Kristina Sue: the accidental coach
The Black Ferns produce a lot of incredible women on and off the field, but one player who never ceases to amaze is halfback Kristina Sue. Taylah Hodson-Tomokino reports.
Her quadruple international status is impressive, but it’s Kristina Sue's passion and commitment to education, and our youth, that has me in awe.
She may only be 5ft 3in (1.6m) but the size of her heart is immeasurable.
For a lot of elite athletes, coaching seems like a natural path to go down. But Kristina Sue slipped into her coaching role largely by accident - and hasn’t looked back since.
Remarkably, the former New Zealand League, Sevens and Touch international led the Manukura girls 1st XV to a National top 4 final in just her first year of coaching.
Sue’s journey with Manukura started last year when then-coach Janna Vaughn, also a Black Fern, asked her to help the girls for a few weeks en route to the Condor’s National Secondary School Sevens tournament. Vaughn had a short coaching stint in Japan to attend to, and needed a stand-in.
However, what seemed like a short coaching gig over the summer turned long-term when Vaughn told Sue she wouldn’t be returning after finding full-time work in Japan.
Sue already has a lot on her plate. She’s a senior tutor at Massey University, teaching two papers in the postgraduate diploma in teaching, a senior physical education and health teacher at Manukura, and a contracted Black Fern.
Despite that extensive workload, she says she took on the coaching role to give her a challenge.
“I’m the type of person that, if I’m in, then I’m all in” she explained. “I was honestly a bit hesitant to take up coaching because I knew how time-consuming it is. But I thought if I don’t, then these girls aren’t going to have anyone and I don’t want that.”
Sue selflessly took on the commitment at Manukura - a special character high school with a roll of just over 200 students. While most schools have the luxury of having a large talent pool to choose from, Sue had 21 players throughout the year with four of the girls in the 21-man squad new to rugby.
And when she says she’s “all-in,” she means it. The 31-year-old even went to the lengths of taking photos of all the girls in their kit and would release team naming sheets like the professional sides do.
“The whole reason why I did all of that was so that they has a sense of belonging and that they realised girls' rugby was actually meaningful.”
The Palmerston North-based school was not known to be a powerhouse in schoolgirl rugby, but it stamped its mark on the competition with wins over Feilding High in the Manawatu final and 2017 National Champions St Mary’s College, Wellington in the Hurricanes regional final.
At the Barbarians National Top 4, Manukura were the new kids on the block and went on to beat the vastly experienced Southland Girls High team, who had made an appearance at the nationals every year since its inception in 2013. They were then tasked with defeating a classy Hamilton Girls High in the national final, but were unable to compete with their size and experience - finishing their season as national runners-up.
“Our theme this year was to set the standard, break new ground and create a legacy,” Sue said.
“To me, they had already achieved something phenomenal to actually compete with the top schools with 21 players. I told the girls they should be proud because they actually have created history.”
But Sue didn’t just mould them in to fantastic athletes, she also taught them invaluable life lessons. She was introduced to a young girl by the name of Poppy and learned that she had been bullied for being the only girl in her club rugby team. For Poppy, rugby was her happy place and she had always idolised Sue. What Sue did next is testament to her loving nature, and undoubtedly changed Poppy’s life and the lives of her team.
“I went along and watched her play club rugby and kept in contact with her Mum. I asked her to come and do our jersey presentation, I asked her to be our ball girl and I just wanted to develop a culture with the Manukura girls that wasn’t just about technical and tactical coaching,” she said. “I told the girls, you can inspire her. Poppy can look up to these young girls and realise that it is more than just a game.”
Poppy’s mother Chrissy Davis was overwhelmed at the efforts of the Manukura team. She said they taught her about commitment, courage, kindness and understanding among many other things. “They taught her that bullies don’t matter, she does. [She] now has 21 friends watching out for her.”
During this time, Sue was away with the Black Ferns during their test series against Australia’s Wallaroos. However, she was still working relentlessly behind the scenes, creating schedules, training programmes and jersey presentations for the girls with every spare minute she had on camp.
“It was great to see comments about them as good people, so the fact that they’re good rugby players, that’s just a bonus,” Sue said.
Sue still turns out every week for the Manawatu Cyclones in the Farah Palmer Cup. Manukura schoolgirls Kalyn Takitimu-Cook and Carys Dallinger are her team mates. She admits they give each other a bit of stick, but she couldn’t be more proud of them. “It’s cool to see the young talent coming through knowing I’ve been part of that growth and to see it come to fruition during the game and playing alongside me.”
So what’s next for Kristina Sue? Not even a week after the conclusion of the girls' 1st XV season, she’s already coaching the Manukura senior girls' touch rugby team, and the senior boys' 7s team. Funnily enough, she won’t be taking the girls' 7s this summer as Janna Vaughn has returned from her stint in Japan.
“I realised I actually do love coaching and I love it when you can have a team from the start to the finish. I’ve never had a passion and enjoyment for coaching like I have had this season so I would like to continue.”
She’s also got Black Ferns commitments to worry about with upcoming internationals at the end of the year – but Sue also sees this as another opportunity to develop her coaching skills.
“I feel privileged that I can use what I learn with the Black Ferns, the expertise and everything at that high performance level and to be able to pass it down to the girls is a real advantage. I’m just sharing what I’ve learnt.”