Sharland sisters reunite for hockey’s last hurrah
She may have been one of the great Black Sticks captains, but Kayla Whitelock may no longer be able to tell her little sister Verity what to do on the hockey turf.
Especially now that Verity Sharland’s winning streak as a coach keeps growing.
The Sharland sisters, now in their early 30s, are back playing together this weekend in the National Hockey League, with their old team Central Mysticks for a poignant final tournament.
Kayla, who notched up 255 tests for New Zealand and played at four Olympics, now has two young children with her husband, former All Black George Whitelock. They own a gym in her hometown of Palmerston North.
Verity, who played for the Junior Black Sticks, is a PE and health teacher at Palmerston North Girls High, and her reputation is growing as one of the country's top women’s hockey coaches.
It's been a couple of years since the sisters, of Maori heritage (their iwi is Rangitāne in the Manawatu), played together.
“Now I’ve become a coach, I’m less receptive to her telling me what to do,” says 32-year-old Sharland.
“She does it less so now. But I still have to do [what she says], because I think she still knows more than me when it comes to hockey!”
Others might argue that’s no longer the case.
Sharland has built an outstanding record at the helm of the Central U18 women’s side. For three years running, they’ve won the national age-group title. And across those three years, her team has lost just one game.
She’s used a few tips from a couple of All Blacks to keep her team happy and unbeatable.
Sharland is also co-coach of the New Zealand U18 women, with former Black Stick Katie Glynn, and they’re charged with building the next generation of Kiwi hockey stars.
Returning to the Central Mysticks side she captained to the NHL final last year, Sharland is now a team-mate of “quite a large number” of the girls she’s been coaching.
“That’s my next challenge, running around with the youngsters,” she says. “I feel old when the 18-year-olds are running rings around me.
“I’ve been giving them a hard time at training, because it’s actually some of the younger ones who are injured - not the over-30s! They’re a good bunch, so it’s all good fun.”
Also joining the Sharland sisters on the 'experienced' side of the Mysticks line-up is their childhood friend, Emily Gaddum (nee Naylor) - the most capped Black Stick of all time until this year, when she was overtaken by New Zealand captain Stacey Michelsen.
While it's a kind of reunion, the nine-day NHL tournament in Tauranga will also be a farewell. This will be the 21st and last NHL. Hockey NZ has decided to scratch the regions and return to a championship for the old 32 associations - to give more players experience at the top level and build local pride.
“I don’t think it’s a popular decision,” says Sharland, who first played for Central when she was 17.
Sharland's coaching career began with her first job as a teacher at Westlake Girls High. In 2014, the then Black Sticks coach Mark Hager encouraged her to become assistant coach of the New Zealand women's side at the Youth Olympics in China.
When she moved home to Palmerston North four years ago, Sharland began coaching Central age-group teams.
“We were really lucky growing up that we had awesome coaches, so I wanted to give back,” she says. “I’ve been so fortunate that a lot of my coaches have been Maori women. It’s been cool to learn from them and take some aspects of coaching from them.”
Sharland also has the support of her elder sister and her rugby brother-in-law George, who played 85 games for the Crusaders and 70 for Canterbury. “They’re both really good sounding boards for me,” she says.
With the help of George and his brother Sam Whitelock (widely tipped to be the next All Blacks captain), Sharland has been able to tap into the genius of victorious Crusaders coach Scott “Razor” Robertson.
“I’m a huge believer in team culture – you have to have fun on and off the field. And a lot of that has come from ideas George got through Razor. Sam has been a big help too,” Sharland says.
Sharland first took the Central U18s to victory in 2017 after a season unbeaten. They repeated that in 2018.
The only loss the team have suffered under Sharland’s watch was this season, in an early game to Auckland. “Some of the girls who’d been in the team for the three years were disappointed to lose. But it was probably the best thing that happened to our team,” Sharland says.
Needless to say, they won the tournament, and their star striker Kaitlin Cotter – who’s in the Black Sticks development squad - was the top scorer. (The Napier schoolgirl shared top scorer honours at last year's NHL with Harbour's Kirsten Pearce).
Sharland has coached other rising stars, including new Black Sticks Olivia Shannon and Hope Ralph, and predicts there will be more to follow over the next few years.
“It’s been so cool coaching this team, because it changes so much. Every year you’re getting an influx of new talent from different regions. This year was the most rewarding because we had 11 new players - which challenged my coaching, and really pushed me,” she says.
Sharland keeps in touch with her young players once they leave school, becoming more of a mentor.
“I know what it’s like. When I moved to Auckland to study, I was in the national development squad and I'd played for the Junior Black Sticks. So I know what it’s like to try your best to get there, and not quite make it,” she says.
“But I’ve also travelled the world to watch Kayla and the Black Sticks, and I’ve seen that side of things too.
“I like to check in with the girls and help them with anything they need, or if they just want to debrief. I’m still looking after them and following their path.”
In her role as New Zealand U18 coach with Glynn, Sharland says she feels they’re guiding players at the starting point of their international careers.
“It’s essentially a squad, who we’re preparing to move on to the under-21s and be ready for the 2021 Junior World Cup,” she says.
And looking at her squad, Sharland believes the future of NZ women’s hockey is in strong, capable hands.
“We’ve got a lot of real athletes coming through. There’s a large number of strikers, true goal scorers, which we haven’t had previously,” Sharland says.
“And we have a lot of girls who are really committed to developing themselves to becoming the best they can be. You always get a drop-off of players around 18, but these girls are very ambitious in their hockey goals.”
With her own goals, Sharland isn’t quite ready to leave teaching and become a full-time hockey coach. But she’d love to coach a New Zealand side at a Junior World Cup and have the “opportunity to observe and learn in the Black Sticks environment.”
Then she may finally feel her hockey nous equals that of her famous big sister.