Hazel Tubic is kind-of chuffed, yet also a little mortified.
When she was presented with her black jersey on the eve of the Pacific Four Series last month, some of her Black Ferns team-mates recognised it had been a while since she’d last pulled on the jersey for a test match.
Five years, to be precise, since she last played at fullback against Hong Kong in the 2017 World Cup in Ireland. “Time goes so fast, you forget just how long it’s been,” Tubic says.
But then one of the young rookies in the latest national squad piped up and asked 31-year-old Tubic if this was, in fact, her first time in the Black Ferns.
“And I said, ‘Oh no, I debuted quite a while ago’,” she laughs. “And that made me feel real old.”
Eleven years ago, to be exact, since she played her first test for New Zealand, against England in 2011.
Yet when Tubic ran out onto the field in Tauranga in the torrential rain last month, seamlessly slipping into the Black Ferns backline against Australia, she felt like she was starting anew.
“When you get on the field it feels like the first time again, because you’re so excited to be out there, representing your country,” says Tubic. And even though it was cold and wet, and her return to international rugby – just after halftime – caught her a little off-guard? “I enjoyed every moment of it.”
The farm girl from Te Kauwhata hadn’t expected much game time, if any, in the series, called into the squad late when young first five Patricia Maliepo was ruled out with concussion.
But when Tubic played at 10 in each of the three tests (making the starting 15 against Canada, inside captain Ruahei Demant at No.12), she immediately brought a calmness and consistency to the team – not to mention a potent kicking boot.
There’s no doubt the 14-test utility back strengthened her chance of making the Black Ferns team for their defence of the World Cup – their first on home soil – in October. That’s the sole reason the former Counties Heat captain returned to the international game.
She’ll put it all on the line tonight in the Black Ferns trial match at Pukekohe, her home ground.
Giving it a go – again
After the Black Ferns reclaimed ‘Nancy’ – their codename for the World Cup trophy – in Belfast in 2017, Tubic thought her days in the black jersey were over.
“I’d had that awesome opportunity being part of a team to win the World Cup, so I went overseas to play and thought that was my time done in the black jersey,” she says.
“I’d accepted that was the end.”
Tubic was playing professional sevens rugby for the Blue Angels in Nagato, southern Japan, and loving it. She’d been a Black Ferns Sevens player earlier in her career, winning the World Cup with her ‘Sevens Sisters’ in 2013.
And then in 2020, Tubic got a proposition from the Black Ferns coaching team.
“They asked if I’d be keen to come back and give it another crack. At first I was like, I’m really enjoying myself playing in Japan,” she says.
“Then I went and away and thought about it – playing in a World Cup, in front of your home crowd. So many Black Ferns through the years would have jumped at the chance to play at a World Cup in New Zealand. So, I thought I shouldn’t really throw away that chance when it’s right there in front of me.
“I decided, yeah, I’ll give it a go. I’ll give it my all. If I make it, that’s awesome – and if I don’t make it, I don’t make it. Either way I’ve given it a try.”
So after her third sevens season in Japan in 2020, Tubic came home and signed with NZ Rugby until the end of the World Cup (which at that stage was to be played in 2021).
“When it was put off for a year, I could have gone back to Japan for another season. But I’d been home for a year-and-a-half and I’d put in all the work to make the World Cup, so I wasn’t going to throw that away,” she says.
But she hopes to return to Japan one day, more likely as a coach. “I’m getting towards the end of my playing days, and my club in Japan said they’d be happy to help me get a coaching role if I decided to go down that pathway,” she says.
“But for now, I want to keep playing for as long as I still can.”
A new kick out of training
Since Tubic became a full-time Black Fern, one of 29 players contracted back in February, a whole new world of training has opened up to her.
“It’s the one-on-one skill time we get now,” she says. “Having new coaches come in and teach us different things, a new range of ways to do things.
“It’s always good to have someone else tweak something, and it suits you better. Getting those little skills has been really good for the girls.”
One of those tweaks has been to Tubic’s kicking game. The utility back turned out to be the most successful conversion kicker for the Black Ferns in the Pacific Four, converting three tries in the final test against the United States.
But it’s her kicking in the field of play where Tubic has really poured in effort under the Black Ferns’ new director of coaching, Wayne Smith.
“The way Smithy likes to play uses a bit different kicking to what most teams use,” she says. “It’s opened us up to learning a few different styles of kicking which has been really cool.
