Former Black Ferns captain Victoria Grant has left the henhouse to coach the Hurricanes Poua, an important first in Super Rugby Aupiki. And she brings her superpower to build team culture, Suzanne McFadden finds out.
Victoria Grant has just come in from feeding hot porridge to a brood of 50 chickens on her land beside the picturesque Lake Rotoiti.
In the background, Te Matatini kapa haka battle it out on a TV screen with the sound down.
This lifestyle block in the Bay of Plenty is the former Black Ferns captain’s happy place. She rides her horses here and has a free-range egg “side hustle”. Right now, unsurprisingly, she can’t keep up with the demand.
“My girls are pretty well looked after,” she says. “I love being here.”
But for half the week, her husband reluctantly takes care of her chooks when Grant is away. She flies to Wellington to look after her other precious “girls” – the athletes of the Hurricanes Poua. As head coach – one of the first two women to hold the role in Super Rugby Aupiki – Grant feels equally at home.
“It’s working quite well for me at the moment, flying in and out of Wellington, rather than me living down there fulltime,” she says. “I’m grateful to be at home the other three days.”
But Grant is also loving this rugby post, working with an exciting, inventive group of players – at least half a dozen of whom she used to play alongside. Like Poua captain Jackie Patea-Fereti and fellow former Black Ferns Victoria Subritzky-Nafatali and Te Kura Ngata-Aerengamate.
“Sometimes when you go straight from playing to coaching it can be a big niggly, but I’m definitely in the coaching phase,” says Grant, who hung up her rugby boots in 2012 after back surgery. “I don’t feel like I want to get on and do drills with them anymore.”
She’s assembled a strong management team around her. While her two assistant coaches (Fusi Feanuati and Travis Church) are men, all of Poua’s position specific coaches are female. The team manager, Belinda Muller, has coached major netball, sevens and cricket sides – most recently the White Ferns.
“We’re all like-minded people who are all passionate about women’s rugby. We all want to launch off the platform the Black Ferns built at the World Cup,” Grant says.
She’s already finding it very different from last year’s inaugural Aupiki competition, when she was an assistant coach at Poua to Wes Clarke.
“This feels like the first season of Aupiki – last year was such a unique situation,” Grant says. You’ll remember all four teams lived in a bubble in Taupō during a new wave of the pandemic and played the entire competition there over two-and-a-half weeks.
“And it’s a little bit different leading the programme. When you’re an assistant, you can just concentrate on rugby. When you’re head coach there’s a lot more noise around you. But I like being involved in everything.
“I like to drive culture and connection and how that looks in the team. Growing people and getting the best out of them by using their superpowers.”
Grant finds it weird, she says, to think how much rugby has become a part of her life, when she didn’t pick up an oval ball until she was 17.
“As a teenager, I didn’t know the game at all,” says Grant, nee Blackledge, who also went on to play sevens for New Zealand. In her first ever rugby game, for the Putaruru High School first XV, she scored five tries – and didn’t take the field until the second half when she’d finished her netball game.
“Now it’s been a massive part of my life that’s given me so much. Most of my friends I’ve made through rugby. It’s crazy how much a sport can influence you even when you’ve finished playing.
“Don’t get me wrong, it’s not my identity. I don’t think I am rugby. I’m just really grateful I’ve had such amazing opportunities and connections through the sport.”
Grant’s career truly took flight when she started playing for Auckland, while studying to become a physiotherapist, in 2005. The following year she was part of the World Cup-winning Black Ferns side, and backed that up captaining the Ferns against Wales at the 2010 World Cup, where they won their fourth straight title.
She was also integral in forming the team culture, and had a taiaha carved especially for their World Cup campaign in England. “We used it in the haka… it symbolised all of us. It acted as our mauri, our essence, when we were together,” Grant says.
Last year, Grant handed that same taiaha to the latest generation of Black Ferns to take into their own World Cup to use as they wished; giving it to winger Renee Woodman-Wickliffe, who’d been Grant’s team-mate in 2010.
Grant is helping to create culture and tradition in the fledgling Poua side – but exactly how she’s doing that she’s keeping under wraps. “You’ll probably see a lot of it through the way we play. Hopefully, our essence as a team comes through,” she says.
Grant is big on allowing her players to be themselves on and off the field: “They don’t have to fit into a box. We try to coach to their superpowers, rather than ‘run to this line, offload here’. We don’t work like that in our team.”
The three current Black Ferns in Poua – Joanah Ngan-Woo, Krystal Murray and Ayesha Leti-I’iga – are prime examples of fearless playmakers. “It’s about harnessing that because the majority of our team are like that,” Grant says.
She highlights young Manawatu Cyclones flanker, Layla Sae, as her player to watch this season. A former national volleyball representative, Sae is a “physical beast – the fittest in the team,” Grant says. “She played for Poua last year but she’s gone to another level.”
Grant is excited by the team, who’ll play their opening Aupiki match on Saturday against the reigning champions, Chiefs Manawa, on Hurricanes’ soil in Levin.
Manawa are coached by Crystal Kaua, who’s also been promoted from assistant coach last year. Rather than rivals, Grant says she and her good friend Kaua talk often, supporting each other in their ground-breaking roles.
“There’s some noise around being the first two women’s coaches, but I don’t feel any pressure or expectation,” says Grant. “The only thing I’m aware of is bringing others along with me.”
So far, Grant’s coaching journey has taken her through the Rotoiti men’s premier side, the NZ Condors Sevens winning back-to-back world schools titles, head coach of the Black Ferns Sevens development teams and skills coach for the NZ U20 men’s side.
Through it all, she’s built up an impressive support network – many of them female coaches, and often from other sporting codes.
A fan of cross-code partnerships, she’s invited top women’s coaches in to talk to the Poua. That includes highly-successful Central Pulse netball coach, Yvette McCausland-Durie, New Zealand water polo assistant coach Megan Thompson and Phoenix Women’s football coach, Natalie Lawrence.
“We’re an open book, we don’t have secrets between us coaches. We have similar themes and issues, so it’s great to hear what they’re trying, and share what we’re doing,” Grant says.
Poua have had two strong pre-season matches leading into Aupiki – one against Matatū last weekend, where Grant was able to test two different 15s on the field, and the other against the Upper Hutt Rams men’s U21 side.
“I’m not going to lie, it was a bit scary from the sidelines, worrying about injuries,” Grant says. “But we only had one bruised toe.
“It was a full-on, physical game, but it gave the girls belief around being brave. You’ve got men running towards you, so you have to tackle them.”
A year on from Aupiki’s debut, Covid still hovers around. In the first Poua camp this year, six players were out with the virus. “I’m conscious it’s still here, so we’ve put strategies in place to combat that – there’s two of all of us, especially in management – so it’s seamless if we have to replace anyone,” Grant says.
She loves meeting the Chiefs first-up, after Poua finished were their runners-up last season. “They’re strong across the paddock, they’re smart players, and they’ve got good coaching,” she says. “It will be a good ding-dong battle, I reckon.”
* In the opening round of Super Rugby Aupiki, Hurricanes Poua play Chiefs Manawa, in Levin on Saturday at 1.45pm and Matatū meet the Blues in Dunedin on Saturday at 4.20pm (both live on Sky Sport 1).