After a spate of injuries that could easily have ended their careers, rugby couple Renee Wickliffe and Portia Woodman have helped each other back into the Black Ferns to defend the World Cup at home next month. Suzanne McFadden was at the team naming.
Whāia te iti kahurangi, ki te tuohu koe, me he maunga teitei
Seek the treasure that you value most dearly, if you bow your head, let it be to a lofty mountain.
The whakataukī – or proverb – former Black Ferns captain Farah Palmer spoke before naming the 32 players to defend the Rugby World Cup next month would have resonated with some of those wāhine more than others.
It’s about perseverance and endurance, refusing to let obstacles get in the way while striving to reach goals.
It speaks to the courage of veteran lock Charmaine McMenamin, who a year ago wasn’t sure if she’d ever play rugby again after surgery on her spinal cord.
And the determination of prop Awhina Tangen-Wainohu, who only made her Black Ferns debut last month – after getting fit to become a “better mum” to her now two-year-old son led to her discovering a passion for rugby.
But it also perfectly illustrates the perseverance and fightback of Renee Wickliffe and her fiancée, Portia Woodman, who’ve each had to overcome more than their fair share of cruel injuries since they both won the World Cup five years ago.
Wickliffe’s most recent injury list reads: knee surgery, torn ankle ligaments and a reconstruction that went awry when a screw snapped (she still has painful metal fragments in her ankle). Olympic sevens champion and try scoring phenomenon Woodman tore her Achilles four years ago, quickly followed by a hamstring injury, which altogether kept her sidelined for two years.
They’ve helped each other through some dark times. Times when Wickliffe – a World Cup winner in 2010 and 2017 – really wanted just to give up rugby.
“I’ve had to push through the pain; it’s taken a lot of perseverance and resilience, I guess,” 35-year-old Wickliffe says. “I remembered why I started in the game, my passion for it, and what rugby has provided me in life. I feel like I owe it so much.”
When the couple, who’ve been together since 2013, were back on their feet and bursting across the international field again, they discussed what had previously seemed impossible.
“We talked about it earlier in the year – how cool it would be to play alongside each other in a World Cup here at home,” utility back Wickliffe says. “I don’t know how we manifested it, but here we are now. It’s very special.”
Wickliffe was “overwhelmed” when she got the phone call from her old Black Ferns sevens coach, Allan Bunting – now the new manager of the Black Ferns’ culture and leadership – to say she’d made it into the side for her fourth World Cup (halfback Kendra Cocksedge will also play at her fourth this time).
In the past few days, the Black Ferns coaching team have either called, or sat down with, more than 60 women’s players to deliver messages of congratulations or commiserations.
“It was a special call from Bunts, he’s such an amazing human,” Wickliffe says. “I debuted for the Black Ferns in 2009, and I still remember that first phone call – and I feel just the same right now.”
But she also felt relief when she got a call from Woodman yesterday – who’d learned she was in the team just as she was about to board the flight home from Cape Town, having just won silver at the Sevens world championships.
“I’m glad she rang me straight away, because if I’d only found out at the announcement, that would have been awkward,” Wickliffe laughs, sitting in the College Rifles clubrooms in Auckland where the team was publicly announced on Tuesday afternoon.
“I wouldn’t have known what to do with myself. So I had time to prepare.”
Woodman arrives home today.
Wickliffe is grateful she had the chance to play for the Bay of Plenty Volcanix in this season’s Farah Palmer Cup: “To be totally honest, I felt I played well for the first time again. It’s taken me so long to enjoy the game again.
“I wasn’t thinking about making the Black Ferns – if I get too far ahead of myself, it gets cluttered. So I enjoyed every moment I got, put my hand up and that’s why I’m here.”
Which ties in with Black Ferns assistant coach Whitney Hansen’s description of the kind of rugby player they were looking for to win this World Cup. Of course they wanted fit, fast, explosive and powerful athletes who are good at rugby – “it’s not enough to just be able to scrummage anymore”.
