Story Credit: LockerRoom. Suzanne McFadden is the editor of LockerRoom, dedicated to women's sport, and is the 2021 Voyager Media Awards Sports Journalist of the Year.
When Lucy Anderson saw new Black Ferns assistant coach Whitney Hansen approaching her at rugby training one night earlier this week, she told her to go away.
“Please not now. I’m not in the mood,” Anderson said.
All day, as she’d walked through the corridors of Christchurch Hospital – working in the occupational therapy department – Anderson had stolen nervous glances at her phone, knowing this was the day.
And she was certain Hansen was bearing bad news, again.
For 11 years, Anderson had dreamed of being selected in the Black Ferns side, of making her debut in the highly prized black jersey. For a decade, she’d had to deal with the rejection of missing out.
She’d thought seriously about quitting rugby all together, and just focusing on her medical career.
She even changed her position on the field three times, constantly trying to grow her game.
We’re not talking one skip along the backline here, either. In the past three seasons, Anderson has moved from Canterbury’s backline, to the back row, and now the front row. From No.12, to No.8, to No.1.
It’s a feat few rugby players, male or female, have been able to pull off at the sharp end of their careers. And all of it while holding down a full-time profession away from the field.
But when Anderson tried to put off having the conversation with Hansen, the coach told her: “No, you really want to hear what I’m about to say.”
“She told me I’d made the Black Ferns, and I just screamed. I cried with happiness. I couldn’t believe it,” Anderson says, on the day she was named as a prop in the 31-strong squad to play in the build-up to the Rugby World Cup.
“A lot of the girls around us weren’t sure why I was crying, if it was good or bad news. So no one asked either.
“But I’ve been smiling ever since I’ve been told.”
Anderson turns 31 in a fortnight. She’s been in the wider Black Ferns squad since she was 19, but had never been named in the side.
In 2018, she was called up as a late injury replacement for the midfield on the Black Ferns tour to France, but never earned a test cap.
“But the last few years I hadn’t made the squad - then I got invited to the January camp. I’m just so stoked to be back in the environment, in a different position, constantly learning and trying to get better,” she says.
“There was a stage where I wanted to give up. I didn’t know if it was worth hanging around and keep training for. But with this naming I just feel so happy I’ve dedicated so much to rugby. All those early mornings… they’ve all been worth it.
“But you choose to be there if you want to make the Black Ferns. It’s pretty unbelievable really. I’m so proud and excited.”
She’s one of seven uncapped players in the Black Ferns squad, including Olympic gold medallist sevens star Ruby Tui. They’ll play in the inaugural Pacific Four series against Australia, Canada and the United States at home next month, then two tests across the Tasman contesting the Laurie O’Reilly Cup in August.
Then a team will be named to play in the Rugby World Cup, starting October 8.
“I would love to run out with the team at the World Cup, that would be my dream,” Anderson says. “I’ve been around for three World Cups and never made any of them.
“I’m just so happy to be included in the team for me this time, rather than just a stand-by.”
Anderson says she’s “not really sure” how she’s managed to successfully move from infield back, to loose forward to prop for Canterbury over the last three season.
She’s played in the backs since she was 11, first turning out for the MacKenzie club’s junior boys’ team in South Canterbury.
“Ever since I started up until three years ago, I loved playing at 12 and at centre. But I just wanted something more,” she says.
“I felt like I had a fixed mindset, and I just wanted to grow more. I wasn’t growing as a player; I felt like the game was outgrowing me. I wanted to be excited to turn up to training again.
“So I had a chat with a couple of coaches and I moved to No.8. It was really risky, but I loved the space, the game plan, everything about it.”
It gave her an awareness, she says, of what the forwards do. “I’d never realised how complicated it was till I moved there. As a back you see them working, but you don’t realise how much hard work they do, how technical and tactical it is,” she says.
Then when the Canterbury players in the Black Ferns left on their ill-fated Northern Tour at the end of last year, the Canterbury coaches were looking for props to fill in for Pip Love and Amy Rule. Anderson, keen to learn, popped her hand up.
“So I only moved to prop at the end of the Farah Palmer Cup last year. I had no idea what I was doing but I had really good team-mates and coaches around me who helped me understand what to do in a scrum.
“And then I worked alongside Whitney and a few other coaches, and Amy and Pip have been constantly helping me to get better and better.” Love has become a mentor.
She learned even more when she was selected to play for Matatū in Super Rugby Aupiki.
Playing prop, though, is a world away from second-five. “Everything about it is different, but what’s great is overall I have a better understanding of the game,” she says. “And everything you’ve specifically worked on in those different positions around the field, you can put it all together.”
This year, Anderson has spent valuable time with highly-regarded forwards coach, Mike Cron, who’s now part of the Black Ferns coaching team.
“I’ve been wearing the No. 1 jersey [tighthead prop], but Crono wants me to learn No.3 as well. It would be awesome to have that experience of playing on both sides, and it would mean better opportunities for me,” she says.
Her training has obviously changed from the speed and agility work of the backs to the strength of the forwards: “Our weights in the gym are a lot heavier.”
She's seen the women’s game changed markedly since she began playing for Otago in 2011 for two seasons while she completed her occupational therapy degree (she's played for Canterbury every year since 2014).
“Now it’s good to be a speedy prop too, and keeping the ball alive is really important,” she says. “Every year there are new coaches, new ideas, and rugby is getting bigger and better, with all the professional athletes now.”
Anderson admits it’s a mission to fit in the training of a professional player – in a brand new position - with a full-time job in a hospital.
She goes to morning rugby training at 6am, before a 20 minute bike ride to Christchurch Hospital. She works from 7.30am to 4pm, Monday to Friday, then cycles home and goes straight to training again.
“I spend a lot of time topping up my running before my club training or my high performance training as well,” she says. “I’m trying to fit in as much as I can.
“I have great resources around me to make sure I’m not overloading. But I choose to do it because I want to be a Black Fern.”
While she would love to be a fully contracted Black Fern for this World Cup campaign, she relishes the balance her day job brings.
She’s now an occupational therapy team leader: “It’s awesome, every day is different, it’s fast-paced. I love learning and being leader,” she says.
“There are days when I’m really fatigued when I go to training, because mentally some days are hard in a hospital. But other days you can manage it; you just have to make sure you plan, you go to bed early and you eat well.
“And make every minute count.”
She has an incredibly supportive family around her, especially her farmer dad Bill and teacher mum, Di.
Bill Anderson wasn’t a bad footie player either – a lock for South Canterbury who won the Ranfurly Shield in 1974, and trialled several times for the All Blacks. You could say his daughter has now gone one better.
“My parents follow me everywhere I go. Even with FPC, they fly to every game. They are my best supporters,” she says.
And Anderson’s partner, Inga Finau, is a rugby player, too. A midfielder for the Crusaders over the last three Super Rugby seasons, he’s recently moved to Hamilton to play for the Chiefs.
They met when they were both playing in the midfield, Anderson laughs. “We train together a lot and he now realises how much work female rugby players do. It’s awesome that he understands the goal I’m working towards. We have really similar goals.”
And after three very different chapters in her career, Anderson is on the verge of reaching her fairytale ending.
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