A warfare officer in the NZ Navy, Kate Williams has been called into the Welsh rugby side who’ll face the Black Ferns in the RWC quarterfinal this weekend. She tells Suzanne McFadden she knows some of the Black Ferns well.
It has all the makings of a plot in a spy novel: The Welsh rugby team recruit a warfare officer in the New Zealand Navy, loaded with rugby intel, to help their team take on the world champion Black Ferns in the Rugby World Cup quarterfinal.
Only this is more of a serendipitous dream-come-true kind of tale for Welsh-Kiwi Kate Williams.
A couple of weeks ago, Williams was playing rugby for New Zealand at another World Cup – the loose forward co-captaining the Defence Ferns, playing in the first-ever women’s Defence Rugby World Cup, also in Auckland – when she got a call out of the blue.
Sitting on her bed in the naval barracks at Devonport around 9.30pm, Williams answered a call from the head coach of the Wales women’s rugby team, Ioan Cunningham. He asked if she could join the team, coming in for injured flanker Alisha Butchers.
“I was on my own, and I didn’t really know what to do. Do I pack? Who do I tell? It was all overwhelming,” 22-year-old Williams says.
It wasn’t exactly a cold call. Cunningham had met Williams back in July, when she flew over to Wales expressly to train with his squad preparing for the Rugby World Cup. She’d found a month’s gap in her schedule – where she wasn’t offshore helping to drive naval ships or playing rugby – and decided she’d take up an invite to train with the Welsh women.
Born in Swansea, but living in New Zealand since she was four, Williams grew up dreaming of becoming a Black Fern. As a student at Glenfield College, one of her rugby coaches was Black Fern back Chelsea Semple, and from the age of 16 she was playing with some of the best women in the country in the Auckland club competition.
But “the goalposts changed” after she left school, and she wanted to represent the country of her birth. “I felt like I could connect with my family more that way,” Williams says.
As soon as her family moved to New Zealand, the four-year-old Williams had started playing rugby with the North Shore club. She moved up through the ranks, playing for Glenfield College and the North Harbour U18s. Then for five years, she played for North Harbour Hibiscus, captaining the side in the Farah Palmer Cup in 2020 and 2021.
Williams also played in the Blues’ back row in the very first women’s Super Rugby match at Eden Park in 2021. Incidentally, her fellow co-captain of the Defence Ferns, Air Force logistics specialist Corporal Hayley Hutana, played at fullback for the Blues.
But there were also six of the current Black Ferns in her team – Krystal Murray, Maia Roos, Liana Mikaele-Tu’u, Charmaine McMenamin, Sylvia Brunt and the Ferns co-captain, Ruahei Demant.
Kate Williams in her historic Blues jersey before playing in the first women’s Super Rugby match in 2021
So does this give her a unique insight into the Black Ferns, that she can pass on to her new team-mates?
“I’ve played with them for the Blues, and I’ve played against them often over the years, but never at this level,” she says. “I know they always bring it up a level when they’re playing for the Black Ferns, playing for the jersey. If I do get the chance [to play them] on Saturday, at least I know what to expect.
“[Wales] don’t need anything more from me, not that I’ll give it, anyway.”
The Welsh have already been up close and personal with the Black Ferns at this World Cup, losing to them 56-12 in their second pool match.
Williams didn’t get to play for North Harbour in this year’s Farah Palmer Cup. “Once I got back from the UK in July, I had a two-month deployment up to the islands to do fisheries on HMNZS Wellington. As soon as I was back I was straight into training with the Defence Ferns,” she says. “I’ve hardly been at home this year. It’s been so good doing everything I love.”
She got to play in the Defence Ferns’ opening World Cup game, a victory over France on October 7, before she was called into the Welsh squad. “All I really want to do is just play rugby and this is the way I can do it. Hopefully it will be my job one day,” she says.
The Defence Ferns reached the final played at the College Rifles club on Tuesday, but lost to the French side 9-8, who kicked a penalty in the dying minutes of the match. “I was watching as much as I could during my gym session up in Whangārei,” Williams says. “I was really gutted for the girls, but they played amazingly through the entire tournament.”
While in the Navy, Williams has been able to divide her time neatly between rugby and her role as a warfare officer – which entails working on the bridge of ships at sea. “The navigator will plan a route and I execute it. I drive it, by telling the person with the hands on the wheel,” she explains.
But she’s arranged to take a year’s unpaid leave next year so she can play rugby professionally in the UK “and see where that takes me”.
She’ll be forever grateful to her mum, who sowed the seed earlier in the year.
“My mum was talking to her best mate back home [in Wales] and her partner contacted someone he knew, and they got in contact with Ioan. It was a real grapevine situation,” Williams says. “I got a Zoom call with him back in February. He said ‘If you find yourself in Wales in July you could come have a train with us’. I sent him a couple of clips so he saw a little of what I was about.”
As it so happened, her entire July was free. “There’s someone looking after me up there,” she laughs.
Cunningham says Williams has been on the team’s radar ever since.
“When she trained with us in July, I made her aware that she could be involved if anything happened while we were over here,” he says. “And I’m pleased with the way she’s got stuck into training and settled into our environment. We’re delighted to have her in our squad and excited to see what she can do in the future.”
Thinking she’d be playing through with the Defence Ferns, Williams bought tickets to all of the Wales games in the other World Cup. She ended up having to give them away.
“I never thought in my wildest dreams that I’d get called in to get to experience a Rugby World Cup,” she says.
“Just being part of the environment, it’s already improved me for the better. Learning stuff that I wouldn’t have learned otherwise, that I can take back to whatever team I do end up being in.
“Everyone has a point of difference in terms of what they bring to the team. I feel my point of difference is speed over the ball and taking some defensive steals, that’s what I love about being a back rower and it would be amazing to have the chance to show what I can do on the field.”
Her Welsh-Kiwi family, and her partner Stephen, will be in the stands in Whangārei on Saturday evening, hoping she gets that chance.