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Niall Williams: mother-of-2, inspiration to all

Niall Williams is quite literally the mother figure in the Black Ferns Sevens squad. Sarah Cowley-Ross reports.

Niall Williams delivers her own unique brand of strength to the world champion Black Ferns Sevens side.

“I think the strength I bring to the team is resilience,” the 30-year-old sevens star says. “As a mum, and being a bit older, I know I haven’t always had this amazing opportunity to play sport for a living.”

You could also call it “mum strength” – that mental fortitude, multi-tasking and ability to cope through thick and thin that comes from being a mother. In Williams’ case, to daughters Tatum-Lee, six, and Rema-Rae, four.

Motherhood has undeniably taught Williams how to adapt quickly. And, on the rugby field, the powerful centre’s ability to make decisions in the blink of an eye makes her a devastating opponent.

“When I’m with the team I always give my best, because I don’t want to waste this time away from my kids,” she says.

Williams is the only mother in the world champion Black Ferns Sevens side, but her young daughters have a lot of “rugby aunties” and the team environment is family-oriented. Other players, like captain Sarah Goss, will sometimes do school and daycare drop-offs to help the young family.

Goss says Williams brings a different perspective to the team as a mother.

“The rest of us don’t have to think about family life; it’s just about ourselves. We can get caught up in our own world. Niall raising the girls with her partner, and fitting everything in, is amazing and shows the rest of us there’s more to life than rugby,” she says.

Before Williams moved south to the Bay of Plenty earlier this year, daily training for the Black Ferns Sevens players based at Mount Maunganui routinely started at 8.30am.

But when Williams had to get her daughters to school and daycare en route to the team’s base – the Adams Centre for High Performance at the Mount’s Blake Park - a team decision was made to push the start time out to 9am to make it work for her.

“While it’s only half an hour, it was a really big deal for me,” Williams says. “I guess the girls were grateful to get another half-hour of sleep, but it does push their day out longer at the other end. For them to do that for my family, it means a lot.”

The move to the Mount to further Williams’ sevens career was a tough one. Family in Auckland have always helped Williams and her partner, former Touch Blacks player Tama Guthrie, look after the girls whenever Williams travels to play on the World Sevens circuit. They’re still figuring out how to make the juggle work.

But New Zealand Rugby have been supportive of her upheaval. Team management helped Williams and Guthrie search for their first family home. Black Ferns sevens assistant coach, Cory Sweeney, helped Guthrie get full-time work.

“When they [management] go out of their way to help you and your family, it makes you want to train harder for them as a way of saying thanks and returning the favour,” Williams says.

From October, all of the players contracted to the Black Ferns Sevens will need to live in the Bay of Plenty, to be part of a centralised programme at Blake Park, as the All Blacks Sevens have been this year.

After a decade-long career with the national touch side, Williams converted to sevens rugby in 2014. She played her first tournament with the Black Ferns Sevens in 2015 and hasn’t looked back.

She thinks her mental toughness grew initially from her days at Roskill South Athletics Club, alongside her two elder brothers, John-Afa and Sonny Bill, and twin sister Denise. “I didn’t know it at the time, but [athletics] really built my inner confidence. You’re out there on the start-line by yourself and you’ve got to show up,” she says.

Goss says her close friend Williams will never give up and knows she’ll leave it all out on the field every time.

She laughs reflecting on Williams’ super-competitive nature. “It’s always nice if you get one over her, because she’ll be a bit annoyed. She’ll take it but then you better watch out, because she’ll come back even stronger the next time,” Goss says. “She’s got a real good, strong heart.”

Returning home from the Rugby World Cup Sevens in San Francisco last week as a world champion, Williams is still buzzing. But it’s been a very long season.

She admits five legs of the World Sevens Series and two pinnacle events – winning gold at both the Commonwealth Games and the World Cup - take their toll. For the team to be able to put out a sensational performance in the World Cup final, beating France 29-0, was “such a massive feeling”.

“Only 21 points, all in one game, were scored against us the whole tournament – and that’s a huge credit to our team and management. We really made a statement to end the year. I’m so proud,” Williams says.

Her daughters are proud of their superstar mum too. Williams admits they gasped when she showed them her latest gold medal. “Rema-Rae said, ‘Hey Mumma, you’re a world champion’.”

Being a full-time professional rugby player is not something Williams takes for granted. She knows what it's like to work in a full-time job, which she says a lot of the younger players have never experienced.

“I know what’s like to be on the nine-to-five grind rather than being paid to travel the world playing the sport you love with your best friends,” she says. “So yeah, I’m really grateful.”

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