Portia Woodman is cracking up laughing when I walk into the cafe on Tay St.

She's wearing a black polo shirt, and a small white fern sits on the left-hand side of her chest.

The guy behind the counter is making fun of her as she orders a caramel latte.

It's because it's the second time she's been in for a coffee today, she tells me as we take a seat near the window.


It's a big week for Woodman. It's Tuesday, and she's just been named in the Black Ferns Sevens team for the 2018 World Cup, it's her 27th birthday on Thursday and she leaves for San Francisco on Friday.

The cafe has become her local spot to get a coffee fix and after living here for four years, Mount Maunganui is well and truly home now.

Woodman's favourite place in the whole world is her bach that sits just north of Taupo Bay in the Far North.

"It's my paradise, my heaven away from whatever is going on," she says.

Mount Maunganui reminds her of being in the north, which is why she loves it here so much.

"The bach is my number one place and this is a close second," she says looking out to Mount Main Beach.

She and her partner, Renee Wickliffe who is also a Rugby Sevens player, along with their 5-year-old daughter Kaia have created the "perfect" life.

The family live one street over from the beach in Mount Maunganui and Woodman often sits on the beach early in the morning, watching the sunrise.


"It's definitely good for my wairua, the beach brings me peace and makes me complete again," she says.

In the summer months, Woodman has taken up surfing. "Well, I'm trying to learn to surf," she laughs.

The combination of living close to the beach and having the city centre near is the perfect set up for Woodman and she loves having the majority of her Sevens teammates living in the Bay too.

"We spend a lot of time together and we always hang out at each other's houses," she says.

"I love Tauranga and I can't imagine living anywhere else but here, until I retire and go back up home."

Woodman was born in Kawakawa in 1991 and spent her early years in Kaikohe before the family moved to Auckland in 1997.

Life was pretty normal and happy growing up with her parents and two brothers.

"Mum and Dad were a huge support and my whole life revolved around sports; athletics, touch, netball, track and field."

Woodman has fond memories of her childhood when all of her whānau would gather to watch the All Blacks.

The onion soup dip would get whipped up and the ready salted chips would get pulled out along with all the other snacks.

"I didn't even really know what was happening on the TV but I just always loved having my whānau together. It was a very social time," she says.

Growing up around rugby and even having a dad who was an All Black, it was almost inevitable Woodman would one day wear the fern.

However, her path to the black jersey was not a straight one.

When she was a little girl all Woodman wanted to be was an Olympic sprinter.

"But once I realised New Zealanders don't go to the Olympics for sprinting because we're just not fast enough, it was to be a Silver Fern," she says.

And Woodman nearly got there.

She was a contracted player for the Northern Mystics in 2012 and was "knocking on the door of the Silver Ferns" but by the end of the year, Go for Gold came around and rugby sevens was calling.

"New Zealand Rugby were looking for women athletes to have a crack at Sevens for Rio 2016, and I just jumped on it," Woodman says.

The athlete tried her hand at playing both codes professionally but a shoulder injury had other plans for the rising star.

In 2012, Woodman travelled to Fiji with the Sevens squad where she broke her shoulder.

"I tried to go back to netball but my shoulder was broken and so I got dropped from a few squads.

"To me, it was a sign; this injury was my time to stop playing netball and try to take up rugby," she says.

Black Ferns winger Portia Woodman sprints away for a try, during the test match between the Black Ferns and England, held at Rotorua International Stadium in 2017.
Black Ferns winger Portia Woodman sprints away for a try, during the test match between the Black Ferns and England, held at Rotorua International Stadium in 2017.

Woodman's mum, a keen netballer, wanted her to stay with netball.

"She said 'can you please wait two more years; you're so close to the black dress'," Woodman says.

But with a fear she would get left behind in the women's rugby scene, Woodman jumped at the chance to make it professionally on the rugby field.

Woodman laughs when she thinks about when she told her dad, Kawhena Woodman, about her transition.

"He had to hide his smirk," she says.

Woodman doesn't think her dad ever imagined his daughter would make a career out of rugby as he wanted her to have a comfortable lifestyle and would tell her to play rugby once she had "finished doing what she needed to do".

"So when this [Go for Gold] came around and there was a possibility of it being a lifestyle he was like 'yeah go for it, it's the dream'."

Her whānau are Woodman's biggest supporters despite her initial fears about being in the spotlight.

Woodman was worried it would be a "bit of a kick in the guts" for her brothers who had played rugby their whole lives.

"They hadn't quite made it, hadn't cracked it like they wanted to and I just didn't want it to be so in their face," she says.

"But they're massive supporters; they're my number one fans."

But she does feel sorry for them for all the stick they get of being Portia Woodman's brothers, she laughs.

