Oh, how the mighty Kauri have grown

After finally breaking into the sunlight, Northland Kauri faced being axed from this year's Farah Palmer Cup. But if anything, that's only made them stronger. 

Cheryl Smith was born and bred in Hokianga.

The head coach of the Northland women’s rugby team, the Kauri, left her hometown in the Far North, population roughly 1000, and moved to the bright lights of Auckland in the mid-1990s to pursue her sporting aspirations.

New Zealand selectors had taken notice of her skills, and there were simply more rugby opportunities in the big city.

Smith - who in her playing days was Cheryl Waaka - racked up multiple national titles with Auckland and has two Rugby World Cup titles next to her name, part of the winning Black Ferns at the 1998 and 2002 World Cups.

But the proud Northlander’s desire to return home was always on the cards. She wanted to help the next generation coming through the ranks - and last year, the perfect opportunity to give back to her communities popped up.

Northland Rugby were finally able to field a women’s team in the Farah Palmer Cup after a lengthy hiatus from the national provincial competition.

Securing the head coach role for the Kauri team meant 50-year-old Smith could play her part in rebuilding rugby in the region.

“I wanted to show you can be from Hokianga and make the Black Ferns. And now with the FPC team, you mightn’t have to leave at all to make the Black Ferns,” says Smith.

The province did what they do best and rallied behind the team and Smith was reminded of what the Northland jersey – and in this case, the Kauri jersey - means to the players and locals alike.

Cheryl Smith leads her Northland Kauri players. Photo: Getty Images. 

The light blue Kauri jersey represents more than playing rugby for 80 minutes. It represents their whanau, aspirations and communities across the region.

Smith says, like her, most of the players are born and bred in Northland so it means a lot to them to wear the jersey.

“Some have watched their fathers and their brothers play in the Northland jersey and now they’ve been given the opportunity to do the same, so they have a lot of whakapapa with it,” says Smith.

“We want them to be proud of where they come from, to be strong and enjoy themselves. That’s the culture we’re wanting to have in the team.”

The chance to be part of that legacy means some girls travel up to two-and-a-half hours just to make it to training - after working all day.

Half of the team are mothers, says Smith, like mid-fielder Stacey Tupe and former dual international Kat Wira-Kohu. And many work on top of that. 

But they’re still committed to training. Last season, it meant travelling to Whangarei on Tuesday nights and to Kaikohe on Thursdays.

“It shows what Northlanders are about. They don’t let little things hold them back and it really showed last year in the team’s performance. It was a pretty special year,” Smith says.

In their first year, they made the semifinals of the championship, the second division of the FPC.

It was then hard to believe the Kauri team could potentially miss out playing in the FPC this year, with reports predicting a culling of five teams from the competition, because of the ongoing effects of Covid-19.

Northland Rugby Union CEO, Cameron Bell, says it would’ve looked terrible if the FPC wasn’t run or had reduced teams this year especially with New Zealand hosting the 2021 Rugby World Cup.

“But it actually brought us closer together, and we’ll be stronger for it,” he says.

New Zealand Rugby have now confirmed the competition will start on August 22 and involve all 13 teams.

Coaching is not new for Smith, having made history as the first female to coach a Northland men’s club rugby team, Kaikohe, in 2005. She took up a coaching role with Kaikohe in the women’s club competition last year too.

“It [coaching] was really good. We had six club teams all across Northland last year so you can just imagine how much travelling that was to play club rugby,” says Smith, who also works full-time as a community connector at Sport Northland. The Northland union runs from Ahipara in the north to Wellsford in the south.

Knowing there was going to be an FPC team selected brought a lot of players back to club rugby, and sparked a lot of interest among young ones too.

Many weren’t expecting the success the Kauri rose to in their opening season, making the championship semifinal against Hawkes Bay, but losing 46-31.

Smith and her assistant coach, former Black Fern Susan Dawson, were pleased with the effort. They had players who’d never played a season of rugby in the squad, mixed in with experienced teammates with international honours.

“I wouldn’t call it a challenge, but it was quite exciting to see everyone grow together,” Smith says.

“The interest in what our team has done for women’s rugby in Northland has been amazing. We just need to keep the women’s game growing here now.

“We’ve got young girls still at school wanting to play senior women’s rugby because they want to play for the Kauri team, after just one season.”

2021 stands as a big year for women’s rugby in Northland. Eleven matches in the Rugby World Cup will be played at Whangarei’s Semenoff Stadium and the union will celebrate its centenary year, after it was postponed this year.

Bell and his team are working with Whangarei District Council to bring the Rugby World Cup to life - including building a new sports facility on Pohe Island, that will house Northland Rugby and will be opened up to communities to use. They're currently operating out of an old freezing works building.

Last season's first Northland Kauri team. Photo: supplied.

Smith managed to play one international game in Whangarei in her Black Ferns career and says it was like a home game.

“It was against the World 15s back in 2003, so that was really special,” she says. “When we were playing World Cups overseas, we were always wishing we could play at home, so it’s really cool that we’ll be hosting some games next year.”

A core sign of success for both Bell and Smith is the Kauri connection with communities. Smith says the support the Kauri women received last year was unbelievable.

“We were having all the rural towns supporting the team, so it was huge. Going into preseason, before Covid, all of the girls wanted to train because they got their taste of making it to the semifinals last year and they just want to do better this year,” says Smith.

But even a global pandemic could not stop the team’s momentum. They kept training with the use of technology and stayed connected with each other right through lockdown.

“To me it just shows the resilience of our team and region,” Smith says. “We’re used to being so far away from everything so Covid was really no different. They just had to go out and train by themselves and it wasn’t a real biggie for them,” says Smith.

Her coaching style adds to the team’s culture because Smith understands the importance of player buy-in.

“I’ve sort of gone with what I was coached at the top level because we’ve got to remember they're the ones out there playing,” says Smith. “I'm not about ‘it has to work’, but it has to work for the players. So I’ll ask them how they find something or how they could tweak it to suit them and if it doesn’t work, it doesn’t work and we try something else.”

Having a handy group of people to call on for advice also helps.

“I don’t see myself as having all the answers, I'm learning just like the players are so just talking to current players and talking to the Northland Mitre 10 coaches has been really helpful,” she says.

Bell says success for the Kauri is not just about the 2020 season. It's about keeping the aspirational qualities of what the Kauri represents for future players.

With the team in good hands, and the backing of their communities, the future of women’s rugby in the region is looking bright.

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