By Marvin France
When Kiwi Ferns coach Tony Benson was forced to find a new captain for the World Cup, he did not need long to settle on a replacement.
There are not too many players who know more about the tournament than Laura Mariu.
The 36-year-old loose forward has taken part in all five Women’s Rugby League World Cups dating back to its inception in 2000, a remarkable feat of longevity that has seen her walk away with three winner’s medals.
Surprisingly, though, the current event in Australia is her first as captain. And after New Zealand’s run of dominance was broken by the Jillaroos four years ago, what better way to cap off a special career than by leading the Kiwi Ferns back to the top.
“It’s very humbling. It’s always a privilege to represent your country but to lead the team to the World Cup is a huge honour,” Mariu told Stuff.
“I started in 2000, made the side then and haven’t looked back. I found a love for this game, I played other sports as well but I’ve become really passionate about rugby league.”
Forget about getting paid. It’s that sort of passion that kept Mariu and her teammates turning up year after year, even when they had to pay for the right to represent their nation on the world stage.
There is still a long way to go before the elite women’s players receive the same treatment as the men. But Mariu says the difference in support now compared to the early days is night and day.
“At the beginning it was marae styles and now we’re at the Novotel, which is huge and we’re truly grateful for everything the NZRL have been doing for us,” she said.
“They’re paying for hotels and for us to fly over to Australia. In the past we’ve had to pay levy fees just to represent our country. With the game evolving and the support from the NZRL, Rugby League World Cup and even the NRL, it’s made a huge difference for the game.
“It’s good to know they can see a future for the women’s game,” Mariu added. “There was a time when it seemed like there was nothing really happening but now there’s new opportunities and the exposure we’re gaining, hopefully it will draw new players and grow the game.”
Mariu, who had captained the side once previously, was handed the role when fullback Sarina Fiso became unavailable.
And with all but four of the 24-strong squad tasting their first World Cup, Benson was fortunate enough to be able to call on a player of her experience.
“It’s an easy one with Laura because she’s consistent, she’s highly likely to be on the field most of the time and we have a good relationship,” the coach said.
“When you’re touring you need to know everything that’s going on, who is happy and not and what works and doesn’t work in her mind. She has a big say in pretty much everything.”
They may be light on experience but Mariu is excited by the talent in the squad and the way they have gelled off the field.
The Kiwi Ferns made a nervous start during Thursday’s opening game against Canada before finding their groove in the second half to record a 50-4 victory.
They play their second pool game against the Cook Islands on Sunday and Mariu is confident they will continue to improve as they work towards a place in the final on December 2.
“If we stick to the basics and do them well, all good things can come from that,” the skipper said.
“It’s about keeping our unit tight, keeping the culture strong and knowing that there’s no individuals out there. It’s a team effort.”