"It's turned into a bit of a family joke now," she says.

Ever since Woodman put on the black shirt she has been seen as a strong female role model, a title she finds "kind of scary".

"But to know that myself, and the girls I play alongside, are role models now for young girls and boys to chase their dreams, that's pretty awesome," she says.

When Woodman was growing up her role models were netballers such as Maria Tutia and Temepara George, there was no one in the rugby scene she knew of.

"But that doesn't mean there weren't any, it's just they weren't out there as much," she says.

Woodman laughs when she tells me she sometimes gets recognised in public.

"It gets a bit nerve-wracking but it does happen the most in Tauranga."

People of all ages approach her to say they've watched her play or to tell her that their daughter loves watching her play.

"That's gold for us, we love that," she says.

But the game itself is also gaining the attention it deserves.

"Women's rugby is on the rise and it's only the beginning, we've only just scraped the top of it and the exciting times are just up ahead."

Woodman, who is of Ngāpuhi descent, is not only seen as a role model on the rugby field but also in the Māori world.

The athlete won the title of Māori Sportswoman of the year in 2017 and is a current finalist in this year's Māori Television Matariki Awards.

Knowing she was even nominated for the Te Waitā Award for Sport was "insane".

Woodman grew up learning te reo Māori throughout her schooling but says she has lost some of her knowledge over the years.

"I'm not really involved within Te Ao Māori [the Māori world] at the moment but it's quite humbling to know I'm still acknowledged in that world," she says.

Woodman remembers feeling frightened about going into a full immersion Māori class in primary school.

"I was going home to Mum and Dad and being like 'ah they're speaking another language I don't know what they're saying, I don't like it'," she laughs.

But after a while of being immersed in the language fulltime, she loved it.

"I'm so thankful my parents put me through that because not a lot of people get that opportunity."

And although she can korero a little bit, learning more te reo Māori is important to the athlete.

"I'm nowhere near the level I would like to be and it's a bit hard because when we go home, we don't have any kuia or kaumātua who can speak with us.

"All our kaumatua and elders have passed on, so it's up to my dad's generation to uphold it now," she says.

Although Woodman's parents were of the era where they didn't learn te reo Māori, they wanted their children to gain the knowledge.

"They didn't want us to miss out and wanted us to learn our reo, our culture, our tikanga so we can live and breathe it," she says.

Speaking Māori at home with Kaia is something that helps Woodman keep up the knowledge she does have.

When Woodman first told the 5-year-old about the language she showed a strong interest.

"She would be like 'what's chair in Māori? What's table in Māori? What's car in Māori?

"She loved the idea of it and not long after that she was rattling off her own jibberish of Māori, so we asked her if she would like to learn Māori."

And so now Kaia attends a Māori unit at Arataki Primary School.

"She comes home singing all of her kapa haka songs and rattling off all her reo. The only way I can get her to listen is if I ask her to do something in Māori, it's really cute and she loves it," she says.

Knowing her own culture and also experiencing others from around the world is something Woodman loves.

Travelling all over the world for rugby is her favourite part of the job.

Woodman's first trip with the sevens team was to Russia for the World Cup in 2013, which she says was incredible.

Visiting the Red Square and going to Vladimir Putin's Palace was very "out there".

Travelling to Amsterdam was Woodman's first taste of Europe; seeing canals through the middle of the city and nearly getting run over by bikes.

"Then seeing places like the red light district, you know that stuff's just mind-boggling, it's the stuff you see on TV and you're right there amongst it - it's crazy."

Her favourite part of seeing a different culture is trying different types of food.

"I'll give anything a crack. When we were in Paris I tried snails and frog's legs. I'm a person that if there's something new I'll just try it without knowing what it is," she says.

Which has gotten Woodman a reputation amongst her teammates.

"The girls all know they kind of can't trust me with food because I'll say it's nice, then they'll say no it's not," she laughs.

But Woodman's favourite foods come straight from home.

"Mainly Māori food - boil up, hangi, kai moana all of that, that's me."

The idea that most young New Zealand girls want to be Silver Ferns and most young boys want to be All Blacks makes Woodman frown.

She's changing that stereotype and wants girls and boys to know they can chase their dreams, whatever they might be.

"It's not just a straight path to what you want it to be, it's going to adapt and it's going to change and evolve in so many different ways.

If they can give their whole heart to something, they truly believe in then that's all I really want."

And the idea that people from small towns can do anything they want makes Woodman smile.

"My dad lived in Kaikohe when he made the All Blacks."

He would travel twice a week to Whangārei and back to play the sport he loved.

"It's going to be hard but if you put the work in and really want it, you can make it happen. We can do it from small towns."