Women’s Rugby

Black Ferns legend aims to instil winning mentality in Hong Kong women

New women’s coach has never accepted less than the best in her career

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 22 March, 2014, 10:17pm
UPDATED : Friday, 05 June, 2015, 3:31pm

In a career spanning 20 years, it's difficult to pick one moment that defines rugby legend Anna Richards. But it's easy to pick one that displays her grit: In a game against England in 2008, the New Zealand women's fly half collided awkwardly with an opponent, splitting her lip so severely it needed 50 stitches.

Her lip held together only by a thin fragment of skin, blood pouring down her chin, Richards acted without hesitation: she grabbed Vaseline to stem the bleeding and finished the game, spurring her teammates to victory. "I'm very determined," she says, a valiant smirk spreading over her patched-up lips.

Though resilience, raw talent and an unwavering work ethic fuelled her success - including four World Cup wins, her latest just two months shy of her 46th birthday - it's her love of the game that sustained it. "It was awesome," she reflects. "I loved the challenge, the buzz. The harder the better."

I found out right away that I was way better at rugby than I was at netball. I had good hand-eye coordination from tennis, good footwork from netball and a bit of speed
Anna Richards

One of women's rugby's most decorated players, Richards was appointed as the elite women's sevens coach at the Hong Kong Sports Institute last November. She's been tasked with developing the women's team to Olympic standard in light of the 2016 Games in Rio where rugby sevens will make its debut - no mean feat given Hong Kong rank fourth in Asia, narrowly missing out from being included in the IRB Sevens World Series.

Luckily she relishes a challenge. And if anyone knows about building a career in rugby, it's Richards. She didn't even pick up a rugby ball until she was 21. Previously she was a tennis player, then a netballer. She was good, playing at a national level for the Canterbury team, until she was unceremoniously dropped.

Seizing the opportunity, a coach for the women's rugby team invited Richards to a game. He threw her on the field the same day. The love affair was instantaneous.

"I found out right away that I was way better at rugby than I was at netball," she laughs. "I had good hand-eye coordination from tennis, good footwork from netball and a bit of speed." She fails to mention she was also smart; Richards has a law degree and a Bachelor of Arts.

Although a love of rugby wasn't fostered in a family of four girls (to watch the All Blacks play she used to have to walk to her aunt and uncle's house where there was a TV), resilience and a ferocious competitive spirit was.

All of her sisters were successful athletes, her younger sister also playing in the Black Ferns. She had a modest upbringing where her sisters were encouraged, but not funded, in their sporting pursuits. Her first pair of rugby boots were sourced from the local rubbish tip and lasted two seasons. Richards insists it didn't all come naturally. "It's easier to make a team than stay on a team. I always made sure I was the fittest; I was always working on my core skills and every year I'd pick something I wanted to work on."

As she got older, she admits keeping up with the pace became more difficult. Before her final and fourth successive World Cup performance in 2010, she had been dropped. But she got on with it, continued to train and set her mind on being in top shape.

She got the call-up just three weeks before. "It was my brain that got me there - I was good at running the team. The Black Ferns were an incredible bunch of athletes, but they needed someone to run it. I was good at sorting it all out, figuring out what to do, when to do it and who to do it with."

Does she miss it? "Oh my God, yeah. I really miss it, I love playing - that's why you keep doing it."

She rattles off a gruesome list of injuries to illustrate her passion: a torn ACL, a fractured femur and multiple broken thumbs, to name a few.

Playing internationally, in a stadium filled to the brim with a roaring crowd, Richards was in her element. She never got nervous. "Some girls would struggle with nerves, but I loved it - the more difficult it was the more I thrived."

She recalls the World Cup game against England in 2006, for example, where her opponents were threatening a win against the defending champions. "Our coach came to us offering encouragement to just 'hang in there' and all I could think was 'What do you mean? This is so great. This is so much fun'."

For now, 49-year-old Richards is happy to channel her love of the game through the next generation of eager players in Hong Kong, who she praises for their work ethic and hunger to improve. Accepting the "dream job" was a no-brainer. "I never thought that I would get paid to be involved in rugby," she confesses. "I always thought I'd just be giving, not getting."

Although she would have loved to coach women's rugby in New Zealand, "there's only one position". And, despite her vast experience, Richards was caught in a catch-22 in her coaching pursuits: she never had the opportunity to coach at such a professional level because she wasn't able to coach professionally without the experience. Though opportunities existed in men's rugby, she held out for the chance to coach women instead. "I feel girls always get short-changed. In rugby, they've always been on the back foot; they've always been under-subsidised; they always work the hardest and get the least recognition."

But with an investment such as Richards, the future of women's rugby in Hong Kong is changing. The world-class facilities at the Hong Kong Sports Institute, where 13 full-time and six part-time women train, offer the latest in sports science. They were also a drawcard for fanatical Richards.

"Imagine if I'd had all of this stuff," she chuckles. "I would have been dangerous."