A reset was needed and “people first” would be at the heart of that change. Led by new coach Allan Bunting and a large, diverse leadership group, the Black Ferns Sevens set course on what would turn out to be a five-year path to not only win gold at the Tokyo Olympics and be world dominant but to enhance the mana of the jersey and inspire people.
In her new book, Sevens Sisters, veteran sports broadcaster Rikki Swannell goes deep into the team’s culture, interviewing players, coaches and management to explain how their unique approach has shaped their success.
This extract is taken from a chapter called ‘Authentic Selves’.
There are the sleepers, the dancers, the organisers, the planners. The ones who’ll happily catch the ball and run fast and others who’ll dissect and break down every pass, step and tackle.
Attacking leaders, defensive strategists and cultural guides, the Litty Committee, in charge of making sure there’s always a ‘vibe’, and the OGs — the originals, not the oldies. It’s a melting pot of characters, personalities, diverse backgrounds and different cultures, but everyone has their role and knows where they fit in because in putting people first, each member of the Black Ferns Sevens has learned their own value and how they contribute to the collective.
At its heart sevens rugby is a game of space and time, or sometimes the lack of it. But it’s also a game of freedom and expression, seeing what’s in front of you and going for it — in sevens there’s no room for hesitation. The philosophy behind the culture of the team was such that if a player could be free off the field, be truly themselves, that would translate on the field…it would be a culture that would again underpin performance.
Whanaungatanga is a sense of belonging, and coach Allan Bunting wanted to create a team environment where people could turn up and not have to pretend or speak differently, a place where everyone could be who they are, and everyone felt worthy.
“The most important thing about having mana is authenticity; how do you walk into an environment with different people, in different places, with things all around you and be comfortable remaining who you are?” asks Bunting. “The minute you start changing how you look, how you speak, how you communicate to fit into a group, that’s when you don’t bring yourself and all the beautiful things you’ve got to give, as well as all the things you need to work on.”
Bunting concedes that’s a very hard thing for anyone to do, so he had to live it as well. “I had to role-model that. I didn’t ask everybody to be authentic, I just tried my best every day through my own challenges to be it, and then it opened a window of humility and authenticity.”
Opening a space for anyone to come in and share genuinely how they’re feeling is well and good, but for some players, many of whom are still in their early twenties, it is a work in progress. Trying to find who your ‘authentic self’ is while also in the pressure cooker of professional sport is about as rare a path as anyone could attempt to traverse.
“My identity piece is a forever evolving thing, but it was that understanding point of I can be so much better than what I just think of myself,” says Gayle Broughton. “Once I really started to understand that, along with the relationship I had with Bunts and him growing me as a person and not an athlete, it was really cool, and he was helping everyone do that. So, it was like a constant cycle of people wanting to be better humans . . . We were already great athletes, but if we could be better humans, the athlete part was also going to grow,” Broughton says.
“It’s up to you whether you come in and be real or not and decide who you want to be in the team,” says Shiray Kaka. “But I do think that it is such a safe space to be whoever you want to be, and when one person, like Ruby, leads the way then the next jumps on and then the next. It does, though, only take one person to try to pull the waka in another direction, and I’m someone who can bring a whole ship down so that was something that I had to work on 100 per cent before coming back into the team. But when you are inspired by each other and the management, who are so authentically themselves, it makes it easy for us to want to be the same.”
The Black Ferns Sevens are training at Murrayfield before next week’s Commonwealth Games campaign kicks off.
Given management also had a huge say as to whether a player has a good day or a bad day when selecting a team, Kaka says at least they always knew where they stood. “Ultimately, they decided whether you were on that field or not, but I just couldn’t be mad at them because I knew that all they wanted was whatever was best for the team. And they’re honest, they’re truthful. If you have questions for them they will answer them, so yeah, it’s just an easy place to be yourself.”
By and large, what you see is what you get. Ruby Tui is fun, quick-witted and passionate, Portia Woodman is big-hearted, Gayle Broughton loves to dance and, yes, Stacey Fluhler is, more often than not, smiling.
“When I was younger, I used to get embarrassed when I stuffed up and worry more about what other people thought. When I was first in this team, I probably had a bit of a shell and came across as quite shy, but once I started to play more I started to show who I really was,” says Fluhler. “I am driven to do things off the field and achieve outside of rugby as well and I’m not shy to be me . . . my nickname from Niall is ‘Annoying’ because I am energetic and bubbly and happy; that’s me and I’m not pretending to be someone else. I think the more I’ve expressed myself off the field with my culture, with my study, whatever it is, I’ve got better at rugby and not been scared to give things a go and stuff up.”
The key for Bunting in helping players look into and find out more about themselves was understanding who they were before they became a Black Ferns Sevens squad member.
“When you get to a point where they can actually talk about their story and where they come from, you understand that everybody in that environment doesn’t start on the same starting line; there’s some players who are amazing at sport and great people, but they’re actually starting way outside the stadium and they need some work to get to the starting line,” Bunting says.
“Shiray has a competitive fire as a player and is unfazed by any occasion, but the journey she’s been through is absolutely different, so her growth has been around all of this other stuff, and she learned she could come to me and offload and get some guidance through that. You can still get the best out of people and not kick them out of your environment, and Shiray’s great qualities might have been lost elsewhere.”
Bunting also cites Broughton as another who, like Kaka, started off in a different place. “She’s had to survive in a really rough environment, and I have real empathy for that, so it was how we could grow awareness around that and give her support so she could navigate her way through it, and still be this great rugby player and person.”
After the team regathered following the 2016 Olympics, a core of players formed the leadership group as Bunting recognised the need to put more support around Sarah Hirini. Back in the day, leadership groups in most sports teams used to happen by osmosis, largely based on how many caps a player had as opposed to their leadership qualities, but now they form a core part of success in any top-level side.
The Black Ferns management wanted to ensure voices like those of Tui, Nathan-Wong, Brazier and Williams were never silenced and each player found their niche within the group. Brazier and Nathan-Wong led all things rugby, particularly on attack.
Tui and Williams would not only be critical to the defensive strategy but also to leading the off-field culture, while Woodman and Fluhler looked after the te ao Māori side of culture, imparting their knowledge about haka and waiata which were elements so central to the heart of the team. Theresa Fitzpatrick would also join the group in the year leading up to Tokyo.
For Hirini it felt like she could become a facilitator, rather than having to take it all on her shoulders.
“It became so much easier because we all had a voice and we were able to pass information, the management and leaders were totally aligned and I think what was probably a key turning point for me is that Bunts allowed us to be ourselves as leaders,” says Hirini. “Generally, my job was going to the coaching group if there was an issue, and it’s not because the other players didn’t want to or couldn’t, it’s just that’s probably where my role fell over time to be that communicator and to go back and forth to both groups.”
In looking at who could form a leadership group, Bunting could see who his ‘alpha females’ were, the ones who would be followed whichever door they went through, even if it was the wrong door. Tui became a significant figure in meeting that ideal, as was Williams, who was initially surprised to be included given her relative inexperience in rugby. Williams says they took it upon themselves to set a standard.
“For the first couple of years we definitely put ourselves out there to lead and be an example from the front. We really did set the platform of that connection between the management, our kawa, our vision and just bred it through the team,” says Williams. “We lived and breathed it and the games and tournaments were almost a reward for the courage, character and work ethic of the leaders, and we always earned our jerseys.”
* Extract from Sevens Sisters: How a people-first culture turned silver into gold, by Rikki Swannell (Upstart Press, $39.99RRP).