From purging possums and saving kiwi, to leading the Tui and turning out for the Blues, rugby record breaker Krysten Cottrell has a fascinating combination of careers, Suzanne McFadden discovers.
Krysten Cottrell spends her week deep in the bush of the Kaweka Range, searching for dead rats and possums – and then disposing of them.
The former Black Fern works alongside her husband, Tipene, who’s also a top rugby referee, as they try to make swathes of Hawkes Bay forest predator-free.
She’s also learning how to track and monitor kiwi, sometimes cradling chicks before taking them to a creche to ensure they’re strong enough to fend for themselves in the wild.
On weekends, she switches boots, and flies to Auckland to join the Blues squad preparing for the second season of Super Rugby Aupiki, starting later this month.
From forest to field, it’s the perfect blend of Cottrell’s two professions. But it’s also a gruelling combination.
“It’s awesome to be able to do both. Walking for hours – and a lot of it over hills – really helps my rugby fitness,” says Cottrell, who once balanced rugby with life as a baker.
“But I’m also shattered after the training weekends, then having to head straight back into the bush for five hours, jumping over streams and trees.” And yet, she loves it.
The 31-year-old captain of the Hawkes Bay Tui has been a tour de force in domestic rugby over the past few seasons. Last year, she led the Tui to win the Farah Palmer Cup championship for the first time, and was the top points scorer in the competition the season before, notching up 80 points in seven games – and scoring a record 30 points in a single game.
Now she hopes to make her mark on the Aupiki competition, and get another look-in with the Black Ferns.
“I’d love to get back in,” says Cottrell, disappointed not to be involved with the Black Ferns’ successful World Cup campaign last year. “I thought I’d done enough in the last two seasons to have a chance. So I’ve been working my butt off to show I’m good enough.”
Cottrell, nee Duffill, was 15 and still at Taradale High School when she burst onto the FPC scene for the Tui. She’d followed her twin brother into the sport when she was nine.
When she left school, she had no idea what she wanted to do other than play rugby.
“But I also wanted to pay my board at home. My old neighbours bought a bakery, and I was a shop girl for about five years,” she says.
Then her mum became ill with cancer, and Cottrell left work to look after her until she passed away. Feeling “a little bit lost” but still committed to her rugby career, Cottrell was asked back to the bakery in Napier – this time as a baker.
Starting each day at 1am, and finishing at 9am, fitted in perfectly with her rugby – except Cottrell had joined the Manawatu Cyclones, on the opposite side of the North Island.
“It was pretty hard-out,” Cottrell admits. “I’d sleep till 2pm, drive two hours to Palmerston North, train, then drive home and have a quick nap before going back to work at 1am. And I’d do that three times a week.” She played for the Cyclones for four seasons.
“But it was worth it. I really loved it and I learned so much.” Her team-mates loved it, too – Cottrell would take her bread or sweet treats to training.
In 2018, the prolific goal kicker caught the eye of the national selectors, becoming one of the first Black Ferns to take up a professional contract. She made her Black Ferns debut off the bench against Australia in Sydney later that year, and went on to play eight tests before a torn ACL stymied her international career.
She suffered the injury in a tackle for the Tui, but carried on playing through the 2019 championship semifinal and final. At the end-of-year Black Ferns camp, the medical team sent her home to have scans, which revealed the ligament had completely torn away, and she was pulled out of the Black Ferns Development XV off to play in the Oceania championship in Fiji.
Heartbroken and without a Black Ferns contract, Cottrell threw herself into a nine-month rehabilitation – through Covid lockdowns – and came back in time for the 2020 national championship. She proudly played every minute of every game that season.
Like it was for many Kiwis, 2020 was a tough year for Cottrell. She’d been working to grow the women’s game as a development officer at the Hawkes Bay Rugby Union, where she saw her job as “fighting for more competitions and awareness.”
“It was cool hanging out with young girls who were excited to give rugby a go, and giving them opportunities to play with girls, rather than against boys,” she says.
But then she was made redundant during the pandemic, and her next role as a teacher aide on an outdoor course at the Eastern Institute of Technology was also left up in the air. It was then she went bush.
Her husband, Tipene (who referees at men’s NPC level), needed one more worker for his new business, Te Ngahere – which translates as The Forest. They lay pest traplines through the Kaweka Range, the mountains of inland Hawkes Bay, where they are trying to restore the kiwi population.
“I was like, ‘Oh I’ll come’, even though it wasn’t really my thing, clearing out dead things and stuff. It’s not the nicest sometimes,” Cottrell says. “Some of the traplines take over eight hours to walk, and we smash them out in a day.
“But I’ve been doing it over a year now and I’ve grown to really love it. Walking in the peace and quiet, listening to the birds. It doesn’t really feel like it’s work.”
In the past year, they’ve rid the forest of 1500 pests – 800 of them rats. They’ve just started trapping possums – and in the first week, killed nine with one trap.
“We’ve noticed a lot more birds flying around, so that makes us feel that we’re doing something good,” Cottrell says.
They’ve also become more aware of the birds scuttling across the forest floor – learning how to track and monitor kiwi.
“We’ve been doing a few nest raids lately and finding baby kiwi,” Cottrell says. “We take them back to a creche until they weigh about a kilo, so they can fend for themselves better in the wild.
“That’s our inspiration – to look after them. With all that walking, we realise this is why we’re doing it.”
Last season, Cottrell was called into the Blues two weeks before the inaugural Super Rugby Aupiki kicked off. “I was gutted it wasn’t earlier,” she says.
“I thought I’d done a good job coming back from my ACL injury, but I didn’t get picked up by anyone.”
She was working in the bush when Blues coach Willie Walker sent her a text inviting her to join the team assembling in Taupo. “I was a little bit hesitant, feeling like everyone had put me through the wringer,” Cottrell admits. But she wanted to be part of history.
Two days later – on her 30th birthday – she cancelled the family barbeque and hopped on a plane.
Cottrell didn’t expect to get a lot of game time, competing for the No.10 jersey with Black Ferns captain Ruahei Demant and up-and-coming first five Patricia Maliepo.
“But I got on the field and make my mark by just being me. I was happy,” she says.
She continued to impress, leading the Tui to a 24-20 victory over perennial rivals, Otago Spirit, in last year’s FPC championship final. Alongside her was Black Ferns legend Emma Jensen, playing her final game for the Tui at the age of 44.
“It was pretty stressful. In Hawkes Bay, there aren’t many of us around, so I’ve wanted to really push our girls to do better,” she says. “We are so naturally gifted, but we would just blow out.
“But last season, we had a good core group of players who pushed the boundaries. I was proud of the girls and the effort we put in, because, man I felt like I’d been hit by a truck afterwards.” Cottrell kicked 12 points in the final.
She was approached by both the Blues and the Hurricanes for this season, and had an opportunity to play for a club in England, too.
“But it wasn’t really worth it for me and my husband to go overseas – with our goals for the business and building a new house. If I was 20, I’d definitely jump at it,” Cottrell says. “But I love the Hawkes Bay and the girls here, and I want to prove you don’t have to move to different regions to achieve.”
So she chose to return to the Blues, where she’s looking forward to playing again with Black Ferns loose forward Liana Mikaele-Tu’u, who she coached at school.
“I’d like to make the Black Ferns again, but Super Rugby Aupiki is just as good for me in a way,” Cottrell says. “I’ve had a lot of experiences in the last 10 years. I feel like I’m pretty lucky to have done what I have already.”
* Super Rugby Aupiki kicks off its 2023 season on February 25, when the Blues play Matatū, and Hurricanes Poua meet last year’s champions Chiefs Manawa.