Nadene Conlon’s distinguished standing as a women’s rugby league pioneer and long-serving, high-achieving Kiwi Ferns leader is matched only by her towering off-field contributions to the game.


Conlon was part of New Zealand’s trailblazing 1995 tour of Australia, featuring in the second-row in both Tests. She was vice-captain for the Kiwi Ferns’ next two assignments – the 1997 series against Australia and the 1998 series against Great Britain – and skippered her country for the first time against the green-and-golds in 1999.


Regarded as the backbone of the Kiwi Ferns’ pack whose game was built around defence and an exceptional work-rate on both sides of the ball, Conlon also slotted in at loose forward, hooker, halfback and centre at club and representative level.


“I loved the game, loved the contact and the confrontation. But the highlight for me has been seeing the women’s game progress and for people to take it more seriously,” Conlon says.


“We applied ourselves and took it very seriously, but because it was essentially very amateur I think some people from the outside looked at it like it was a bit of a hobby, a fly-by-nighter type thing.


“But I trained constantly to be in the Kiwi Ferns. It was a dream – I wanted to be in that team and be the best in the world.”


The Auckland and New Zealand Māori skipper co-captained New Zealand’s triumph in the inaugural women’s Rugby League World Cup in England in 2000 with Nicole Presland and was named best forward of the tournament.


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A perennial club player of the year award recipient for Te Atatu, Mount Albert, Point Chevalier, Marist and Bay Roskill, Conlon earned a place in the team of the tournament as the Kiwi Ferns defended their title at the 2003 World Cup at home. She was an intermittent captain of the Test side until injuries denied her a farewell Kiwi Ferns appearance in 2006 after being selected. Of the ’95 originals, only champion prop Luisa Avaiki’s Kiwi Ferns tenure extended further than Conlon’s.


“Nadene was one of those reliable players who played the same game every time she took the field,” says former Kiwis coach Frank Endacott, who selected the 2003 World Cup team of the tournament.


“She never let the team down, was always in the tough stuff and making the hard yards, a very mobile second-rower. And a lovely person to go with it, she’s done a lot of work with New Zealand Rugby League and other teams since. Nadene’s a very worthy recipient (of the Legends of League honour).”


Conlon became New Zealand’s first fulltime female coaching and development officer in 2000 with Auckland Rugby League and took on her initial role with New Zealand Rugby League as logistics and events manager from 2002-07.


She then spent six years on the Warriors’ staff as event and match-day manager and later team manager of the NRL and NYC sides, before rejoining NZRL as Kiwis and National Teams Manager in 2014 while also managing domestic competitions.


Harnessing the same work ethic, drive, humility and selflessness that were her trademarks as a player, Conlon is widely admired at all levels of the rugby league community for her tireless efforts.


“Nadene is a huge asset to New Zealand Rugby League, with how she looks after both the men and the women in such a large job and knows all the specifics required either when you are on tour and away from home or playing in Auckland,” current Kiwis coach Michael Maguire told in 2020.


“She played at the highest level for a long period at a time when the players had to carry a job and pay for their own tours and she is very humble and grateful around the comparisons and the joys of the girls and men now being paid and enjoying the sport in a different way.”


Conlon played a prominent role in bringing the New Zealand women’s team under the NZRL umbrella in 2014, as well as putting in countless hours preserving Kiwi Ferns history and shining a light on the rich narrative that she has been such an integral part of.


“Growing up in rugby league there wasn’t really any female heroes and I wanted the women to be like the men in regards to how the game was perceived, that was my driving ambition,” Conlon explains.


“I’m working through the arrangements now for the (New Zealand v Tonga) Test matches and what I do for the Kiwis, I do exactly the same for the Kiwi Ferns – which shows how far the game has come.


“It’s a dream come true, really, and it’s happened in such a short space of time. I’m very proud to still be involved and see them have the success they so deserve.”




Clubs: Te Atatu, Mount Albert, Point Chevalier, Marist, Bay Roskill

Provinces: Auckland


New Zealand Representative:


1995  in Australia

1997  v Australia

1998  v Great Britain

1999  v Australia (home and away)

2000  World Cup (England)

2002  v New Zealand Māori

2003  World Cup (NZ)

2004  in Australia

2006  v New Zealand Māori




Kiwi Ferns World Cup-winning co-captain (2000)

World Cup best forward (2000)

World Cup team of the tournament (2003)