Holmes aims for black jersey in fourth NZ sport

Renee Holmes has already represented New Zealand in three sports. After a "disheartening” incident in her soccer career, she switched to rugby - and now aims to make that four. 

Renee Holmes grew up wanting to be a Football Fern. 

The teenager knew she would have to play against the men to realise her dream. But what she didn’t realise was there were those who'd say she would “ruin the culture" of the game if she did so.

All of her family in Gisborne played football - she's one of six siblings - and Holmes had a natural aptitude for the game. The schoolgirl even moved away from her family to live in Auckland in Year 11 to gain more football experience. 

“I went to Massey High because they have a soccer programme,” she says. “I had an awesome year and I would’ve stayed on, but I was there for a purpose.”

She made the New Zealand U17 women’s team and played in the national league that year. 

But then Holmes realised how important family was, and moved back to Gisborne to finish her last two years of school. 

After getting approval to play in the men’s local soccer competition in her hometown, she laced up with teammates on a Saturday morning and managed to come away with a win in her first match.

But the opposing team complained because Holmes was a girl. And the result was overturned. 

“It’s quite disheartening going through all of that. It's pretty stink,” says the now 20-year-old. 

“I’d moved to Auckland, got what they wanted, came home, tried to play and got a door shut on me saying, ‘Sorry, a girl will ruin the culture of our game’. It really took a toll on me in terms of wanting to play [football] again.” 

Not wanting to completely give up on her football dream, Holmes went through a further approval process to play against another men’s team - and got the green light from the opposition. But the same thing happened again after her team won. 

Feeling defeated, Holmes turned to another code. She took up rugby - and hasn’t looked back. 

Renee Holmes is one of the original Tania Dalton Foundation scholars. Photo: TDF

The youngster carried the same determination and talent onto the rugby field. In her first year playing 15s, aged just 17, she made the Hawke's Bay Tui women's team playing in the Farah Palmer Cup.

Holmes recalls having to finish school early every Wednesday that season, so her dad could drive her three-and-a-half hours (one-way) to Hastings for training.

It was no burden for the “crazy” proud father, who had already been driving the return trip every Monday, Wednesday and Saturday so his daughter could go to club training and play matches for the Hastings Rugby and Sports Club. She received the women’s MVP and top points scorer for her new club in her debut season.

Holmes says some club training sessions would only have four people, but her dad was persistent even when he knew they wouldn't get home until around midnight. 

“Looking back at it now, I’m just so grateful. I had never really driven out of town back then so I never realised how much of a trip it was until I started getting on the road myself,” laughs Holmes. “Dad just wants what's best for me and he's given me every opportunity.” 

The halfback/first-five went on to play for the Bay of Plenty Volcanix in the women’s national competition, and then Waikato, where she's moved to this year for university.  Last year she was named Waikato Women’s player of the year.

With the Farah Palmer Cup confirmed to start in August, the Red Bull Ignite7s MVP (see video below) is stoked she’ll be passing the ball around with her friends again now that training has ramped up. 

The sporting prodigy loves both rugby formats and would love to get a black jersey in either one. 

“The ultimate end goal is to have a black jersey. Whether it's in sevens or 15s, that’s always been the goal,” she says. “It’s always to represent New Zealand, no matter what sport it’s in.”

Holmes has already reached national honours in age-grade football, taekwondo and ultimate frisbee.

“I went to the U20 Women’s World Cup for ultimate frisbee when I was 16 and loved it," says Holmes, who was runner-up MVP at the tournament. "But I can’t do other sports now with rugby commitments.

“I had a big eye opener when I went to the New Zealand sevens development camp earlier this year. I think that was my ‘this is where I want to be moment’, so now I just have to go away and work harder.” 

Holmes says picking up the fundamentals of sports from all three codes has helped her rugby career, and family and community are big motivators in pushing her further. 

“I guess for a lot of people it’s about their family, and I’m the same. I want to make them proud,” says Holmes. “But I also want to do it for myself. I know that sounds selfish but I want to do it for me because I know I have a lot more potential.” 

Her strong sense of community is an area Holmes would like to be more involved in outside her rugby, and she's getting practice through the Tania Dalton Foundation. 

The foundation awards three-year scholarships to young women in sport who will hopefully go on to make an impact in their communities. Holmes is now in her final year.

She's helped to host workshops in Gisborne and Rotorua, presenting at both events. 

“I shared some of my story and journey, and obviously coming from a small town like Gizzy, I mentioned to them ‘If you can dream it, go and chase it’,” says Holmes.

As one of the inaugural scholarship recipients, Holmes also presented to the new girls who started their three-year opportunity this year.

“It’s quite crazy when you think about it. It feels like I just got my acceptance call yesterday so being able to give back is so humbling,” she says.

As part of the scholarship, each recipient is also partnered with a mentor. Holmes has Silver Ferns' assistant coach and former New Zealand netball player Debbie Fuller. 

“Debbie has been amazing - she’s the bomb. I’m so glad I got her,” she says. “It's cool to go off to someone else from a different code who has been there and done that, because professional sports are all the same. So everything she passes down to me is huge.” 

Now with no active Covid-19 cases in New Zealand, Holmes is set for a jam-packed second half of the year. She has full-time study at the University of Waikato toward a Bachelor of Health, Sport and Human Performance, on top of her Farah Palmer Cup responsibilities.

It will be her second attempt at study as she was enrolled in papers last year but deferred them when she got the call to go to Japan to play sevens. She's meant to be there now - playing for the Hokkaido Barbarians - but coronavirus stopped those plans.

“Japan was amazing, I fell in love with it. It’s such a cool lifestyle and they’ve got a beautiful culture,” says Holmes, who was there for nearly four months. 

“I never thought I would be getting paid to just train and play rugby at the age of 19. That was a dream come true.”  

Holmes believes everything happened for a reason and the switch to rugby was a blessing in disguise. 

Now she just needs to make another dream come true - continuing to work towards representing New Zealand in a fourth sport. 

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