Tackling the boys built Mako captain’s resilience

Jess Foster-Lawrence played rugby with the boys until she turned 16.

Now the captain of the Tasman Mako women, she looks back to those days, as the only girl in her local club competition, and sees how it moulded her into the tough and competitive player she is today in the Farah Palmer Cup.

Foster-Lawrence, about to turn 28 and a glazier by trade, grew up in Seddon – the small town in Marlborough probably best known as an epicentre of earthquakes. She'd like it to be eventually known as the home of a Black Fern.

At the age of five, Foster-Lawrence started playing rugby for the Awatere club, alongside her twin brother Jake. “It was always like, ‘well if he can do it, then I can too’,” she recalls.

The twins played rugby together until they were 12. But Foster-Lawrence, who played on the side of the scrum, admits it wasn’t easy being the only girl in the team – always being overlooked.

“My brother made all the rep teams, and it was at a time where, in a small town, it was a little bit chauvinist, you know, so I dipped out a little bit," she says. "As a kid, that was a hard pill to swallow. But it was also a big learning for me.

“I just had to accept that was what it was. And I think it probably gave me more motivation to prove myself.”

Then one summer in her teens, Foster-Lawrence’s rugby career came to an abrupt halt. She fell from a rope swing at the beach and broke her arm.

“My mum was like, ‘No, you're not playing rugby after that’. So I gave netball a go,” she says. “I enjoyed it. But I was way too rough and other teams didn’t enjoy that at all. So yeah, I went back to rugby the next year.”

Tasman Mako captain Jess Foster-Lawrence is brought down in a tackle in a 2017 Farah Palmer Cup match against North Harbour. Photo: Getty Images. 

She returned to the Awatere club and played in the boys’ under 16 competition – back with her brother.

“I just wanted to play and there wasn't a lot of rugby around, so I made the most of the opportunity,” Foster-Lawrence says.

“It was an eye-opener though. I played number seven. And even though I don't really think about the difference from girls to boys, in body shape and that kind of thing, there definitely was a difference. I’ve always loved a challenge though.

“And because I was back with a group of guys that I'd grown up playing with, they were really protective of me as well.”

Remember the furore earlier this year, when an 11-year-old girl, Briar Hales, wasn’t allowed to play in the Havelock North Intermediate boys 1st XV in a school competition; if she did, the team would lose their points? (Briar, a nippy little halfback, still played at the insistence of her team-mates).

Taradale Intermediate principal Rex Wilson told Hawkes Bay Today the competition had "a gender-based structure to enable maximum participation, especially from girls,” who had their own sevens competition to play in.

Foster-Lawrence shakes her head at the madness of it.

“I don't think they should stop girls playing with boys,” she says. “Let them play if they want to play. What's the worst that's going to happen? If they’re playing at a higher level, isn’t that a good thing? It's going to challenge their abilities and make them a better rugby player.

“I've always been very, very competitive. I don't like to be beaten and I don't like to lose, but I'll lose gracefully. So those days have definitely moulded me as a rugby player.”

While her twin brother gave up the game at high school, Foster-Lawrence carried on, playing at Marlborough Girls College, and then in the local women’s division.

“I played rugby in Blenheim, but then the team folded and about five of us ended up travelling to Nelson for the club season. But it just became too much driving across there three times a week.”

So six years ago, she moved to Nelson for more rugby opportunities. And those opportunities came quick and fast.

In 2016, she was loaned to the Bay of Plenty Volcanix for the Farah Palmer Cup season. Back at home, Tasman Rugby CEO Tony Lewis asked her if she thought a team from Tasman could compete in the women’s provincial championship.

“He said ‘do you think we can do this?’ I wasn't going to say no, but I had to be practical about it and I knew we had to have the depth to continue it, not just be a one-year wonder and not back it up,” Foster-Lawrence says.

“So, I worked pretty close with him to help get things going, and now it's just escalated. We have so many strong women players now.”

Three years into the Makos existence, Tasman has started a women’s high performance academy, with players selected through the club season to prepare for elite rugby. It's been up and running for six months. 

“In the last two years, we had a six-week build-up, max, going into Farah Palmer. So six weeks to six months will hopefully make a massive difference for us,” Foster-Lawrence says. Tasman Mako have won only two games over their first two seasons. 

“It's making the younger girls in the region hungry, they can see that there's this team they can aspire to be a part of. Me and a lot of the senior girls work closely within the union to promote that.”

In a union that covers Te Tau Ihu (the top of the South Island), some players drive two or three hours just to get to a training in Nelson. That includes Foster-Lawrence’s cousin, flanker Jordan Foster, who lives 45 minutes south of Blenheim.

“That’s the difficult part of having a big catchment area,” she says. “And that really takes its toll on the team, especially with player fatigue. But we know we have to do it, and it’s just for a short period of time.”

2019 Farah Palmer Cup championship players (from left) Stacey Tupe, Northland; Justine Vizirgianakis, North Harbour; Brooke Sim, Taranaki; Jess Foster-Lawrence, Tasman; Gemma Woods, Hawkes Bay; and Tegan Hollows, Otago. Photo: Getty Images. 

A rugged No.8, Foster-Lawrence has been the captain of the Mako women ever since the team was conceived.

“This season, I’d like to be the best leader and the best player I can be for my team. Then whatever comes after that, I'll be extremely happy," she says.

“This is our third year in the competition, so we’ve set the standards really high this year. We're not fresh into the competition now; we know what it’s about.”

Although the Mako women would have liked to emulate their male counterparts, who are unbeaten after five games in the Mitre 10 Cup, they lost their opening game of the Farah Palmer Cup championship last weekend to North Harbour, 22-10.

In a personal goal, making the Black Ferns is “definitely in my scope”, Foster-Lawrence says. “I'm just trying to do what I can to put myself in a good position for that.” Since it was formed in 2005, Tasman has had three Black Ferns Sevens players, but not one Black Fern for the 15s game.

“In this competition there are Black Ferns among us, so we get to play with and against the best. It only makes our rugby stronger.”

Foster-Lawrence is proud she’s been able to balance her rugby with life as a “tradie” – she’s just finished her apprenticeship as a glazier.

“I was working a dead-end job in a market garden and I was getting a bit bored, low pay, and no real opportunities. So a colleague of my wife said her husband’s business had a job coming up and suggested I asked for an apprenticeship,” she says.

(Foster-Lawrence’s wife Alisha is a social worker, who’s about to start training for the police. And no, she doesn’t play rugby).

“I contacted the business, and I was just persistent - I didn't let them not hire me - and it just snowballed from there,” laughs Foster-Lawrence, who’s been working for Richmond Glass for three years.

“I've always liked a challenge and I've always enjoyed being hands-on. I don't know any other female doing what I do.” 

But being the only female has never really posed a problem for Foster-Lawrence.

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