As the Black Ferns were going for broke in a phenomenal Rugby World Cup final on Eden Park, Jenelle Strickland was at a mountain bike park in a lush Nelson valley, cheering her lungs out.
A keen mountain biker, Strickland had gone with her partner, Andy, to watch the big game at the park in Hira, where they’d rolled in a TV especially.
“I watched it with a bunch of mountain bikers who’d never been interested in rugby before,” she says. “And they all walked out the door as fans. It made me really proud.”
Strickland, known best as Nelly, knew what it was like to be “on the other side” – she’d managed the Black Ferns Sevens for four years, including the Rio Olympics and a World Cup victory in 2018.
But she had no idea that five months after that unforgettable triumph, she’d get a call from the new Black Ferns head coach, Allan Bunting, and end up taking care of those world champion Black Ferns as their new manager.
“It’s beyond exciting,” Strickland says. “I’m really chuffed I’ll get to know this amazing team and help them on the next part of their journey.”
A few days after leaving her job, looking after company directors around the country, Strickland went straight to work with the Black Ferns – in camp in Wellington this week.
She shadowed her predecessor, Lauren Cournane (or “Lauzzie”), as she went about her business, fitting out the newly-contracted Black Ferns and keeping them watered and fed. Strickland was also trying hard to remember all the names and faces of the 34 contracted players.
So far, she says, the role feels similar to managing the Black Ferns Sevens. “Though I’m dealing with a lot more people than I was with the sevens,” she laughs.” I feel very blessed with the culture of the teams I’ve joined.”
There’s no gentle introduction for Strickland. It’s another big year for the Black Ferns – two tests against Australia in the O’Reilly Cup in June, quickly followed by the Pacific Four Series in Canada, and then World Rugby’s new tournament, WXV, pitting the top nations against each other in October. New Zealand is vying for the hosting rights.
But Black Fern Sevens captain Sarah Hirini, a key member of the Black Ferns triumph last year, knows Strickland will take the new role all in her stride.
“I’m extremely excited to see Nelly back in rugby and the Black Ferns environment,” she says. “She’s an amazing person and a very great manager.
“It was pretty tough when she left the sevens environment, so I’m so stoked she’s going to add so much value to the Black Ferns team in the next few years.”
Even though Strickland says she’s more comfortable behind the scenes, New Zealand Rugby wants her to play “a critical role within the leadership of the Black Ferns”.
Strickland began her career managing rugby teams 14 years ago, as an enthusiastic and observant 28-year-old with the Tasman Mako men’s side in the NPC. She became the first woman to manage a professional rugby team in New Zealand.
Some eyebrows were raised last week when Bunting, the former Black Ferns Sevens coach, named his Black Ferns’ XV coaching assistants – and all three were men.
But Strickland says she’s happiest working with people “who are good at their job, who make it seamless”.
“So I’m more than happy working with male coaches. If they’re good characters, it makes it more enjoyable,” she says.
“I think more opportunities will come for female coaches to develop and grow and we’ll see more women coming into this environment. There are already some amazing women coaches coming through the ranks, and I betcha it won’t be long till we see them working with this team too.”
Strickland worked with Bunting when he was first the assistant then head coach of the Black Ferns Sevens. She’s looking forward to sparking up that professional relationship again.
“He’s a really amazing person, he gets people and he understands how to get the best out of them – players and management as well,” Strickland says. “When I was manager of the Sevens, he just trusted me to get on and do my job.
“Bunts has the most amazing ideas – which sometimes as a team manager you’re like ‘Holy heck, how are we going to get that to happen?’ But that’s where we work really well together.
“He comes up with these incredible ideas, and I’m the one who has to figure out how to make it a reality for the team. I love it.”
It was Bunting who first called Strickland and encouraged her to put her name in the hat for the Black Ferns manager role.
“It sounded like a great option for me. It was a role I could do from my home in Nelson,” she says. “It was going back to what I love doing – being a team manager. But I still had to apply and interview like everyone else.”
Strickland not only has a wealth of experience, she has the credentials too – a business degree in sports management, with a diploma in sports coaching on the side.
So what does a full-time team manager of a world champion side actually do?
“I often get asked that,” Strickland says. “You’re definitely a leader within the team. A big part of our role is making sure everything is running smoothly operationally, so coaches can focus on coaching, and players can focus on playing.
“I’m moving the jigsaw pieces around so it all works. I work closely with our management team to make sure we’re delivering the best culture and environment for the players. There’s definitely a lot of logistics, planning and administration.
“But you’re also a leader helping to create that environment for everyone. There’s a lot to it.”
Technology allows Strickland to work from home, in the small Nelson settlement of Hira, in the stunning Lud Valley.
“I might be getting everything ready before the Black Ferns go into camp, or working with host unions before we tour overseas. I’ll also work with New Zealand Rugby to make sure other areas of operations are running smoothly,” she says.
“If you can do all that from home, then when you’re with the team you can really focus on connecting with them.”
Strickland has her own rugby playing backstory. She grew up in Rotorua, where her family implanted her life-long love of the outdoors.
“As a little kid, I didn’t play a lot of team sport. Our family did a lot of outdoor activities – hiking and water sports,” she says. “It wasn’t till I got to high school I started playing netball.”
But when her dad, a fresh-water scientist, was headhunted to work at the Cawthron Institute, the family moved to Nelson. And at Nelson College for Girls, Strickland was a part of a group who started the girls rugby first XV.
“I had a go at playing rugby for a couple of years – it was a hoot,” Strickland says. “They were awesome girls I played with.
“But once I got to university, the girls were too big and scary for me. So I went back to netball.”
Strickland says with a laugh she one of those “unusual” people who studied what they now do for a job. She started out doing a communications degree but quickly realised it wasn’t for her.
At the tail-end of her sports management studies she decided to do the coaching diploma too, to better understand the people she’d be working with in a team situation.
In her first job, Strickland was the professional development manager at the Tasman Rugby Union, until the team manager’s role with the Mako came up in 2009.
“I was pretty young, in my eyes, to be taking on that role and that responsibility, but I definitely learned a lot fairly quickly,” she says. “That team had a really cool culture, they supported me and didn’t make me feel out of place within their environment; they challenged me when they need to.
“It set me on the pathway to follow my dream.”
The Black Ferns reunite and are introduced to their new management team
Strickland realised her dream five years later, taking on the role with the Black Ferns Sevens in 2014.
“It was insane – in a good way. I loved being on the road and experiencing all these amazing places the seven circuit goes to,” Strickland says.
In 2018, she made the difficult decision to leave the Sevens, realising she needed to spend more time at home.
She changed direction, working for the Institute of Directors in New Zealand, in two different roles. She was branch manager for Te Tau Ihu (the Top of the South) and she helped run national mentoring programmes for up-and-coming directors to get more experience and expertise.
“It was a world that I didn’t know much about, so it was cool learning more about governance, and what directors do on a daily basis,” Strickland says. “But in some ways, it felt really familiar – working with high performance individuals, experts in what they do, and supporting them.”
She’s taking what she’s learned from business leaders into the high-performance rugby arena. But she admits she was still “incredibly nervous” on the first day of camp, introducing herself to the team.
“I’m more of a behind the scenes person,” she says. “But they’ve been so lovely and supportive from the get-go. They’re willing to help me out when I repeatedly ask them what their names are.
“So far it feels like a great fit.”