Sevens star: ‘Rugby saved my life’

Kicked out of school at 16, and heading in the wrong direction, Gayle Broughton's life turned around when her grandparents bribed her to go to a sevens rugby trial. But it took two whānau to keep her on the right path, she tells Sarah Cowley Ross.

In her own words, Gayle Broughton admits rugby has saved her life.

“If it wasn’t for rugby I’d probably be in jail right now or six feet under,” says the talented Black Ferns Sevens play-maker.

Hailing from the south Taranaki town of Hāwera, and of Ngāti Ruanui and Ngāruahine descent, 22-year-old Broughton admits she wasn’t always the best at making sensible decisions when she was younger.

“I was kicked out of school and not up to much with my life,” she says.

Then New Zealand Rugby launched its “Go For Gold” programme to recruit women’s sevens talent looking ahead to the 2016 Rio Olympics. “My grandparents said they’d give me 10 bucks to go try out, so I did,” says Broughton, who’d started playing rugby at high school.

As a sporty kid growing up with six brothers, Broughton, then 16, stood out at the talent identification event and was invited into the programme.

She would train alongside future Black Ferns Sevens player Michaela Blyde in the Taranaki region, with the programme overseen by then national coach Sean Horan.

“My Nan, who raised my brothers and I, would drive me every morning at 6am to training with Michaela in New Plymouth. I’d have training and then kick around town and maybe go to my course,” says Broughton.

She freely admits she didn’t recognise the opportunity she was presented with. She stopped turning up for training, and if she did turn up, she was late.

“At age 16, I wasn’t really good at waking up early and I wasn’t really good at handling responsibility well. I had terrible communication skills. I was just like, ‘I don’t really care. If I never get to actually play for this sevens team, I don’t really care’.”

On her second warning from the Taranaki Rugby Union, who supervised Blythe and Broughton, she was brought in for a meeting. Broughton says they outlined to her that they'd tried to help her but she simply wasn’t meeting them half way. She admits she still didn’t care.

“If I was looking in from the outside now, I would be like, this little Māori kid just doesn’t take anything seriously,” she says.

What Broughton did take seriously was a chat with her grandmother, Patsy Broughton, who told her that she needed to wise up to this opportunity to get out of Hāwera, and play sport.

“She said ‘You can’t end up like the rest of us’. I mean, there’s nothing wrong with Hāwera, and I’m forever grateful to this town,” she says. “That’s my home and where I’m from, but I had a chance to get out and make something of my life. I needed to take it.”

The next day Broughton got on a bus and moved up to Mount Maunganui to live with coach Horan and his family. An ultimatum had been put to her: get on the bus or don’t come back to training.

Again it was Broughton’s Nan Patsy who supported her granddaughter to make the move, insisting that she go. “My Nan being my Nan, in a polite but a very assertive way told me ‘get on the beep bus right now or you can say goodbye to a big thing’. Really I didn’t have a choice,” says Broughton.

The explosive Broughton leaves Australians in her wake as she scores another try, this time at the Japan Women's Sevens. Photo: Getty Images.

Broughton shared the Horan family home with fellow rugby stars Portia Woodman and Kelly Brazier. It was a shock being away from her family.

“For the first three months I absolutely hated it. I was totally out of my comfort zone. I was used to having my Nan around, I couldn’t cook and I didn’t know how to pay bills,” Broughton says.

“We also lived in the country and I didn’t have a car. So if I wanted to go anywhere I had to be dependent on them and leave early to go with them.”

Seven months into her time training with the Mount Maunganui-based teammates, Broughton got a message from her eldest cousin, Shakira, inviting her to visit for a weekend. For Broughton, it was a relief to see familiar faces and she ended up moving into their family home.

“When I moved to the Mount, not having family around was really uncomfortable for me. I was just so used to having my whānau around. I contemplated leaving – I’m so happy and proud that I stuck it out,” she says.

She now reflects she’s lucky she has found two families – her whānau in Taranaki and her rugby family. Both are hugely influential in the evolution of Broughton.

“I can go back home to Hāwera, and that’s my family. I have another family here at the Mount. It would be so dumb to just have one,” she says.

Broughton made her international debut as an 18-year-old, playing for the Black Ferns Sevens in 2014 against the Netherlands at the USA Women’s Sevens World Series event. She was also part of the team who won the World Cup in Moscow that year.

At the beginning of the next Olympic year, Broughton ruptured the anterior cruciate ligament in her knee at the 2016 Sao Paulo Sevens tournament. It was devastating for her, but she was determined to make the Rio Olympics team, with or without an intact knee ligament.

Five months later, Broughton was on the podium receiving an Olympic silver medal after losing 12-17 to Australia in the final. In the stands were her family, so proud of their girl for sticking it out.   

Broughton was back on top of the dais at this year’s Commonwealth Games on the Gold Coast in April and the World Cup in San Francisco in July.

“When I really look back and reflect on everything, wow, it could have been so different for me,” she says.

Broughton was able to take the World Cup back to Hāwera, and her family. “My superwoman Nan arranged for me to take the trophy around Taranaki schools to show them that this could be them one day.”

It was a significant week for Broughton, being able to inspire Taranaki youth and give back to both her nan and the region that had supported her throughout her career.

“I was able to tell them to take every opportunity they get.”

Last month, Broughton, her sevens sister Woodman and other Black Ferns players, went to visit the Auckland Regional Corrections Facility in Wiri to share their own inspiring personal journeys throughout hardship.

Broughton relished the chance to tell her story to the women, explaining that the mistakes you’ve made in the past don’t have to define you as a person.

“We all make mistakes and sometimes they get us in real shit. I’ve been in real shit,” she says. “Yes rugby did change and save my life.”

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