Black Ferns legend honing next era of rugby stars

She won four rugby World Cups in a sporting career that spanned two decades. Now Anna Richards is back in New Zealand helping develop the next generation of national rugby stars.

After a stint coaching the Hong Kong women’s sevens side, the Black Fern legend has started a new role with Auckland Rugby as their first women’s player development manager.

“My mission is to help players become the players they can and should be,” says Richards, who played a record-setting 49 tests at halfback and first five from 1990 to 2010. “I always wanted to give back to rugby after I finished playing, and coaching is how I can do that.”

She’s also making more history internationally, coaching the women’s Barbarians side in their very first international match on Sunday. The Barbarians defeated the USA Eagles, 34-33, with Richards at the helm.  

Richards had four Black Ferns in her squad – former captain Fiao’o Faamausili, Linda Itunu, Emma Jensen and Steph Te Ohaere-Fox. In a month’s time, they play England.

Back at Auckland Rugby, Richards is working with a group of contracted Black Ferns and players in the wider Black Ferns squad, New Zealand development sevens players and others who are part of the Auckland Storm.

“It’s great that New Zealand rugby has set up high performance units around the unions and it’s good to see other women in the same role around the country,” Richards says.

The impact of having Richards involved in the high performance arm of the women’s game isn’t lost on New Zealand Rugby.

The head of the women’s rugby development, Cate Sexton, says it’s fantastic to have Richards’ extensive knowledge of the game combined with her international coaching experience.

“She has a massive influence in women’s rugby and it’s great for us all to have her back in New Zealand and in the high performance space. You can’t bottle her playing experience, understanding of rugby and her involvement in other programmes,” she says.

Of the 12 rugby unions, three have women in similar roles to Richards – Aimee Sutorius in Otago, Amanda Murphy in Canterbury and Mary-Jane Durkin in Hawkes Bay.

Richards is also quick to acknowledge there’s a skilled group of men in the high performance units who are all championing the continued growth of women’s rugby.

There could not be a better woman in the role for Auckland Rugby. Richards was a member of the Storm side who were undefeated from 1994 to 2005, and captained the team for eight seasons.

One immediate focus for Richards will be looking at the overall workload of the schoolgirls who are involved in multiple sports and multiple teams within rugby.

“We have so many talented schoolgirls but it worries me how much work they’re doing,” she says.

The red flag for Richards is the number of serious injuries, like anterior cruciate ligament ruptures, in 16 to 18-year-olds.

“They think they have to do it all otherwise they’ll miss out. I think it’s my job to make sure that there’s a good team in place to support these girls. It’s about planning their lives a bit better and supporting them to be better people and better players,” she says.

The number of women playing rugby in New Zealand in 2018 grew by 10 percent. Sexton says that growth requires support, and having Richards in her new role in the Auckland region will help make the programme successful.

Originally from Timaru, Richards discovered rugby while working towards a double degree in law and art at the University of Canterbury.

A talented sportswoman, Richards was in the Canterbury netball side, when she suddenly found herself dropped from the team.

At the time, the Canterbury netball coach was Kay O’Reilly. Her husband, Laurie was a renowned women’s rugby coach – and one of Richards’ law lecturers - and he invited Richards to come along and watch a game of rugby with him.

“Of course they threw me on the field, and I loved it,” she says.  

Richards continued playing netball for a few more seasons, but admits she was “sometimes a good netball player and sometimes not”.

In rugby, she found her calling, and says the late O’Reilly was a great first coach to have. “He knew the game so well, and his family were so good to me and to many others,” she says.

Anna Richards with World Rugby Hall of Fame Cap she received in London in 2014. Photo Getty Images

Richards would go on to win World Cups with the Black Ferns in 1998, 2002, 2006 and 2010. She retired from international rugby, at the age of 45, as the most capped Black Fern in history (since eclipsed by Faamausili) and was inducted into the World Rugby Hall of Fame in 2014.

She also played club rugby in Italy and England, and captained New Zealand in sevens and touch.

In her new role, Richards can draw from both her incredible playing experience and her coaching career, which began as a player-coach of her Auckland club side, College Rifles, in 1999.

“When I was playing rugby, the women’s space always needed better coaches,” she says.

She recently returned from Hong Kong where she was the head coach of the national women’s sevens side for four years. Based out of the Hong Kong Sports Institute, it was well supported as an Olympic sport.

“Hong Kong was an awesome learning experience from me, going from training twice a week to coaching fulltime,” she says. “Coaching fulltime is tough, but it was rewarding to make progress in the time I was there.”

Last year Richards was involved as one of the coaches in the New Zealand Rugby “Ignite7” talent identification programme aiming to find the next generation of sevens stars off the back of the Black Ferns and All Black sevens world championship victories in San Francisco. She has also coached in Japan.

Later in the year she hopes to assist the Auckland Storm in the national competition, the Farah Palmer Cup.

It’s an exciting time to be involved in women’s rugby, Richards says, with the expansion of the game, and the Black Ferns receiving contracts last year.

“It was important that it happened. Not only for rugby, but for sport as a whole,” she says.

“It’s important that women’s sports are acknowledged and get more support. Off the back of the Black Ferns Sevens and the standard of the last rugby World Cup, there’s a groundswell of support for women’s rugby and women’s sport. But more is needed.

“There are some big things happening in women’s rugby and it’s great to be home to be involved.”

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