The two-year search for elusive Black Ferns

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Trying to track down all 222 women who've played for the Black Ferns has taken Adam Julian on a "pretty wild" odyssey around New Zealand, and the globe. 

 

He found Amy Farr, Black Fern No.147, living in Switzerland, coaching the Wildcats women’s rugby side and working for the European Respiratory Society, helping distribute ventilators for the Covid-19 pandemic. 

 

Canterbury forward Rhonda Cobley, Black Fern No.45, was discovered in Barcelona, where she now competes in dressage. She married former Spanish rugby captain Chupao Gutiérrez, and they have five daughters – two of them accomplished rugby players in their own right.

 

A World Cup winner in 2006, Black Fern No.124, Shannon Willoughby, suffered a stroke when she was 32. But she got her pilot's licence back and returned to the rugby field – playing her final game for Auckland on World Stroke Day. Julian spoke to Willoughby in the Bay of Plenty village of Mamaku – which is also the name of the native tree fern, the black fern.

 

A rugby statistician and journalist, Julian spent two years searching for the 222 women who’ve played for the Black Ferns over the past three decades.

 

Only a handful have eluded him in his pursuit to complete the first Black Ferns A-Z encyclopaedia.

 

Like Black Fern No.2, Miriama Baker. Julian knows she played first-five in the first New Zealand XV, who beat the California Grizzlies in 1989, and was the oldest Black Ferns player at the inaugural World Cup in 1991. She also played softball, football and basketball for Waikato.

 

“She may have changed her last name, like many of the women had. She’ll probably turn up out of the blue tomorrow and live two doors down the road,” he laughs.

 

Joan Sione is another Julian hasn't been able to pin down. A fearless flanker who was integral to the Black Ferns 2010 World Cup victory, Sione now lives somewhere in Australia. 

 

 

Julian came up with the idea back in May 2019, after returning from a holiday in New Orleans to find he’d lost his winter contract working on the 1st XV Rugby show.

 

“It started like a blues song,” Julian says. “Suddenly I had little money and no job. I scratched around freelance writing and doing odd jobs [like bartending] to make ends meet.” Then he had his Eureka moment.

 

Where the All Blacks had a comprehensive online A-Z of every player who’s pulled on the black jersey, there was little documented information about the Black Ferns – especially the trailblazers in the late 1980s and through the ‘90s.

 

Julian approached New Zealand Rugby with his plan, and he was given a three-month trial to pull together as much of the information as he could.

 

“Every player had been assigned a number and [historian] Clive Akers had recorded scores and stats in the Rugby Almanack, so it was simple - contact the players and talk to them about their actual experiences.”

Adam Julian

 

But NZ Rugby couldn’t give Julian any of the players’ contact details because of privacy, so he had to find them in a roundabout way.

 

“One of the reasons I decided to interview these women is that they are emotional in the way they speak, and give you answers that are genuine and interesting,” he says. “Some were really engaged in sharing their stories, others weren’t interested at all. For some, that time was only a small part of their lives.”

 

By March 2020, when New Zealand went into its first lockdown, the funding for Julian’s project "disappeared". But he decided to carry on.

 

“I was making good headway, and not to continue would be contrary to the spirit of the project,” Julian says. “The women who played sacrificed a lot to do so and were kind enough to share some of that experience with me. It would be disingenuous to give up when many of them got nothing, and I was getting something by writing about it.”

 

He tracked down some Black Ferns through social media channels; talked to them in person, on the phone or through Zoom. He found them on almost every continent, and in remote corners of Aotearoa.

 

It turned up some surprises – like 56-year-old Geri Paul, Black Fern No.41, still playing club rugby in Waitara. And the odd coincidence.

 

Julian rang a woman named Lesley Simpson, thinking she was Lenadeen ‘Lesley’ Simpson, who’d captained the Black Ferns from 1994 to 1996. But the woman on the other end of the line was actually Lesley Brett - who’d played on the wing for New Zealand in the 1991 World Cup. She just so happened to have married Lenadeen's brother, All Black Victor Simpson.

 

 

Some went on to succeed in other sports. Lock Jude Ellis (Black Fern No.46) became one half of the first women’s crew to row across the Atlantic Ocean; 2017 World Cup winner Aroha Savage won a silver medal at the world championships of the wildly popular Indian game, kabaddi.

 

Last Christmas, the funding for the last third of the project was reinstated, but Julian still had 65 players to locate.

 

So he hit the road, travelling around New Zealand for 52 days “to get as close as possible to the suspected locations of the missing women,” he says.

 

“House sitting, couch surfing, backpacking – leads slowly came together and the list was whittled down.”

 

Sometimes, Julian felt like he was on a wild goose chase. On Day 51, he was in Tauranga, staying in a backpackers hostel “with half a dozen sketchy blokes, sleeping with my wallet under my pillow”.

 

He was put in touch with Bay of Plenty rugby historian Brent Drabble in Rotorua, and decided to take a bus from Tauranga to meet him.

 

“The bus I intended to catch to reach him didn’t show. Two hours later, in torrential rain, the Intercity showed up and I got to Rotorua via Hamilton and Taupo. It was just a shambles,” Julian recalls.

 

But it wasn’t in vain. Through Drabble’s connections, Julian found Kellie Kiwi, Black Fern No.67, the zippy halfback in New Zealand’s 1998 World Cup triumph.

 

Julian discovered only five of the 222 women have died. Among them are Tracey Lemon (Black Fern #40) who played two tests in the mid-1990s, and also represented New Zealand in triathlon and outrigger canoe. She’s also credited with introducing Dame Valerie Adams to shot put as her PE teacher at Southern Cross Campus.

 

There are 12 new players in the Black Ferns squad now on tour in England and France, with their first test match against England on Monday (NZ time). So Julian expects to add more encyclopaedia entries over the next few weeks. So far he’s compiled 187,000 words.

 

“Like the Black Ferns story, it's always growing and I hope a culture develops within the team from this point on where stories are shared openly and captured for all time,” he says.

 

"There are a vast number of people who've helped pull this thing together and for that I'm hugely grateful." People like his mum, Gay, and sister, Sam, who helped to replace his laptop after Black Fern Fiona Hunter (nee Johnson) accidentally spilt coffee over his old one during their chat in a Palmerston North cafe. 

 

"I hope the finished article increases understanding and esteem of the Black Ferns, and a love of rugby," Julian says.

 

“The Black Ferns are a triumph of perseverance. They refused to go away when many wanted them to or put obstacles in the way to ensure they might. Winning and changing societal attitudes have seen them reach a point where today, they’re more popular than they’ve ever been. And it’s likely their growth will continue.”

 

* The Black Ferns tests against England (November 1 and 8) and France (November 14 and 21) will be shown live on Sky Sport 1 and 2.

 

Thank you to LockerRoom editor Suzanne McFadden for providing allblacks.com with this piece. Check out LockerRoom's website HERE.

 

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