Just six months ago, there was a very real prospect that no women’s rugby league would be played in New Zealand or Australia in 2020.
Since then, however, the inaugural Sky Sport NZRL National Women’s Premiership – with matches played alongside the men’s provincial fixtures for the first time – and the third NRLW Premiership have unfolded, while the season is set to conclude this Saturday with a clash between the Kiwi Ferns and Fetu Samoa at Mt Smart Stadium.
It’s appropriate that the only major rugby league international to be played in this part of the world in a heavily disrupted, ultra-challenging year for all sports involves the New Zealand women’s team. The Kiwi Ferns are celebrating the 25th anniversary of their trailblazing tour of Australia – and a quarter century of resilience, selflessness, perseverance, pride and passion integral to elevating the women’s game to its current standing.
The New Zealand Women’s Rugby League Federation was officially registered and accepted by NZRL in February 1995. Just four months later, a 23-strong squad of pioneers – captained by Juanita Hall and coached by Janie Thompson – set off on a 21-day, seven-match tour of Australia.
“It was an absolute honour and privilege to be selected for the inaugural Kiwi Ferns alongside my peers, and to captain the team was extremely priceless,” Hall says.
“I remember clearly standing on the stage in Nelson (after the National Tournament), shocked to be selected – and I didn’t initially hear that I was captain. I think I was the last to be named.”
By the time they returned home, the New Zealand team had won all seven games and scored 204 points (including 42 tries) while conceding only 30 (including just six tries).
Four days after a hard-fought 16-6 win over a President’s XIII at North Sydney Oval in their opening assignment – fighting back from 6-2 down at halftime – New Zealand backed up for the first-ever international against Australia.
New Zealand’s line-up for that historic encounter at Lidcombe Oval was (Auckland unless otherwise stated): Tamma Wilson, Lynley Tierney, Eva Epiha, Zavana Aranga (Wellington), Debbie Syme (West Coast), Therese Mangos, Leah Witehira, Juanita Hall (c), Maria Auega (Wellington), Luisa Avaiki, Eileen Rankin, Nadene Colon, Rachael White. Interchange: Nicole Presland, Golly Baker, Wendy Cunningham, Sharlene Hannah (West Coast).
The tourists overcame another four-point halftime deficit to carve out an 18-14 victory. Wellington hooker Maria Auega had the honour of scoring the maiden try in women’s rugby league internationals, while halfback Leah Witehira, prop Luisa Avaiki and winger Lynley Tierney dotted down in the second half to drive New Zealand to the win.
“Putting on the black-and-white jersey for the first time, and standing proud and emotional with hand over heart at our first international in Sydney, singing the national anthem, and thinking to cherish that moment in history, thanking God, my parents and family, and the pride of representing my country – I will never will forget it,” Halls recalls of that illustrious occasion.
Despite playing two more midweek matches – a 26-4 defeat of Sydney and a 46-0 rout of Canberra – before the second Test the following weekend, New Zealand overwhelmed Australia 14-6 in Canberra to complete a series whitewash. Wingers Tania Martin (Auckland) and Laura Waretini (Canterbury), and interchange Sara White (Auckland) were the new faces in the Test team.
The tour wrapped up with a pair of shutouts of Queensland, winning 48-0 and 36-0. Although she missed opening two games, Waretini finished as the top try-scorer on tour with nine, while Zavana Aranga led the pointscoring charts with 44 (3 tries, 16 goals).
Michelle Driscoll (Auckland), Kaylene Ihaia (Wellington) and Megan Tahapeehi (West Coast) were the tourists who did not feature in the Test matches.
The undefeated side cemented their status as fledgling women’s rugby league’s benchmark, which would go unchallenged for almost two decades.
“No one can ever take the black-and-white jersey from you, always treasured. Being the first New Zealand rugby league team to win a Test series against Australia, on Australian soil, since the 1950s is a great honour,” Hall beams.
“I would like to pay tribute and honour the wonderful late Bernie Wood, NZRL Life Member and Member of the New Zealand Order of Merit, for his vision and passion, for making it possible for the creation of the inaugural Kiwi Ferns of 1995. One could say he is the ‘father’ of the Kiwi Ferns.”
But the tour was unmistakably challenging – for Hall personally and for the squad as a whole – for a variety of reasons.
“Being captain of a new national team and not having someone to seek advice from for help to handle all that the role entailed (was difficult). I personally sought out the great Kiwi legend Fred Ah Kuoi for his advice which was extremely helpful, invaluable and encouraging.
“The financial side of having to pay over $2000 each was extremely hard on all players, in addition to working full-time, being stay-at-home mums, and young university students.
“Additionally, the youth and vitality of our team and management, not familiar with our newly-held status as ambassadors of New Zealand women in league, and finding our feet during our tour. There was no media training or support for us on how to handle certain situations.
“Then I was injured due to a hotel mishap in the bathroom – I should have sued them! – and was unable to play our end-of-tour games in Queensland.”
