Rugby

Practise, practise, practise: The Black Fern and the law

From growing up on the remote East Cape to becoming a Black Fern and a lawyer, Ruahei Demant wants to show young Māori that anything is possible.

In the long run, Ruahei Demant wants to be a sports lawyer.

But in the short term, the Black Ferns first-five is juggling her impressive caseload – of work, sport and study - in a bid to play at the 2021 Rugby World Cup at home, in front of friends and family.

The odds are looking favourable for the 24-year-old to achieve both. She’s in her final semester of study to complete a Bachelor of Laws and Arts conjoint degree at the University of Auckland, and she’s scheduled to complete her profs (professional legal studies course) in July.

It would be an almost unbelievable double for Demant, who’s rugby career has been torn by three serious knee injuries, one after the other.

Demant’s goal to become a sports lawyer in the next five to eight years combines the things she’s passionate about – sport and athletes, especially sportswomen.

“I’d like to help female athletes understand the terms of their contracts, because it’s relatively new [for us],” says Demant. “And I’d like to open them up to different commercial opportunities on the back of their professional profile.

“I'd also like to work in the Māori space because I'm passionate about my culture.” She proudly hails from Te Whānau-ā-Apanui, Te Whakatōhea and Ngāti Awa.

Te Reo Māori is Demant’s first language, having been raised in kōhanga reo (preschool) and kura kaupapa (school) with her five siblings.

“We grew up in the Bay of Plenty in a tiny place called Omaio - the nearest town is like an hour away, so we were in the wops - and then we moved to Warkworth when I was 12,” she says.

Demant only started playing rugby properly after moving from the small East Cape settlement.

Before her boot became familiar with directing the oval ball, Demant used to run around a soccer field with her younger sister, Kiritapu - who was actually the first Black Fern in the family, after bursting into the national side at the age of 18.

The pair made history in 2018 as the first Māori sisters to play for the Black Ferns, when they toured France and the United States.

You can still watch them linking up together for their club, College Rifles, and for Auckland - the only province Ruahei has played for since making her debut in 2013 at just 17.

The Auckland Storm play-maker says her upbringing is a strength in all areas of her life. The small, but potentially significant, act of being able to relate to Māori kids is a positive example.

“By seeing me, it may give them someone to look to as a role model. It shows them that even if you come from the middle of nowhere, it doesn’t mean you can't make it on an international stage, if that’s what you want to do,” she says.

Ruahei Demant has played for the Auckland Storm in the Farah Palmer Cup since she was 17. Photo: Getty Images. 

Juggling a sporting career, work and study is a common reality for many female athletes. But Demant seems to handle all three with ease.

She’s just come off an internship through TupuToa - an organisation focused on providing career pathways for Māori and Pacific students - which placed Demant at financial services company Suncorp New Zealand, where she worked in the ‘people experience’ team (human resources). It made her realise she’d like to work in the corporate sector; she's now applying for graduate roles.

Instead of taking a break between jobs to concentrate on her last semester at university and her rugby training for the Storm and the Black Ferns, Demant says she was “getting bored” with the spare time on her hands. So she took on a part-time job with a friend in dispatch at a local courier company.

“This is the easiest load to balance, because most other times I've been studying and working full-time,” she says.

“It's normally been a vigorous schedule - training in the mornings, work, training at night and then study thrown in there.”

And sometimes there's international travel in the mix too. The rugby facet of her career can take Demant to the other side of the world - at the end of last year, she played for the prestigious Barbarians team against Wales in Cardiff (which the Baabaas won 29-15).

This year, the Black Ferns were to have played eight tests – an unprecedented seven at home - in the lead-up to the World Cup in New Zealand in September next year. But the Covid-19 outbreak is almost certain to change this season's programme.

Recalling her debut in the black jersey, Demant says she still can't believe it happened.

“I never thought, through all of my injuries, that day would come. I always wanted it to, but I got to a point where I thought club rugby was it for me,” she admits.

“For that reason, I treasure every game I play because you never know what could happen. They’re so special.” Demant has featured in all 11 Black Ferns tests since making her debut in 2018.

You can understand why Demant feels that way. Before turning 21, she was told she would never play again - having already torn the anterior cruciate ligament (ACL) in both her knees.

The first time in 2013 - rupturing her left knee - kept her on the sidelines throughout the following season. She returned to the field at the beginning of 2015 only to do her right ACL - and then the left knee went again at the end of that same year.

“All of my ACL injuries have been playing sevens,” she says. “I really wanted to be in the sevens environment when they announced it would be an Olympic sport at the end of high school. But I will never play that game again because I get injured every time I do.”

She admits the first two ACL injuries weren’t too bad, but the third one “really hurt”.

People always talk about ticking off the physical milestones when rehabbing, but the mental battle is rarely mentioned.

“The game has changed a lot since my first injury," Demant says. "Everyone is more conscious about mental well-being so people genuinely ask how you’re going now."

Experts say ACL recovery periods can range from nine to 12 months, but people can return to sport in six.

It’s a long time to be out of the game, especially in a team sport where athletes are used to training with teammates most of the time.

“Your support network usually gets you through because, when you think about it, you’re suddenly all alone trying to learn how to walk and run again,” says Demant, who credits the College Rifles club with getting her through the rough patches.

“I'm so lucky to have been at such a supportive club. They were always there for me by keeping me involved in any capacity and that’s why I will never leave.”

With the uncertainty caused by the coronavirus lockdown, the 2020 rugby season may never kick off. But Demant’s reason for playing the game will still remain and keep her motivated.

“My thinking shifted after my second ACL injury,” Demant says. “I used to play because I wanted to make higher teams, but that changed to just wanting to have fun with my mates. I try not to lose sight of that now.”

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