Over 25 years Nadene Conlon has achieved numerous milestones in rugby league. But the Kiwi Fern tells Ashley Stanley it’s the impact off the field that truly matters. 

Nadene Conlon has broken through many glass ceilings in her sport.

The Kiwi Fern original was the first women’s captain to win the inaugural rugby league World Cup in 2000, and also the first woman to get the full-time role of managing the Kiwi men’s team in 2016. 

But the 36-test veteran believes it’s the impact the sport provides off the field that truly matters.

“You can never really underestimate or undervalue the impact that you can make through sport on some people’s lives,” says Conlon. “There’s nothing better than being able to do that. And sometimes we have to remind ourselves of it.” 

In a career spanning over 25 years, as a player and administrator, Conlon is a clear example of just how powerful it can be when people influence others through sport – sometimes without even realising. 

A gesture from a former New Zealand Warriors U20’s player who Conlon used to manage during her time at the NRL franchise, has shown how much of an impact she had on him and rugby league in general. 

Since retiring from the sport through injuries, Alamoti Finau has taken up a coaching role with the Marist women’s rugby league team – the club Conlon used to play for, after starting in the game in 1993.

To have former players give back through the women’s space is invaluable. But Finau went one step further. He created the first Auckland Rugby League inter-club trophy honouring a female in recognition of Conlon and her services to the game.

The Nadene Conlon trophy will be up for grabs each year when the Marist Saints and Glenora Bears take the field in the Farrelly Photos Women’s Championship competition. Their first encounter is scheduled for Sunday June 20 at Glenora – Conlon’s family club in West Auckland where she spent most of her weekends helping out as a youngster. 

Conlon admits her initial thoughts were mixed when she found out a trophy was named after her.

“It didn’t really sink in at first, I was sort of like ‘Oh yeah, that’s great’. And then I went through a bit of mixed emotions,” she says. 

“Even now, it’s still just sinking in. But I think for me, one of the greatest things is that someone even thought of it for a start. And then when they told me why they actually made the trophy, I thought ‘Oh, ok, thank you, that’s amazing.

“It was really touching for me, that he was the one that came up with the idea.” 

In a career littered with many ‘firsts’, the back-rower says a stand out moment was captaining the Kiwi Ferns to a World Cup title in 2000. 

“That was a real highlight but every moment that I wore the black and white jersey was really special and meant so much,” she says. In her 10 years representing New Zealand from 1995 to 2005, she only experienced one defeat. Conlon was also the first full-time woman in a coaching and development role at ARL in the same year. 

Travelling for rugby league and meeting different people, “superstars” not only in the 13-man code but other sports as well, has been another highlight. 

But breaking a few barriers being a woman in league and sport is up there, too, for Conlon when reflecting on her career. 

“Being given opportunities but also working hard to get those opportunities to hopefully pave the way for others in the game,” she says. “Whereas perhaps in past times, women probably wouldn’t have been given those opportunities like our male counterparts.” 

Conlon was also the first female to manage the Warriors teams during Ivan Cleary’s era, and the first full-time team manager for New Zealand’s international teams including the Kiwis in 2016.

Being a part of the New Zealand Warriors when they had all three top sides make the finals in 2011 is another career moment she cherishes. 

Things have definitely progressed in her time, says Conlon.

“I think to be fair rugby league has always been pretty good at acknowledging women in the game,” she says. “But probably more on the peripheral rather than in football or high performance areas. So I think that’s come a long way.” 

She credits New Zealand Rugby League for giving her the Kiwis manager’s role when it went from a contract basis into a full-time position.

“It was quite the process I have to say, but they obviously had the confidence in me. And I have to back myself a little bit, I was and am qualified for the role,” Conlon says.

“I just think at the time those perceptions of women in roles, and particularly in football roles, were probably very few and far between. But I do think things are changing.”

On the field, things are evolving too. “Even though we did extremely well in the period that I played, I think it was still very much thought of as a hobby,” says the mother-of-one.

“Even though we had to work full-time, train ourselves, and be mothers, and all that sort of stuff, and still go and win World Cups around that. 

“Whereas now, I think people understand and can see that it can be a viable option to play rugby league as a career, which is really cool.” Conlon was still in the Kiwi Ferns when they won the 2003 rugby league World Cup.

She says success for her as a manager comes down to having a good understanding of the game and being able to carry out the administrative side of things well. 

“I think they both compliment each other. And it’s not always easy to find those people who can tick off all those boxes, I guess. I think that’s definitely what’s helped me,” she says. 

Conlon’s league nous comes from being raised in a rugby league family. The Conlons have four generations of involvement at Glenora.

Her grandad was heavily involved on the committee, and was the treasurer. Her father, Pat, played and coached. And her brother, Aron, followed suit and served as chairman for a while. 

Aron also played for and captained the Junior Kiwis. In an uncanny occurrence, when Aron toured Australia and Papua New Guinea with the Junior Kiwis, they played and won seven matches. In the very first year of the Kiwi Ferns, Nadene toured Australia and played and won seven games too. “So that’s pretty cool as a whanau,” she says. 

But Conlon didn’t actually play the sport as a youngster.  “It wasn’t very common for girls to play in those days, although I very much wanted to,” she says. 

So she took to a number of other sports. Gymnastics, netball and trampolining, which she managed to get to a reasonable competitive level.

Conlon carried on to play representative touch and got the opportunity to lace up in league boots during her late teens. “And the rest is history.”

“I just loved it. I loved the contact of it and everything about it,” Conlon says. “So, that was me, I was sold after one game. Although I did come away with a few battle wounds. But it didn’t scare me off.”

Throughout her career the biggest lesson Conlon has taken away is to enjoy the moments.

“I know it’s a little bit of a cliché, but I think New Zealanders are really humble and modest as a culture,” she says. “And I think it’s not until you get older, that you realise how amazing, and how awesome some of the things we’ve had the opportunity to do are. 

“So it’s important that you really enjoy those moments and obviously take every opportunity that comes your way.”

Conlon says she’s also learnt a lot about what not to do and what to keep doing more of in each role. 

“As long as you’re always learning and looking at more effective ways at doing things to create success, that’s the aim.” 

Having achieved most accolades as a player, Conlon still has goals she wants to achieve in the sport. 

“I want to see both our men and women win a World Cup in the same year. That would be really cool,” she says. “And I also want to win a World Cup as the Kiwis manager.”