Australia made its first trip across the Tasman in 1997, losing both internationals in Wellington (34-26) and Auckland (40-16). Great Britain was swept 3-0 on its three-Test tour to New Zealand in 1998. New Zealand suffered its first loss in 1999, in the second Test against Australia, but still won the series 2-1.
The Kiwi Ferns – co-captained by ’95 originals Nadene Conlon and Nicole Presland – powered to a commanding triumph in the inaugural Women’s Rugby League World Cup in 2000, beating hosts Great Britain 26-4 in the Warrington-hosted final.
The Ferns defended their world champions crown in devastating style on home soil in 2003, scoring 372 points and conceding just four in six games. They overwhelmed NZ Māori 58-0 in the final. Captain Luisa Avaiki was named Player of the Tournament, while Honey Hireme – in the second season of a Kiwi Ferns tenure that now spans 19 years – scored 10 tries.
The New Zealand side had just three matches from that emphatic success until the next World Cup in 2008, but they were no less convincing in retaining the title. The Kiwi Ferns, again led by Avaiki, thrashed Australia 34-0 in the final at Suncorp Stadium. Veteran centre Trish Hina starred with two tries and three goals in the decider – almost matching her effort in the 2000 final, when she bagged two tries and two goals.
But their decade-long, 20-Test unbeaten run came to an end via an 18-16 loss to Australia in 2009. The Kiwi Ferns had just two more internationals – comfortably accounting for England 2-0 at home in 2010 – prior to the 2013 World Cup, where the Hireme-led team lost their title to the Jillaroos 22-12 in the Headingley final.
While a tough result to swallow for the traditional top dogs, it saw the Kiwi Ferns-Jillaroos rivalry step up a notch: The trans-Tasman adversaries have faced each at least once every season since until 2020. Women’s rugby league made a significant step forward in 2014 when Australia and New Zealand squared off prior to the Australia-Samoa men’s Four Nations encounter in Wollongong, the Ferns prevailing 12-8.
Of equal importance was the staging of a three-match series between the Kiwi Ferns and Jillaroos at the 2015 NRL Auckland Nines. The high-quality clashes in an abbreviated format – marked by thrilling tries and ferocious tackles that turned several Kiwi Ferns players into viral sensations – showcased women’s rugby league to a wider audience and was regarded as a highlight of the Nines weekend, as it would be again in 2016-17.
Meanwhile, a women’s fixture became part of an Anzac Test double-header bill from 2015, with international matches belatedly broadcast live on TV and receiving long overdue media coverage.
The 2017 Women’s Rugby League World Cup was the first to be held parallel to the men’s tournament, with the Jillaroos outlasting the Kiwi Ferns, captained by Laura Mariu, 23-16 in an epic final in Brisbane. Hireme crossed for an astounding 13 tries at the tournament.
Following the first NRLW premiership in 2018 – which featured a healthy contingent of Kiwi Ferns throughout the Warriors (coached by New Zealand great Avaiki), Broncos, Roosters and Dragons squads – the Jillaroos and Kiwi Ferns produced out an equally enthralling post-season contest at Mt Smart Stadium, the Australians notching three straight victories over their archrivals for the first time in a 26-24 nail-biter.
In 2019, the Kiwi Ferns recorded a 46-8 win over Fetu Samoa in Auckland and a 28-8 loss to the Jillaroos in Wollongong at Test level either side of their triumph in the inaugural World Nines tournament.
COVID-19 put paid to any hope of a New Zealand-Australia Test in 2020, but the Kiwi Ferns’ showdown with Samoa is nevertheless a fitting way to mark the team’s 25-year milestone. A host of debutants will accompany captain Krystal Rota, fellow stalwart Maitua Feterika and 39-year-old Kiwi Ferns legend Honey Hireme-Smiler.
Acknowledging the players, coaches, administrators and volunteers who ‘dug the well’ for women’s rugby league in New Zealand will undoubtedly play a key role in the Kiwi Ferns’ build-up to this week’s match. Kiwis & National Teams Manager Conlon and Head of Women’s Rugby League Avaiki continue to fly the flag for the 1995 originals on the NZRL staff, while Conlon’s exhaustive research has this week culminated in the assigning of Kiwi Ferns numbers for all 147 New Zealand women’s internationals.
“It has been good to see how far the Kiwi Ferns and women’s rugby league has come, with all the great achievements of the past, present and for future Kiwi Ferns,” foundation skipper Hall says.
“The progress and been slow and steady – compared to the Australian competitions of both local club and NRLW, we a slightly behind. The lack of teams in grassroots club level is evident.
“With the Warriors’ team entry into the NRLW competition, it has given a huge boost for women in rugby league. This has been enthralling and fabulous to watch, and for the next generation to aspire to.
“However, kudos to NZRL for their efforts in progressing and improving New Zealand women in league.
“I have to mention also the amazing stalwarts and hardworking former Kiwi Ferns – the likes of Luisa Avaiki Nadene Conlon, Tammy Wilson, Lynley Tierney and many others – who have continued to promote, support and do a fabulous job within in their roles in NZRL.”
KIWI FERNS INTERNATIONAL RECORD – 1995-2019
Authored by Will Evans