The Black Ferns have one of the best winning percentages in international rugby, winning five out of the past six world cups. Northlander Aleisha-Pearl Nelson has been a proud member of the squad since 2012.
I was born and raised in Aranga, a little town north of Dargaville. I started playing rugby when I was about 3, mainly because my brother played and Dad was the coach. I played mini midgets for my local Kaihū team then worked my way up the grades. There weren't that many girls so we just played in the boys' team and there were usually one or two girls in the other teams. I didn't see rugby as any different to bullrush, which was full on tackle at my school.
I went to boarding school at 12 and absolutely hated it. It was a huge culture shock and I missed all my animals. I hated my parents for sending me, but they always said I'd thank them one day. I definitely do now, but I used to ring them crying, wanting to come home. Back then I didn't even know New Zealand had a women's rugby team, but Epsom Girls' Grammar had a First XV and the coaches were Black Ferns. We had Monalisa Codling, Emma Jensen and Anna Richards coaching our school team.
In 2003 I had a horse riding accident and I tore most of my lower left leg off on a metal beam on a friend's farm. Dad took me to the local medical centre but they could only offer pain relief and send us on to hospital in Whangārei. Because the medical centre had taped the injury closed, I wasn't prioritised. By the time they put me in surgery to stitch me up, the flesh had already died.
Thirteen is a terrible age to go through something like that, to be going through puberty and be stuck in hospital on strict bed rest. I had to learn to walk again. I was told I'd never play rugby again, but I just wanted to get back to doing what I loved and I played rugby later that season. I have had problems throughout the years, there are tears now and again, but I'm super determined.
Because mum is also a nurse, she used to tell me never to ring the call bell because nurses are super busy and she didn't want me to take up their time. I met some lovely nurses along the way — and some I didn't like — but that injury, and mum who was a warrior for me, is partly what inspired me to become a nurse.
Working in sexual health and women's health, I really enjoy helping people when they're vulnerable, to make them feel better about themselves and help them feel normal. Sexual health is still quite a taboo topic. I focus mainly on safety and also remind people not to believe all they see on social media. My teammates sometimes ask for advice, especially around controlling periods for performance or pain, or when contraception isn't right for them. That's my forte.
In 2012 I was given an ultimatum from nursing school to stop playing rugby and focus on my studies. I only did a little bit of club rugby that year, yet I still managed to be named in the squad and I graduated. That was a huge year for me.
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Rugby is still my hobby. I don't care if I get paid or not, although money is helpful so we can focus more on training. I don't know how much the men make, but I know it's more than us. Women's rugby is in the early stages of contracting so we can only go up from here. Of course we want more, equality is important, but on the other hand we need to prove we're worth putting money into.
The All Blacks are huge on the world stage, they have so many supporters, so for us to have equality we need to do the same. Having the World Cup in New Zealand in 2021 will give us a chance to show people we're worth investing in but I also play for the love of the game, the camaraderie and the amazing friends I've made.
We have a mental skills coach now which is fairly new in our environment. We're encouraged to minimise self-doubt, to focus on the things we need to concentrate on. I usually have three work-ons in a game — like try not to focus on the other team, just focus on myself and what I have to do.
My parents are both really proud but Dad is the one who puts it out there — he's one of the main reasons I play rugby, to put a smile on his face. When we make the team, there's a date the information is officially released, but we find out a day or two before and we're allowed to tell family. But I don't tell Dad, because I know it will get out. There have been a few times when he's got in a grump that I didn't tell him first. He just can't get enough and he always asks questions. When I come home for the weekend, I'm all rugbyed out but he's asking, 'What's happening? What did you do in camp? How did the game go?' I'll say, 'It went okay' and he'll want to know the exact score, who got the tries, who played well. He's all over it while I'm a person who doesn't really talk about rugby, because there's just so much rugby in my life. I live and breathe it, I'm totally immersed in it so I'd rather talk about my animals.
You need to be committed if you want to be in the team, you have to work your bum off. My current goal is to make the World Cup and I can't see further than that. It's a huge privilege to wear the black jersey.
You're never guaranteed a spot and there's always someone trying to push you out. There's a saying in the team — that you're just looking after the jersey. You give it your all while you have it, then the next person comes along and adds more value to it.
I can't wait to play at home when the World Cup comes to Whangārei in 2021. We're bringing the world's best rugby players to New Zealand so hopefully there'll be huge uptake from the community. I didn't have the Black Ferns to look up to but young women watching today, they can aspire to be part of the best rugby team in the world.