As seen on NRL.com
They don’t know it yet, but on the other side of the world right now two infants are helping break new ground for the Kiwi Ferns.
Felix, the 13-month-old son of Kiwi Ferns fullback Apii Nicholls, and Jakari, the 10-month-old son of Test newcomer Shanice Parker, have been welcomed into the New Zealand camp for the Women’s World Cup as part of a new policy introduced by coach Ricky Henry.
Both boys flew to England with the squad and will stay with their mums – who each have a primary carer with them – for the entirety of the tournament, as the team embraces a new way to support the young mums in their ranks.
It’s an important step forward for New Zealand’s elite female players, with the Kiwi Ferns following a string of other women’s sporting sides and competitions, including New Zealand’s women’s Super Rugby Aupiki competition, who have adopted similar approaches in recent times.
For Nicholls and Parker, the new policy means they avoided having to decide between being separated from their kids for a month, or turning down the chance to represent their nation on the biggest stage in England.
After returning to the NRLW arena this year with the Titans, Nicholls said leaving Felix back home while she toured wasn’t an option.
“When Ricky asked if I was available, I was doubting myself. I had just got back to footy but I also had baby, and I wanted baby with me wherever I travelled,” Nicholls told NRL.com.
“I am so grateful that Ricky and the team were able to accommodate me having the baby here with me.”
For Newcastle Knights back Parker, it’s also presented her with a chance to make valuable memories with Jakari.
“It means everything to me to have baby in camp,” she said.
“I have thought about how special it is. I thought how cool it was to have baby alongside me through all the moments this year, including winning the NRLW GF, but nothing tops bringing baby to the World Cup.
“This will definitely be one to remember.”
Kiwi Ferns legend Honey Hireme told NRL.com she hopes it will eventually become an accepted part of women’s elite sport.
“That’s just how it should be, and the more sports that get on board with that and support their female athletes the better,” Hireme told NRL.com.
“It’s actually becoming the norm. You are seeing it in other codes now where female athletes can travel with their young babies.
“I think back to my first World Cup in 2003, which was in New Zealand, and we at times had a couple of kids who would come in and visit in camp, but they weren’t travelling alongside the team.
“It’s great for the current Kiwi Ferns to be able to take their babies along.”
Almost every sports team in the world, no matter the code, will tell you that the concept of family is an integral part of their values, and the Kiwi Ferns are no exception.
In making this decision, Henry wants it to be known that those ideas are more than just words.
“We are all about family and want to make sure we keep the camp environment as close as possible to when we are at home,” Henry told NRL.com.
“We talk about family as one of our values, and we want to make sure that we cater for that as well.
“The game and the world is changing and we have to cater for these things.”
At the end of the day, the Kiwi Ferns core focus is on winning the World Cup.
While every mum will feel and react differently to it, there is little doubt that being separated from young children, who remain heavily dependent on their mums, for long periods is an unsettling experience for all involved.
With that in mind, Henry believes having Felix and Jakari nearby will help Nicholls and Parker prepare and perform better.
“We want to make sure that the baby is comfortable, but also that the mum is comfortable too,” Henry said.
“We think they can play their best football if they have their child there and have that peace of mind.
“If we can help players play their best football and feel content, that’s what we are aiming for.”
Parker said if Jakari was back home in Australia, there is no way her focus on the World Cup could be as strong as it is with him in camp.
“It just makes the whole experience so much easier, having them and a carer in camp with us so we aren’t stressing or missing them for a month.
“It means we are able to balance both being athlete and mum. Getting the best of both worlds.”
October 28, 2022
If Apii Nicholls is able to return to her damaging best for the Kiwi Ferns during the upcoming Women’s World Cup in England, it will be thanks in part to the influence of a 20-Test Jillaroo.
After two years away from the game, during which time she gave birth to her second son Felix, Nicholls questioned whether she still belonged at NRLW level at the start of the 2022 season.
It was at that point that Steph Hancock, the 40-year-old Titans prop and Jillaroos legend, took it upon herself to become somewhat of a personal mentor to her teammate, with words of encouragement that proved crucial during the pre-season on the Gold Coast.
“Steph was pushing me, telling me that I am ready and that I haven’t lost that elite ability. She supported me to keep going because she felt like I was ready and I could do this,” Nicholls told NRL.com.
“Playing with her, her leadership on the field, she inspires me to do my best.
“To this day she checks in now and then to make sure my mind is in the game.
“You need people like that in your life.”
Nicholls went on to appear in each of the Gold Coast’s five NRLW games this past season, playing as both a fullback and centre, before earning a call up from Kiwi Ferns coach Ricky Henry.
Hancock said she is in awe of how Nicholls and other mum’s managed to return to the field after giving birth, recalling a moment in the Titans’ round 2 clash with the Knights which tested even her own concentration levels.
“I don’t know how Apii actually managed. At the Titans’ home game this year I distinctly remember her son Felix in the stands being looked after, literally at kick off, and I could hear him screaming,” Hancock told NRL.com.
“I looked over at her and you could see she probably wasn’t concentrating and she threw a wild pass right at the start but then came right.
“Even though she definitely has the ability and the talent, I think she sort of second guessed herself with her confidence.
“It’s been an absolute pleasure to get to know Apii.”
However Hancock admits the cordial relationship will be tested if Nicholls goes on to help New Zealand beat Australia to the World Cup title.
“I will be filthy, I’m not going to lie. That will have an impact on our friendship,” Hancock laughed.
“Being a Jillaroo for 20 years my heart is with the green and gold and I hope we do it for a third time in a row.”