“Our management are allowing us to fully express ourselves. And I guess that does mean that we are playing how we did when we were kids – enjoying ourselves, throwing the ball around, keeping the ball alive making the game exciting. I think we do play our best rugby when we are enjoying ourselves and when we are having fun. And so it's really awesome that we are still able to do that now and in the black jersey.” (Theresa Fitzpatrick, Black Ferns midfielder)
Has Theresa Fitzpatrick just summed up how we can save rugby and / or youth sport? Imagine if all players felt that joy when playing their chosen sport. Coaches take note.
The Rugby World Cup has been a wonderful showpiece of sport. We’ve seen record breaking crowds flock to matches, people tuning in to the telly and it has dominated media coverage. It’s the talk of the town as people are seeing the joy in the game we have all loved for so long. And leading the way are the Black Ferns.
For too long rugby teams at the top level have played with fear. Their playing brand appears to have been scripted by WorkSafe - largely about mitigating and reducing risks. So we’ve seen a heap of kicking for position, teams playing for penalties, rolling mauls and at times a preference to play without the ball - it’s been easier to construct a defensive system as it takes less creativity and imagination.
Well under the tutelage of Wayne Smith, the Black Ferns have torn up the script and have gone ‘all out attack.’ They tap and go, counter-attack, off-load. They play with freedom. One player said “good luck coming up with a defensive plan for us, we don’t even know where the ball is going.” And this style of play may look risky, but it is calculated and has purpose. Smith has picked an attacking blueprint based on truckloads of analysis and utilising the strengths of his player group. And execution doesn’t just happen by chance or good luck. They have stretched their skill sets for the past 6 months, where training is full on and replicates how they will play (and yes they use opposition).
And sure the likes of Smith, Henry and Cron have been there, done that and probably don’t have much to prove. Their careers aren’t on the line (with Smith and Henry indicating they are retiring…. again). They probably don’t feel the same pressure of results as when they were emergent coaches, but jeepers they work hard to help their players get a result.
And how refreshing is the vibe that comes out of the camp. It’s hard to know what comes first - do quality results lead to joy, or does joy lead to quality results? Whatever the case, we see smiles, laughter, singing, dancing, hard work, with high amounts of care for each other. They have music pumping and address media interviews with authenticity, humour and honesty. The coaching and management group has embraced individuality to let personalities shine.
So thank you Black Ferns. Coaches out there may now have confidence to do things differently, to play positively and put ‘joy’ high on the priority list in their team environments. You may have just helped rugby turn a much needed corner.