“I want to be remembered as somebody you wanted to play with – not against.”
Rochelle Martin was a professional rugby player on every front – except she wasn’t paid any money. For “Roach” and her era of teammates, professionalism was all about the work ethic, training habits and dedication to their sport.
She was a key member of the 1998 Black Ferns who shocked the rugby world and set a new standard-of-play benchmark for the next 10 years which saw them lose only once – to their main rivals, England.
“I tried to ‘give to the death’ every time,” she says. “My approach to rugby was to be as prepared as I could be, focusing on whatever ‘work-ons’ I had, but then bring people with me. I always had the highest expectations of myself, but at the same time I always wanted to lift others up with me.”
The winner of three successive Rugby World Cups (RWC), Rochelle set immense standards of fitness during her 12-year tenure of wearing the fern. Renowned for achieving the same result on a yo-yo fitness test as All Black Richie McCaw, her combative style of loose forward play resulted in two knee reconstructions and countless other injuries.
Her dedication was never doubted though, and she was one of a number of players who, in the buildup to the RWC1998, famously took jobs as “posties”, working for NZ Post just so that they could start work at 5am and be finished by 2pm – allowing them valuable hours to complete their training sessions.
Professionalism to this team was nothing to do with a pay packet. It was about how they prepared, how they trained and how they fronted up on match day. In hindsight Rochelle appreciates that the standards set by coach Darryl Suasua were not sustainable. The sacrifices were too immense to last beyond the six-month RWC buildup.
“The culture of no alcohol was one thing – the no coffee was maybe a step too far!” What it did create was the belief that every member of that team was doing everything they could within their control to be the best possible player. “The training was intense and the fitness requirements were next level,” she recalls.
Combined, the players were able to put out a team that blew the rest of the rugby nations aside for three consecutive Rugby World Cups.
Her rugby story started back in 1991 where she had a real introduction to club rugby.
“Some of the really cool times were back when I played for the Stokes Valley club in Wellington,” Rochelle says. “We would get pounded every week by 40-50 points, but the group of people I was playing with were just the best and we had an amazing time. We left it all on the field, and the following year we actually ended up winning the competition. It was about winning but in the end, it was also about playing with good people, working together to put out your best performance.
“Losing taught me a lot about resilience. I never worried too much about losing again because I knew what it felt like, plus I learned how to tackle really well!”
Not that Rochelle ended up losing very often. She played for the dominant College Rifles Club that won five Auckland club championships – in fact she never lost a game in the Auckland Storm provincial team and retired with a 32-1 record in the black jersey.
In 1994 Rochelle first broke into the New Zealand starting XV – at the time heavily represented by Cantabrian players. This was the era of women’s rugby in New Zealand that faced untold obstacles.
From having a test match against Australia moved at the last minute from Eden Park to a local club field with ankle-deep mud, to bigger issues like the NZRU banning them from travelling to the RWC1994, when it was moved from the Netherlands to Scotland, as it wasn’t deemed a sanctioned International Rugby Board (IRB) tournament at the time.
Rochelle speaks fondly of that team and how they always just got on with it. “We accepted there were some things we couldn’t change and just made the most of every opportunity we could get. We were never looking for excuses, just got on with being the best we could be.”
Rochelle captained the Black Ferns for the first time in 2005 for the series against England and was co-captain with Farah Palmer for the RWC2006 campaign. “My final few years in the black jersey were possibly my favourite,” she says.
“It was less about me by then and more about trying to get the best out of those around me. We had a new management group who allowed decision-making to be player-led and I loved that. We had a new sense of freedom both on and off the field.
“Heading into the RWC2006 we had a great leadership group of six to eight players, whereas before it had all been on Farah. In 2006 it was a shared load on and off the field and even in management meetings. I got a lot out of being able to see others do really well.”
For more than 20 years, Rochelle has been a firefighter, rising through the ranks to now be the group manager/commander of District 15 in Auckland. She was made a Member of the New Zealand Order of Merit in 2018 for services to rugby and Fire and Emergency NZ, and she is also a mum of four.
* The book Our Game Makers is a collection of stories of the trailblazers who influenced and shaped women’s rugby around the globe, authored by acclaimed rugby photographer Jo Caird and six-time World Cup player and England rugby captain Paula ‘Georgie’ George. Football Ferns World Cup hero Hannah Wilkinson is the book’s illustrator.
Our Game Makers can be purchased online at ourgamemakers.com.