Walking the beat on the streets of west Auckland, Constable Linda Itunu is collecting skills she hopes will help in her other walk of life.
The four-time rugby world champion and Black Ferns great, Itunu has been a frontline police officer in Waitematā for just over a year. But at the same time, she’s been building her reputation as a rugby coach.
Right now, the two careers go hand-in-hand. And she hopes through both jobs, she’ll be able to help save lives.
“I wasn’t the greatest kid in school, and to be honest, rugby saved me,” says the former No.8 who played 38 tests for the Black Ferns over 17 years, and was an original Black Ferns Sevens star.
“My faith is important to me, but if I didn’t play rugby I don’t know where I’d be right now. I know wouldn’t be where I am right now.”
Coaching has already taken Itunu to offshore stints in Italy and Sri Lanka, and closer to home, the Ponsonby Fillies and the Blues. The next place she hopes to make a difference is as assistant coach of the inaugural Black Ferns XV, who play Samoa later this month.
The team has been formed to give more players and coaches experience at international level, and provide a pathway to the Black Ferns (there are no female coaches in the new Black Ferns set-up). It was an opportunity Itunu couldn’t turn down.
“I’m always telling people if there are no doors open, create one and smash it down yourself. I thought I should make sure to follow what I tell other people,” she says.
She’ll work alongside head coach Whitney Hansen, who was in the coaching team for the victorious Black Ferns at last year’s World Cup. Initially, the humble Itunu wondered if her new posting was a mistake.
“I was flying out to Melbourne to see my family, and I got the call just before I got on the plane. After they asked me, I was like ‘Are you sure you’ve got the right person?’” she laughs. “But it’s such a cool opportunity and I’m really privileged to be considered for this role.”
“Everything has been kicking off for me this year, which is pretty cool.”
Supporting her coaching career, the police will give Itunu the week off so she can go into camp with the team, who’ll be named today.
“It does get a bit risky out there. But I actually wake up and enjoy going to work”
One of eight siblings (including her Black Ferns prop sister Aldora), Itunu was drawn into the police to change the lives of her 18 nephews and nieces, she says.
“When I grew up, you could play out in the street till the lights came on. It’s not like that anymore,” she says. “If I can contribute to kids being able to be kids again, that would be cool.”
She’s still getting to grips with balancing her two callings – especially working night shifts. “I still struggle with finding a routine, when your days off fall on different days of the week,” she says. “You can imagine how difficult that is with coaching and trying to mix the two.”
During this year’s Super Rugby Aupiki season, when she was an assistant coach of the Blues, Itunu moved to a different role within the police for three months, as a youth engagement officer.
“The biggest thing I learned is young people often don’t know who they are. Their identity is massive, and they need an environment that nurtures that. I find that’s my role in the youth space, getting to know them, see what the enjoy, and helping them find out what makes them who they are,” she says.
“It’s like that with the players too – what do they bring to a team, what’s their X-factor? I try to find out what sets them apart, and then help them use it.”
Policing has helped Itunu become more empathetic and open-minded as a coach. “Everyone has a back story you should listen to, and be more curious,” she says.
“As a coach, if a player doesn’t rock up to training, straight away you think, ‘Nah she doesn’t want to be here’. But speaking from experience, when I dug deeper, I found out the girl was the older sibling and the main breadwinner, her mum had left and her dad had been in hospital. She was working 12-hour days, they only had one vehicle, and there was no way she could turn up for a rugby camp.
“That’s helped me as a coach being more open-minded – not being so results focused, but looking after our people so they can perform.”
Itunu was in Christchurch on Saturday to support her sister and her old team, the Auckland Storm, as they wrested the Farah Palmer Cup off Canterbury in a thrilling final, 39-27. It was the first time Auckland had won the national title since 2015, when the sisters played together.
She was there to hand Aldora her nine-month-old son, Ezekiel, after the game – marking a huge comeback year for Aldora, also part of the Ponsonby Fillies side who won the Auckland premier club title this season.
Saturday’s victory avenged last year’s final loss to Canterbury and was Auckland’s 16th national championship victory. Captain Eloise Blackwell and young wing Angelica Vahai both scored twice in the match, which saw the home side draw even with less than 20 minutes to go, before another Storm surge overthrew the Canterbury dynasty.
Itunu sees her role with the Black Ferns XV – who play Samoa at Pukekohe on September 23 – as making sure the young players enjoy the experience, and want to come back for more.
“It’s just a short campaign, and the first time we’ve had a Black Ferns XV. My role is to make sure the girls come in, play their game, and leave with little gems,” she says. “Whether that’s ‘Oh flip, that was such a cool experience’, or they walk away thinking ‘Oh man, I learned something in that short amount of time’.
“I haven’t really thought about being the Black Ferns coach, but I’ve had thoughts about being involved in that space with our athletes coming through. In terms of what I do as a job and seeing the changes in the game, I want to be there to help bring these new athletes through. And make sure we are creating a safe space for them to grow – as athletes and as people.
“But also to have fun and enjoy high performance level sport – when they get to that stage, it gets quite serious. So being able to nurture and bring the girls through is something I’ve always wanted to do.”
Culture within a team has always been important to Itunu, during a long and distinguished playing career where she won the 2013 Sevens World Cup and retired in 2018 after winning her third World Cup in 15s rugby; and made the World Rugby Team of the Decade in 2020.
“When I came into the Black Ferns, the culture was real good. The girls would take you under their wing, and there was no cattiness; no ‘You play the same position – I’m not going share the knowledge’,” she recalls.
“It was a real fun competition for a place in the starting XV. If we were going against each other for the same position, we’d tell each other everything but then compete, so whoever got the jersey earned it. Obviously culture evolves, but it’s important you have a culture where everyone enjoys the environment.
“It’s a special place because the people in there make sure the management and the players are on the same page and everyone buys into the culture. It’s not about different ethnicities – it’s about ‘the Black Ferns way’.”
Itunu began coaching while she was still in her playing heyday – she was a player-coach at a club in Italy and spent time working with the Sri Lanka sevens side. Coaching the Blues this Aupiki season – with head coach Willie Walker and alongside All Black Carlos Spencer – was “so much fun”.
“We had a great culture – the girls were able to be themselves, have fun, and enjoy each other’s company. Be vulnerable if they needed to without being judged. A lot left the campaign wanting to come back as a Blues player – that’s what we were after,” she says.
“Putting aside our win-loss record [one win from five games], our team played some really exciting, attacking rugby. Carlos and Willie have creative minds and the players were open to learning new things.”
It’s the first time Itunu will work with Hansen, head coach of Aupiki champions, Matatū. Itunu describes her as “pretty chill” and with valuable experience to learn from.
Regardless of what comes next in her coaching career, Itunu is in no hurry to give up her day (and night) job.
“It does get a bit risky out there. But I actually wake up and enjoy going to work, which is the most important part to me,” she says. “You might be the only positive encounter someone has on that day. And who else is going to save our community?”