year she was joined by two more female board members – Jennifer Kerr and aspiring director Nicola O’Rourke.
“It’s lovely having more females on the board. They’re both amazing wāhine,” Palmer says. “It’s also great to have more diversity in terms of ethnicity with Sir Michael Jones and Bailey Mackey now.”
When she’s not engulfed in rugby, Palmer likes to spend time walking the dog with her family – Paige, Cody and husband Wesley Clarke, who’s the Black Ferns assistant coach.
“I also try to find time for myself. I like going to the gym and doing high intensity interval training and I play netball too,” says Palmer.
Kia Toa was her rugby club when she played in Manawatū, and she’s now shifted to the netball.
“They put me at centre. I’ve never played centre in my life but because I was fit, they put me there. And now my body is starting to break down and complain,” laughs Palmer. “But I just love it. I love playing in a team. I missed that.”
Her down-to-earth attitude is reflected in both her choice of wedding venue, and the way she feels about hearing her name every time the national women’s competition is mentioned: the Farah Palmer Cup.
“It just feels so weird but I am getting used to it. I’m not flinching every time I hear it on television now,” Palmer says.
She met her husband at a coaching course at the Sport Rugby Institute in Palmerston North towards the end of her playing career.
“But it wasn’t until a couple of years later we got together. We were dithering about where to get married and I just said ‘Let’s get married at the Sport Rugby Institute, it’s where we met, we’re both rugby heads’. So yeah, we got married there which is quite funny,” Palmer says.
Their home is steeped in rugby and Palmer says if her husband had his way, they would live and breathe rugby all the time. “But I kind of need a break from it so we balance each other out,” she says.
Fair enough, considering the mountains this mana wahine is moving.
But give her half the chance and she’ll play the ‘wins’ down. She much prefers working quietly in the background for ‘game-on-the-line’ meaningful change.