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History-maker Mahoney adds to Ferns’ legacy with whistle

She may call herself “just a typical farming girl”, but former Black Fern Rebecca Mahoney has just made rugby history. Jim Kayes reports.

Rebecca Mahoney rattles through the names like an honours roll call: Black Ferns who have gone on to be just as impressive off the field as they were on it.

Women like Dr Farah Palmer, the first woman on the board of New Zealand Rugby; Louisa Wall, an MP in the Labour-led coalition government; Melodie Robinson, who smashed the glass ceiling at Sky Sport.

There are others, like captain Fiao'o Faamausili, a police detective in south Auckland, and Selica Winiata, a police officer in Palmerston North.

They are, Mahoney says, the embodiment of the sacrifices it took to play for the Black Ferns, when the game was amateur and played largely below the radar, away from the spotlight.

And it’s their legacy, she believes, that will ensure the game is played for the right reasons as it slowly becomes professional.

“The legacy they’ve created, because they are becoming powerful people, will always be there,” Mahoney says.

“And as time goes by, that’s going to be even more important, to keep that mana in the jersey. It will change and people will want to play because there’s an opportunity to make money. And that’s life, because we all need to live, but I know that there’s such a legacy [to live up to].

“I look at these women and they’re not just rugby players. What they are creating for people to follow, men and women, is huge. It’s exciting.”

Mahoney is also one of those influential women.

The former Black Fern became the first woman to referee a men’s first class match in New Zealand, when she had the whistle for Thames Valley’s Heartland clash against King Country, in Te Aroha last weekend.

She has two more Heartland games to come and is almost certain to referee the Farah Palmer Cup final, as she did in her first year as a referee.

When it’s suggested she is every inch the trailblazer as the other women she reeled off, Mahoney pauses. It’s not in her nature to show off. But she admits, “it’s a nice feeling” to be seen as an inspiration by others.

“I hope I’m doing the same thing in farming as well, because I want to achieve as much in farming as I do in reffing,” she says.

Mahoney, 35, is a full-time farmer running 1300 acres of medium-to-steep hill country 20km outside of Eketahuna, in the northern Wairarapa.

She does this while her husband, Luke, operates a sheep crutching business that sees him tidy up around 400,000 sheep a year.

Often, they are the proverbial ships that cross in the night. Mahoney’s mum, Shirley Hull, arrives at 5.30 each morning to see that Rebecca and Luke’s daughters - Amber, 10, and Harper, 5 - are fed and on the bus to school.

Mahoney runs four farms, rearing about 1200 calves, and will manage up to seven staff during peak times. She suggests she is “just a typical farming girl”.

Always good at sport, Mahoney excelled at tennis from an early age, and made the New Zealand under 15 football tournament team while at Palmerston North Girls High School in 1998.

It was that year, though, she went to the Golden Shears in Masterton and met a few women who were working as rousies. They urged her to have a crack at rugby.

She turned up at senior training at the Bush club in Pahiatua on the Tuesday and, because she could kick, was slotted in at first five.

She was just 15 and it was an education on and off the field. “They were hard working women who were used to getting their hands dirty,” Mahoney remembers fondly.

It wasn’t long till she was picked for higher honours eventually playing for Manawatu, Wellington and Hawke’s Bay, and making the Black Ferns in 2004.

She played 16 tests, and appeared at two World Cups, before retiring at the end of 2014 and taking up refereeing.

Mahoney was an almost instant success as she controlled the Farah Palmer Cup final that year and has since refereed a World Cup qualifying match between Japan and Hong Kong in 2016, and at a variety of sevens tournaments, including the Commonwealth Games and World Cup.

And then last Saturday, she took charge of a men’s first class match. It was a historic event - and there was a bit of fanfare. But Mahoney took it all in her stride.

“From the minute I arrived, the Thames Valley Rugby Union were amazing,” she says. “There was a lot of excitement around having a female ref, but I felt like I was at home - it was just so comfortable.”

Mahoney has two more Heartland matches and will control the New Zealand Barbarians Secondary School match against Fiji next month, too.

But she is reluctant to look beyond this year, saying she’s already achieved so much as a referee.

While she won’t say it, it’s easy to imagine that becoming the first woman to referee a Super Rugby match is a goal.

But Mahoney prefers to steer clear of any public proclamations.

She says instead that refereeing isn’t about the person with the whistle, it’s about the game and the players.

She laughs at how noisy women’s games are, especially at the scrums, where everyone seems to be talking. But she says the game is pretty clean and played in a good spirit.

She wonders, though, if that will remain the case as it becomes more professional and livelihoods rely on the result.

She hopes more former Black Ferns will follow her into the refereeing ranks: “If the game continues to grow, we’re going to need more refs.”

And she delights in the matches she controls, especially in the Farah Palmer Cup, as many of her old teammates are still running around.

“I love catching up with them. It’s nice to see your mates - without getting all the bumps and bruises.”

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