“We’re just homing in on those skills which previously we’d do for muck-around fun and they’re now actually in our game plan. We’ve had actual kicking coaches come in and put the time and effort in with us. As a No.10 or fullback, you need to be able to kick.
“I haven’t been doing a lot of goal kicking practice, but the general work with field kicking helps with my consistency, because you’re striking the ball, you’re getting used to that motion.”
Over the past few seasons, marshalling the Counties Heat attack with her smart kicking game, Tubic has discovered what works best for her kicking between the posts.
“I’ve been working on the limits you have and finding the good places on the field to kick from. Working out if I kick from this angle, I’m better further back or closer,” she says.
“Sometimes as a kicker you learn by watching TV and copying what they’re doing, but that might not be what works for you. These past few years I’ve been working out what works best for me.
“I just enjoy goal kicking anyway – and it doesn’t have to be in a game. I’ll just go out and kick some goals for fun.”
Hazel Tubic’s kicking game was an integral part of the Chiefs Manawa victory in Super Rugby Aupiki this year.
Tubic is enjoying working with the new Black Ferns coaching staff, who came into play in April, and have brought a new atmosphere to the side.
“Everyone knows the calibre of coaches they are. And Smithy brings real enthusiasm and enjoyment into the team,” she says. “He still tells us when we’re doing something wrong – he doesn’t sugar-coat it. But the girls are like, ‘Sweet’, and really take the feedback on board because we want to learn, we’re always trying to get better.”
Turning up the Heat
Tubic lives on her family’s dairy farm in Te Kauwhata, northern Waikato, the same farm she grew up on. Her parents, one sister and her family, still live there, too.
In summer, Tubic pulls her gumboots on and helps around the farm. But as the calving season quickly approaches, the busiest time in the farming year, Tubic has been given leave from helping out – considering it’s also the busiest time on the 2022 rugby calendar.
“I’ve been trying for a while to move closer to where we train, but it ends up easier staying on the farm,” she says. She drives to Hamilton to train in the Black Ferns hub, but drives in the other direction to train with the Heat. “So I live between the two,” she says.
“The farm is good place to get away from rugby, and enjoy the quiet peaceful life.” She also happily babysits her nieces.
Tubic is excited to play for Counties-Manukau again when the Farah Palmer Cup starts next weekend. The winner of the inaugural Fiao’o Fa’amausili Medal for FPC player of the year in 2017, she’s also the leading points scorer in Heat history.
“It’s awesome they’ve encouraged us to go back and play for our provinces for the whole season,” she says. “Even if we could only play one game, I’d still jump at the chance – I love playing for Counties.
“It’s so good for the younger girls in the side to be exposed to more of us fulltime rugby players, and hopefully it drives them to want that opportunity.”
Four of the Heat players feature among the 46 in tonight’s Black Ferns trial. Tubic, halfback Arihiana Marino-Tauhinu and winger Ruby Tui will play for the Rawata side (coached by Crystal Kaua and James Semple); prop Leilani Perese turns out for Ngalingali (coached by Anna Richards).
“You can feel everyone wants to put their best foot forward, because no one knows for sure they’ll be playing at the World Cup. So everyone is amped,” she says.
Tubic’s ability to play several positions from first-five through to fullback makes her a valuable proposition for a World Cup squad.
She admits she’s most comfortable at No.10, where she’s played most of her rugby, but she loves parts of the fullback role where she can attack more. “At 10, you’re more of a feeder, communicator and director. Fullback gives you more of a licence to have a go,” she says.
“Being a utility has its benefits, but when you’re a specialist you get to focus on that one spot which gives you more chance to get into the starting 15. But being in the 23 is awesome as well. At the end of the day, whatever role gets me into the team and onto the field, I’m happy to play.”
Regardless of whether she makes the cut for the Black Ferns’ World Cup side, Tubic is happy she signed up again.
“Just to have been around what’s happened in the team in the last few months has been awesome,” she says. “A lot of girls who haven’t been involved in any New Zealand rugby for a while have had the door opened to them, and it’s brought this cool feeling about women’s rugby. It’s cool to be part of that.”
* The Black Ferns trial, Rawata v Ngalingali, kicks off at Navigation Homes Stadium, Pukekohe, at 7.05pm on Friday, with live coverage on Sky Sport 1.