Timely phone call boost for Elder

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Lynn McConnell     09 Aug 2018     Getty Images

But a timely phone call from Black Ferns coach Glenn Moore proved the inspiration she needed to recover and win a World Cup winners' medal in 2017. 

"I was 29 when I broke my leg and I remember sitting in the emergency room and looking at one of my good friends, who is now in the Black Ferns Sevens, and we shed a bit of a tear because I thought, 'this is me, I think I'm done'," she said. 

"I had my surgery and I literally got a phone call from Glenn Moore and he said to me, 'This isn't the end for you'.

"He wanted me to get back on the horse and get to work and rehab and come back stronger and I think that was all the motivation I needed to work hard. He definitely backed me and had faith in me and the rest was up to me," she said.

The rest is, as they say, history.

But it is only part of the story. The Taumaranui-raised, Lesley Ketu, who plays as an open side flanker, had a typical upbringing in rugby, playing with brothers, two of whom Robin and Steve played for King Country, and then having to play in boys' teams to start with.  

Netball was a constant as well. She played netball until 19, but rugby was always her main goal from the age of 14. 

"I liked the challenge of it, the physicality of it. It was something new at that time and it was competitive and challenging and I loved the team vibe of the game," she said.  

When she first started playing she was in an Under-14 boys' team. 

"A year after that I tried to get a girls' team going at the school. I roped in a few friends and we got a girls' team that entered into the Waikato competition," she said. 

However, from Taumaranui that often meant two hours of travel one way in order to play. That had its pressures and in their second year they needed to combine with Te Kuiti to continue playing. It was a measure of her devotion to the side that her departure from school resulted in there not having been a 15s team since.  

When she was 16 three Black Ferns visited Taumaranui High School.  

"At that moment I said I wanted to be a Black Fern," she said.

Good parental guidance ensured the prospect of study and a career was always to the forefront, although she continued to play rugby when living in Hamilton at university, and was selected for Waikato. But there was a period when the game died in the province and she resumed netball. 

However, she did keep involved with the oval ball by playing representative touch rugby. 

"It wasn't until I moved to Australia in 2009 that I got back into rugby again. They probably weren't as advanced as New Zealand women's rugby was at that stage."  

But it would be 2014, after her stint playing for Queensland in Australia, that she returned to play in the women's National Provincial Championship that things fell into place for her.  

Playing for Waikato again she was selected for the Black Ferns to play in the Women's Super Series in Canada in 2015. And she also won selection in the Black Ferns Sevens side. 

At last year's World Cup she appeared in six of the side's eight games and was on the field when victory was achieved over England in the final. 

"To come back and be selected in that team was just a massive, proud moment for myself and a huge honour. And then to go over there, and you're never complacent. Even when you're over there you don't know if you're going to be in the team, you don't know if you're going to start or running off the bench, all those sorts of things. 

"To be named in that team to play in that final and then to take that final out, it was just a massive milestone in my life, one I'll never forget," she said.

Subsequently, the women's game has been transformed and Elder has been in a position to appreciate the changes.  

"I've played the game when it wasn't professional and it was pretty hard as a woman to do well in the sport and now I've been privileged to be part of…I was contracted with the Black Ferns Sevens and now I'm contracted with the Black Ferns, so to be a part of all the different stages of the game has been a huge honour," she said. 

Older members of the Black Ferns squad could recall when they had one or no Test matches in a year whereas now to have five Tests was a massive step for the side.  

"To see the game where it has come and where it is going it's exciting. I can't wait for the day where the Black Ferns are fully professional and being a rugby player is their fulltime job," she said.  

Being able to take part in a doubleheader with the All Blacks was a huge boost for the brand and the exposure of the women's game to a bigger audience while also getting multiple matches in a year was a big help for where the game is going and where they wanted it to move to.  

The game hadn't changed too much at the top end in terms of professionalism because the Black Ferns had always operated professionally, although not being paid, she said. 

"I guess now there is a lot more support, a lot more resource, there's more opportunities for girls to play rugby at all different levels. You're now getting modules for seven-year-olds where they can now play rugby be it contact or non-contact. The momentum that has been created from our top team has obviously spiralled down now where there are opportunities being provided at a lower level," she said.  

In her role as a development officer with the Bay of Plenty Rugby Union there was a lot happening in the primary and intermediate girls' space where the majority of growth was coming from with girls playing Rippa Rugby and contact rugby which was exciting. 

However, there was still a lot of work to do in secondary schools where girls had a lot more sports options while also balancing study and doing part-time jobs.

"It gets a little bit harder so that's the area for us to focus on in that secondary school space and moving into women's club rugby," she said.