Caps off to the women’s game
Shaan Te Kani speaks to former Black Fern Lenadeen Simpson, who was recognised for her contribution to women’s rugby at a special capping ceremony last week . . .
Sevens, world cups, seasonal circuits — the women’s game of rugby has reached new heights in recent years. But the development of women’s rugby has been built upon the legacy set by former players, coaches and staunch advocates.
One of the figures who has played a part in this legacy is Gisborne woman and former Black Fern captain Lenadeen Simpson.
Simpson, the 61st Black Fern, was honoured at a special capping ceremony in Christchurch last Saturday.
The ceremony followed a similar event held in Auckland the previous week and is part of a New Zealand Rugby project to cap all past and present players.
It was the third in a series of capping ceremonies for former and current players, which began last year.
The caps are based on traditional rugby caps and feature the Black Ferns number, the silver fern and details of their Test debut.
It was a humbling occasion for Simpson, who was capped alongside 16 other former players.
“It definitely brought back some memories,” Simpson said in reflecting on Saturday’s ceremony.
“It was great to see people like Louisa Wall (former Black Fern, Silver Fern and now Labour MP).
“To see people who have done well outside of football. Some of them have gained degrees, or they’ve had families.
“To see how they’ve done in their own lives was really special.
“But it definitely brought back a lot of memories.
“I remember running out of the tunnel in Sydney. My cousin John Te Kani and about four of his mates jumped out and did a haka for us.
“Our girls were pumped and the Aussies were startled. It was just awesome.
“But I really would have loved to have been capped on Rugby Park in Hamilton. It was where I played my first game as a Black Fern.
“And it was the first time that Eva Rickard (Maori leader) was allowed back to the park since she was arrested at that venue during the ’81 Springbok Tour.
“I would have loved to have been capped there, because that was a special memory.”
But before she made the international stage, she had a grass-roots beginning like many other players.
“I started playing rugby at home in Gisborne on our grandparents’ neighbours lawn, at the Tamateas.
“I have three brothers so I didn’t have a chance to play anything else with them.
“If I wanted to play netball they weren’t going to play with me, so I had to play rugby.
“It was usually my brothers Victor and Henry, and my cousin Pahau Mackey, up against my cousin Joseph and myself.
“I played rugby with boys right up until I got to high school. By then the guys were getting too physical. I couldn’t play anymore.
“We then started to have a women’s competition in Poverty Bay and I played for GMC. But it was just social, it wasn’t a proper competition.”
In 1989 she moved to Canterbury and played club rugby for University, before playing for the Canterbury provincial side.
At that time, the women’s game had its own NPC-style competition, where they played for the John Joseph “JJ” Stewart Trophy — regarded as the Ranfurly Shield for women’s rugby, as it must be defended by the holder.
A former mentor and coach that Simpson gives special mention to from that period is the late Laurie O’Reilly, who was a former Children’s Commissioner.
O’Reilly and JJ Stewart, were both instrumental in establishing and promoting women’s rugby in New Zealand in the late 1980s and 1990s.
O’Reilly drove the external demand for recognition for the women’s game, while JJ Stewart was its advocate inside the New Zealand Rugby Football Union.
“Laurie O’Reilly was really instrumental in putting the women’s game on the map,” says Simpson.
“He was an amazing coach.”
While in Canterbury she was also coached by former All Blacks, including her brother Victor Simpson, former All Black assistant coach Wayne Smith, and Warwick Taylor.
It was while she was in Canterbury that she made the Black Ferns, playing from 1991 to 1996.
“I had to retire due to an Achilles injury. It was just before the team went to the Rugby World Cup.”
'Showcasing our culture to the world'Simpson recalls many highlights from her rugby career, but what has stood out the most is the people and being able to represent her whanau.
“I really enjoyed the camaraderie, travelling overseas, seeing the women’s game develop and seeing good leaders come through the ranks.
“A highlight for me was having the likes of kaumatua such as Uncle Toko Te Kani, who was a staunch supporter of mine, and Hohua Tutengaehe agree that we could perform the East Coast haka, Ka Panapana.
“We then went on to perform it with our team on the world stage. Just showcasing our culture to the world was awesome.
“We would learn waiata and have karakia before we travelled and before we played.
“Coming back home to see the look on our grandparents, parents, uncles and aunties faces, that’s all that mattered to me.
“The fact that they were happy with what I was doing meant the most.
“Because it is really about taking the people with you, being aware of who you are and who you represent, and showcasing our world in a good place.
“It doesn’t matter what you do, whether its club rugby, provincial or national, or whatever. It’s about you remembering what your contribution is and doing it to the best of your ability.
“That’s what our grandparents did. When they made the bed or mowed their lawns, it was all to perfection. They did the job properly. No half-pie job.
“For me, it was about continuing those good values, which I had gained from a good upbringing.”
Leadership is an obvious mark that Simpson has left on the game. She was captain of the national side from 1994-96, and had leadership roles in many of the teams she played for.
“I think I was lucky because I learned a lot of my skills from the marae.
“When you’re working on the marae, you learn how to work under pressure together as a group.
“It’s how you bring people to be on the same page.
“There are ways of doing that, and it’s about finding out how different people work. Not everyone is the same.
“I was lucky because rugby management saw some leadership skills and people skills in me.
“That all came from my whanau and the pa. It was nurtured in those environments.”
She also played for and coached the Waikato women’s side and has been acknowledged as a key influence and mentor to a number of former and current Black Ferns.
Another former Black Fern captain, Farah Palmer, has acknowledged Simpson as a mentor, particularly during her years playing in Waikato.
On the All Blacks official website, current Black Fern Melodie Bosman notes Simpson as having the “biggest influence on her rugby career”.
“(She) gave me the self-belief that I could be a Black Fern one day,” Bosman said.
Simpson continues to encourage people to pursue their passions, especially the younger generation — her nieces, nephews and mokopuna.
“Hopefully we have created some pathways for you fullas.
“Cos you kids can do anything, whether it’s tech or sport — anything.
“Just because you come out of Gisborne doesn’t mean you can’t.
“We are very bright, committed people and we can do anything.”
Simpson says it’s great for the women’s game to be acknowledged with the capping ceremonies.
“It is a great achievement but it has been a long time coming.
“While it’s great that players have been recognised, it’s also about ensuring that our women can survive, and they should be paid well for playing.
“Women have mortgages like anyone else. To be able to play a game they love as well as paying their mortgage and raising their families — we have still got a way to go.
“There’s been some steps forward, but there still needs to be bigger steps — and not just in women’s rugby but in Maori rugby as well.”