While Black Ferns Sevens playmaker Niall Williams waits to see if a neck injury stops her from playing again, she’s discovered she still has more to give, she tells Gael Paton.
Niall Williams is playing the waiting game.
The serious neck injury which stopped her heading to the Tokyo Olympics may very well spell the end of a remarkable playing career.
“I’m still emotional when I think about it,” the Black Ferns Sevens star says. “I’ve always been such a tough person and played through injuries. But this one is different. Two discs in my neck compressed onto my spinal cord, and the specialist said, ‘You can’t play with this. Not this time’.
“This neck injury is a different kind of mental battle because there’s nothing I can do about it. The hardest part is trying to be okay with not being able to control it.”
Anyone who watched the heart-breaking Instagram post of a tearful Williams announcing she wouldn’t be joining the Black Fern Sevens at the 2021 Olympic Games will understand the depth of pain she was feeling. Her overwhelming sadness was intense and profound.
But there is so much more to this strong and determined sportswoman, as I learn on a Zoom call. Sitting comfortably in a hoody with her auburn hair piled loosely on top of her head, Williams – who’s scored 39 tries in 138 games for New Zealand – looks relaxed and in control of whatever life might bring.
Eight weeks after suffering her injury during a field training session, Williams had a scan and a specialist review. One disc had healed and gone back into place. The second disc had not. Another scan any day now will see if there’s been further improvement.
“It’s a wait-and-see,” she says. “Either way, I’ll be okay. If it hasn’t healed, it’s likely that my journey playing sevens will end.”
What Williams has discovered through all of this, though, is at the age of 33 and having played top-tier sport for 20 years, she still has more to give. It may not be on the field, but she’s pragmatic there’s more to life, and she’s ready for it.
“I’d like to think I could still have a place amongst elite athletes where I can bring all these years of learning, knowledge and resilience to the table and play a part in mentoring young sportspeople,” she says.
Sport has always played a big part in her life and she’s grateful to her parents, Lee and John, for encouraging and supporting her since her early sporting days. Williams laughs and says all her family – brothers Johnaurthur, Sonny Bill, and her twin sister Denise – were competitive and did well in any sports events they entered.
Williams also pays tribute to touch legend Peter Walters for having an impact on her sports career. Walters is the most capped player in international touch with a staggering list of achievements, playing and coaching in New Zealand and globally. He also had a successful career coaching women’s sevens here and in the United States.
Williams played touch at a representative level for more than 10 years and went on to be a great captain of the Touch Blacks women.
“I saw Niall play in a social touch tournament as a 13-year-old and asked her straight away if she wanted to play higher level touch as I could see the potential in her,” Walters says. “She was a super-talented athlete who had a natural feel and instincts for sport.”
Walters has also witnessed Williams playing through injury and pain and considers her one of the toughest athletes he’s ever coached.
“She has a very high pain threshold,” he says, recalling Williams once played an entire trans-Tasman campaign with a ruptured ACL.
In 2011 at the touch World Cup women’s final in Scotland, Walters remembers Williams dislocating her shoulder and her very clear request to ‘Just put the f***ing thing back in’. Medical staff did as they were asked, and Williams continued playing.
“She was very skeptical at first saying things like, ‘Do we have to tackle?’” – Williams’ first sevens coach, Peter Walters.
But there was a time Williams almost gave up on touch – and possibly sport – altogether. “When I was 19, I had an ACL injury that needed surgery. There was a long stretch when I didn’t play or train. Although I went to touch nationals in 2009 for Auckland, I wasn’t selected for the Touch Blacks team that year… I’d been slack in my rehab and fitness,” she says.
Instead of accepting her fate and moving forward, Williams says she got angry, blamed others and decided she was never going to play again. Her legendary sporting brother, Sonny Bill, came to her aid, and she moved to Christchurch at the end of 2010, where he helped her get back on track with her nutrition and fitness. After a while, she started playing touch again.
Walters also supported her return to the game and invited Williams and her partner, Tama Guthrie, on tour to play and coach touch in Europe and the US. Williams says it was the catalyst that helped her appreciate touch again and got her sports career back on track.
In 2013, the world of rugby sevens was evolving. “Pete [Walters] was pretty much my gateway to sevens. He told me a few times, ‘They’re doing a Go for Gold campaign’ and that I should look at doing it,” Williams says. Go for Gold was a NZ Rugby recruitment programme to find talented female athletes in the lead-up to sevens becoming an Olympic sport in 2016.
At the time, Williams didn’t think sevens was for her. “She was very sceptical at first saying things like, ‘Do we have to tackle?’,” Walters recalls. “But I knew she had courage, transferable skills and power.”
When Walters took on the head coach role for the Auckland women’s sevens team, Williams decided she’d go to a training to see what it was all about. Allan Bunting was the assistant coach at the time and Williams says, “I asked him a thousand questions because I was just a touch player and everyone else in the team were veterans.”
Then she played sevens for Auckland for a couple of years and loved the experience. She made the Black Ferns Sevens on a training contract in 2015, and won silver at the Rio Olympics. After that, she was on a full-time contract.
Williams now has a leadership role within the Black Ferns Sevens, which has evolved over time. “Like I do for my own kids, I’d do anything to see these young ones succeed,” the mother of two daughters says. “Sometimes that means being nice, and sometimes it’s giving them a reality check.”
There are times she reminds her younger teammates they’re living the dream, but no one knows when things might change – an injury, for example, could see the dream end.
This could well be Williams’ reality, depending on what her next scans reveal.
When the Black Ferns Sevens headed to the Oceania championship in Townsville, enroute to the Tokyo Olympics, Williams says she was in denial. “In my head I was thinking, ‘Maybe it will come right, and I can fly straight to the Olympics’. I started giving myself false hope, even though I already knew what the outcome was,” she says.
While Williams was happy and supportive of the Black Ferns Sevens on their Olympics journey, there were a few times she says were extremely hard for her. The first was watching them run out for their opening game in Townsville against the Oceania Barbarians. “I was actually like, ‘Oh, I’m not there for real’,” she says.
Seeing her number four jersey presented to someone else was “really tough”. The hardest moment, though, was watching the team receiving their Olympic gold medals.
“I’d envisioned being with them at that moment for the last five years,” she says.
To help her get through her grief, Williams supported the other sevens squad members who didn’t make it to the Olympics. She took it upon herself to be a leader for them.
“I built a new connection with some of the players that I didn’t have before. They gave me a sense of purpose, to get up every day. There were definitely days I just wanted to stay in bed, but the girls still had to train, and I needed to be strong for them,” Williams says.
At first, she could only ride a stationary bike for short periods of time and recalls looking around the empty gym as the women were outside training and thinking, ‘Why am I here, why did this happen to me?’
She reflects on the time at 20, when she nearly gave up sport altogether. That disappointment mentally challenged and almost beat her. Not going to the Olympics has also been extremely hard, but this time, she says, she was able to draw on years of learning to help her.
“There are three pillars I rely on to give me strength – gratitude, empathy and mindfulness,” Williams says.
“I’ve realised these pillars come from my family upbringing and from the people around me. Mum and Dad, my partner, Tama, my two daughters – Tatum-Lee and Rema-Rae – family and friends are all helping me get through this.”
One thing is for sure, William’s contribution to women’s sport is remarkable and wherever the next stage of this journey leads her, she will do it with her trademark strength and determination.