Work rate was massive, but character was important, too.
And while Wickliffe’s versatility counted in her favour (“she can play anywhere from 12 to 15,” director of coaching Wayne Smith pointed out), her experience, resilience and leadership also helped her.
“It’s taken huge drive and grit for her to come back, but to do that with the humility she has is pretty special,” Hansen says. “She’s pretty unassuming, a beautiful part of the team who everyone loves to bits, and a huge advocate for the success of the team.
“Renee’s a pretty special leader. She doesn’t have to say much but when she does, everyone listens. And it always comes from a place of care as well.”
There’s a reason for Wickliffe’s manaakitanga (care).
“When I first started, we had some staunch girls in the team who you did whatever they told you to do,” she says. “But nowadays, it’s about supporting those young players and trying to bring the best out of them.
“I already know my role and what I need to do, but they’re teaching me as well. Being around young players reminds me that I’m still young too.”
At 35, Wickliffe is the oldest in the New Zealand squad; at 18, Logo I Pulotu Lemapu Atai’i (Sylvia) Brunt is the youngest.
Woodman, who’s 31, is one of five recent sevens stars to make this team – with Black Ferns Sevens captain Sarah Hirini, Theresa Fitzpatrick, Stacey Fluhler and Ruby Tui. While Smith admitted it was hard to measure them against 15s players going up for the same positions, he knew the sevens athletes had excellent fitness, speed, evasion skills and ball handling.
“Portia’s point of difference is her pace and elusiveness on an edge – she’s second to none,” Hansen says of the wing, and world sevens player of the decade. “When she had the opportunity to, she showcased that on the Northern tour last year, and we’re looking forward to her doing that here.”
Kennedy Simon, who will co-captain the Black Ferns with Ruahei Demant, is excited to see what both Woodman and Wickliffe bring to a relatively young backline.
“There’s a lot you can do with skillset and hard mahi. But you don’t know what you don’t know and they both know a lot,” she says. “Renee will bring a real calmness and to have Portia alongside her is really exciting.”
When the Black Ferns go into camp for good on Monday, it means the start of two months away from Wickliffe’s nine-year-old daughter, Kaia. “With both of us away, it’s hard,” she says. “But the good thing is this time we’re in New Zealand so she can come and see us in camp and at games. And we have a very good support base.
“The hard mahi really starts now.”
For the coaching team, though, much of the difficult work was done in selecting this side. There were sleepless nights for Smith, who wanted to give time and empathy to those players who’d missed out on their dream to play a World Cup at home.
He also gave them a smidgeon of hope.
“Don’t give up, because there might be a Stephen Donald moment,” he said. Donald, of course, got unexpectedly called into the All Blacks during the 2011 World Cup – also played at home – and kicked the winning goal.
“In a World Cup, you never say never.”
The Black Ferns 32 for RWC21
Hookers: Luka Connor, Natalie Delamere, Georgia Ponsonby.
Props: Tanya Kalounivale, Phillipa Love, Krystal Murray, Amy Rule, Awhina Tangen-Wainohu, Santo Taumata.
Locks: Chelsea Bremner, Joanah Ngan-Woo, Maiakawanakaulani Roos.
Loose forwards: Alana Bremner, Sarah Hirini, Charmaine McMenamin, Liana Mikaele-Tu’u, Kendra Reynolds, Kennedy Simon.
Halfbacks: Ariana Bayler, Kendra Cocksedge, Arihiana Marino-Tauhinu.
First five-eighths: Ruahei Demant, Hazel Tubic.
Midfielders: Logo I Pulotu Lemapu Atai’i (Sylvia) Brunt, Amy du Plessis, Theresa Fitzpatrick.
Outside backs: Stacey Fluhler, Renee Holmes, Ayesha Leti-I’iga, Ruby Tui, Renee Wickliffe, Portia Woodman.
(Unavailable due to injury: Grace Brooker, Kaipo Olsen-Baker, Aleisha Pearl Nelson).