League

Warriors bolstered by Clark’s remarkable return

Kiwi Ferns legend and three-sport international Sarina Clark thought her league career was over when she became pregnant shortly before the 2017 world cup. Now, less than four months after giving birth, the mother-of-three is set to pull on a Warriors jersey. Steve Deane reports.

A routine trip to the dairy. That was the unlikely starting point for an adventure that would take Sarina Clark and a bunch of mates to places they’d never been, to witness sights they’d never seen, and do something no Kiwi women had ever done.

Back then, in 2013, Sarina Clark was Sarina Fiso, the Kiwi Ferns fullback rated as one of the finest female league players on the planet.

Clark and her mates were all pretty handy at rugby, league, touch and tag - pretty much anything that involved running and dodging, in fact. A local (yes, Indian) dairy owner figured they’d be pretty darn handy at Kabaddi.

He approached them about forming a team and having a crack at the Kabaddi world cup in India.

The tournament was in the footy off-season, so why the heck not, they thought?

“We coached ourselves by watching Youtube clips of Indians playing kabaddi,” Clark says. “We thought, ‘yeah that’s similar to bullrush, maybe we’ll give it a crack’.”

For the uninitiated, kabaddi is an Indian sport whose origins began roughly 4000 years ago. Played by teams of seven, the object of the game is for a single player on offence, referred to as a "raider", to run into the opposing team's half of a court, tag out as many of their defenders as possible, and return to their own half of the court, all without being tackled by the defenders.

To the untrained eye, it looks kind of crackers. But the core skills of tackling and evasion are very similar to those employed in the rugby codes.

At the 2013 world cup in the game’s Punjabi heartland, New Zealand fielded a team that included Clark and Kiwi Ferns team mates Rona Peters and Kathleen Wharton.

While there is an element of Cool Runnings in the tale, unlike the Jamaican bobsleigh team, the Kiwis were pretty darn good, finishing runners up to the peerless Indians in 2013 and making the final again a year later.

“It was similar to rugby and league, and we were pretty good at that. We transferred our skills,” Clark says.

The Indians were so impressed they later toured New Zealand for a five match test series.

Visiting India was eye-opening. A case manager for WINZ, Clark is no stranger to the concept of deprivation. India, though, was poverty on a whole new level.

‘It was quite overwhelming. You don’t see that level of poverty until you actually go there. It was a really good experience for me.”

On the sporting side, the kabaddi experience was another feather in a cap that includes a rugby league world cup victory in 2008, leading the Kiwi Ferns to successive series victories over the Jillaroos at the NRL Nines in 2015 and 2016, being named New Zealand’s finest female league player three times, and also representing her country at touch in 2009.

She was set to play for the Ferns in a third world cup in 2017 when life took a surprising turn. Six weeks before the tournament, she discovered she was pregnant with her third child – 15 years after giving birth to her first, daughter Dellwyn.

“We had been trying for some time and we just thought ‘if it happens it happens’,” she says. “We just didn’t think it would happen so soon.

“It was bittersweet news.”

‘We’ is Clark and husband Shaun, the current coach of the Howick Hornets. With the arrival of Johnson three and half months ago, the now 36-year-old Clark had figured that was that as far as her footy career went.

“I have seen so much happening around club footy because girls want to be a part of it now. They can see that there is actually a future for women’s rugby league now.”

- Sarina Clark

But, with Shaun coaching Howick and oldest son Luke heavily involved in the sport, league was never far away – and Clark quickly found she missed playing.

Two months after giving birth, she turned out for her Manurewa Wahine team.

“I found that hard,” she admits.

No kidding.

Tough as it was, it quickly dawned on her that returning to full fitness in time to turn out for the Warriors in the historic first season of the NRL women’s competition was feasible.

“Coming back to rugby league was never in the plan. To come back and try to get a contract, that was not my intention.

“I thought I would be terrible [in the club game], but I wasn’t. I thought ‘maybe I could have chance at playing it that competition’? Because it is a dream come true. It something that I never thought would happen.

“You’d hear talk that this and that might happen. But that has always been it – a might. So, to actually see it happen, it’s like ‘wow’.”

Clark is full of admiration for the way Australia has progressed the cause of women’s sports in recent times.

The country’s Olympic champion rugby sevens players are bona fide national stars, cricket’s Women’s Big Bash league has amassed huge TV ratings and AFL established a professional women’s competition in 2017.

Now rugby league has followed suit, introducing a pilot four-team competition to run concurrently with the NRL finals.

The concept is a massive step forward in a sport where the women’s game has long been treated as an afterthought. It’s also a sign of the women’s game’s burgeoning popularity and strength across the Tasman. Not all that long ago, the Australians were the Kiwi women’s whipping girls.

But, in 2013, the Jillaroos shocked the Kiwi Ferns to break their stranglehold on the world cup. The winds of change had begun to murmur.

With Clark leading the way, the Kiwi Ferns claimed the first two NRL Nines titles with 2-1 series victories in 2015 and 2016. But, in 2017, the worm turned well and truly, with the Jillaroos whipping the Kiwis 3-0 at Eden Park in the nines format, before going on to defend their world cup crown at Suncorp Stadium.

“They set the benchmark now,” Clark admits. “What they are doing over there is really great for women’s rugby league. We [in New Zealand] are slowly getting there. I’m super-stoked that the Warriors have jumped on board and we have got the chance to field an NRL team.

“I have seen so much happening around club footy because girls want to be a part of it now. They can see that there is actually a future for women’s rugby league now.”

Clark credits staying fit and active while pregnant with enabling her to return to the fold so quickly.

She continued to run until six and half months into her pregnancy, and was still taking hikes up Mangere Mountain the week before Johnson was born.

Even so: “It is probably the hardest thing I have done, to come back so soon after having baby,” she admits.

To put things in perspective – Clark this week contacted her bosses at Winz asking if she could extend her maternity leave to free up time to play for the Warriors. That is without doubt a first.

After a year full of surprises, there was still one more coming – with coach Luisa Avaiki informing the regular fullback she will be playing in the halves.

“That’s another new role for me,” she laughs. “It’s a huge challenge for me - and I’m really looking forward to it.”

She should get her first taste of action in a Warriors jersey tonight (Friday) when the team takes on an Auckland selection in the curtain-raiser for the Warriors men’s match against the Knights at Mt Smart Stadium.

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