Already a sevens Olympic gold medallist, Tenika Willison is now setting her sights on a new challenge as one of nine new Black Ferns.
The top item on Tenika Willison’s rugby bucket list is to defend her Olympic gold medal with the Black Ferns sevens in Paris next year.
That’s why the decision to make herself available for the Black Ferns 15s team for the Pacific Four series, starting this week, was so difficult – but not one she regrets.
Willison, 25, played for the sevens side for the first two tournaments of the year, in Hamilton and Sydney, and enjoyed the increased game time.
“That was my first proper opportunity I’d got with the sevens and some decent amount of minutes,” she explains.
“So to have made the switch [to 15s], it was a pretty hard one. But I did know I needed a refresher to step away from sevens.
“I’d been in it for a long time and to be honest, I think it was one of the best decisions I’ve made. I don’t regret any of it.”
Willison entered the Black Ferns Sevens environment at just 16, training with the team but too young to play for them.
Coming from the rugby sevens powerhouse that is Hamilton Girls’ High School, Willison made her debut for the national team in 2016, after graduating in 2015.
She was part of the Black Ferns Sevens team that won an emotional gold medal at the Tokyo Olympics in 2021, and has a gold and a bronze from the sevens World Cup, along with a Commonwealth Games bronze.
Willison has amassed 76 points for the sevens side over 42 starts, before making the decision to temporarily step away from sevens this year.
She became Chiefs Manawa player #43 in February, and quickly became one of their leading points scorers in Super Rugby Aupiki. She finished third overall for points scored, with 34 points as an outside back.
Crystal Kaua coached Willison at high school, and was the Chiefs Manawa coach this year, helping Willison adjust back to the longer format.
“It’s a totally different game for me,” Willison explains.
“The content is a huge thing that’s a good challenge, getting my head around all of it. Otherwise, the time on feet is obviously a lot longer than sevens is.
“So it was a challenge but we had a good management team who looked after us in that area which was cool.”
Willison didn’t make the Black Ferns Sevens team to compete in Toulouse – where they wrapped up their sixth consecutive world series title – so she asked to join the 15s camp.
“I liaised with Bunts [Black Ferns coach Allan Bunting] and he said that I could,” Willison says, still contracted with sevens, but released for the Pacific Four series.
“There were obviously no guarantees I’d make the travelling team but I was lucky enough to get the opportunity to go to camp. And from there, it was pretty much just a waiting game – I did what I could at camp and I’m lucky to be here today.”
Bunting was the head coach of the Black Ferns Sevens team from 2016, working as their assistant coach for four years prior. He coached the Chiefs Manawa in 2022, before being appointed the Black Ferns director of rugby at the beginning of 2023.
Being able to work with Bunting again is a great opportunity for Willison.
“I was with Bunts for five years, my first five years in the sevens,” she says. “He drove a lot of our vision and culture and purpose through sevens, so to see him transfer over here to the 15s environment and drive that as well, it’s real exciting.”
Willison’s first camp was tough – a different type of workload from what she was used to.
“The amount of hours you have to do, and the mahi you have to do outside of training days – the analysis and learning the moves and all that kind of stuff – that’s probably the biggest thing. It’s a lot of content that goes into 15s,” she says.
“It was pretty cool to be amongst the best 15s players in the world and just to see how they train, day in and day out, what goes into every training.”
The Pacific Four series will be the first time the Black Ferns have played since winning the Rugby World Cup in November.
Many of the players who are now household names won’t be putting on the black jersey, with some returning to sevens, Ruby Tui on her sabbatical and Kendra Cocksedge in retirement.
Willison is one of nine new faces in the Black Ferns wider squad of 30 to face Australia, Canada and the USA as part of the Pacific Four Series.
The Black Ferns’ first game is against the Wallaroos in Brisbane on Thursday night, which also doubles as the O’Reilly Cup clash between the trans-Tasman neighbours. The Ferns’ next two games are in Canada in July (Canada beat the United States 50-17 in the opening match in April).
Willison says the nerves will be under control if she does get an opportunity to make her Black Ferns debut.
“As long as I know I’ve done the work, done the mahi, done everything I can to put myself in that position, I think I’d be pretty sweet,” she says.
“I’ve got players around me who are the best in the world, so I trust fully in them and hopefully if it does come around, they do the same for me.”
She’s been named on the bench for the first test tomorrow, one of six potential debutants in the team of 23.
While Willison jumps between both codes, she’s also adding study into the mix. Having taken an academic break after the last Olympics, she’s now studying health science through distance learning at Massey University, with the goal of becoming an occupational therapist.
“At the moment, if you study occupational therapy, it’s full-time so I’m just trying to do some bridging courses to push me towards that area,” she explains.
The occupational therapy degree is all hands-on and in person, so Willison isn’t ready to start just yet, but her online health science study will help her to bridge the gap and start her degree when she’s able.
“So when I do end up finishing rugby, I’ve already got the basic qualifications,” she says, “And hopefully it makes the transition a little bit easier.”
She should be well used to making transitions by then.
*The Black Ferns play Australia on Thursday at 9pm, live on Sky Sport 1. The Pacific Four series continues in July, when the Ferns take on Canada and the USA.