A code of their own

From playing and coaching Auckland’s women to victory, claiming two World Cups with the Black Ferns and, last season, the Farah Palmer Cup for Counties, Davida Suasua (nee White) has played a leading role in women’s rugby as JON RAWLINSON explains.

Photo: Wayne Martin

While rugby may have been born of a boy’s school, in the professional era its growth is coming courtesy of women keen to make our national game their own.

Earlier this year, former Black Fern great, Farah Palmer, became the first woman to serve on the New ZealandRugby Board (NZRB). Counties Manukau Heat coach, Davida Suasua (an ex teammate), believes Farah’s appointment is a step in the right direction.

“Farah advocates for women’s rugby and understands the politics of the game and the importance of women’s rugby. She’s quite calm too; a voice of reason. It’s going to be a struggle for her being in a boardroom full of men.

One person can’t change years and years of culture and tradition, so it’s going to take time, but at least Farah can be a starting point.”

Davida believes appointments should be based purely on ability regardless of gender, and while teams may comprise either men or women, the game itself is essentially neutral.

“Some of us look at it that way but, unfortunately, when others don’t see it as genderless, that’s when there are issues and concerns. We’ve never ever wanted to ‘be like the men’; we just loved playing the same game.”

Asked if she would consider following in Farah’s footsteps, Davida – who became principal at Tangaroa College in Flat Bush earlier this year – is quick to assert that she’s happy to serve at the grassroots.

Earlier this year, the Heat and the Steelers (coached by Davida’s husband, Darryl) claimed National Sevens’ crowns. And, during last year’s Farah Palmer Cup (formerly the
Women’s Provincial Championship – WPC) the Heat defeated reining champs, Auckland, to claim their first ever title.

This victory is even more impressive given Auckland’s dominance, winning an astonishing 15 titles from 17 tournaments.“They had a staunch group at Auckland Marist, Ponsonby and [College] Rifles who were the heart of the team, as well as some really decent coaches.

Their success has grown from that. I’m forever grateful of the opportunities Auckland
gave me as a player and a coach, and as a person, really.”

Despite this, the ex-Pakuranga local says the Heat players never questioned whether they could topple the champs.

“Yes, we won a title and, yes, we took it off Auckland; that has its rewards, but so too does the fact that we grew our own players. For me, the priority is assisting the growth of women’s rugby. We were confident from the beginning of the season. I know Auckland’s capabilities, because I had coached half of them previously, and I knew the capabilities of our own girls and what they could achieve.”

Ferns to flourish at cup?
While former Black Fern, Davida Suasua, is hopeful New Zealand can extend its Women’s Rugby World Cup record to five from eight events, she is somewhat dubious whether selection policy will help or hamper chances.

“When I was playing, the opportunity to wear a black jersey was open to everyone. These days, they select approximately 60 girls and they’ll stick with that squad. I think it means
that some of those who aren’t in that squad are going to say ‘I’m not going to play this game anymore!’”

After Davida’s team, the Counties Manukau Heat, claimed the Farah Palmer Cup last year, just two – Portia Woodman and Renee Wickliffe – were selected for representative teams.

“I don’t know what they’re picking [based] on to be honest! I couldn’t answer that question. I think [the selectors] just don’t know the players well enough and make judgments based on what they think a player could be rather than what they are
now,” she asserts.

“I also think and they don’t know how to mould their raw talent. The coaches have relied on the players Darryl [Suasua – Davida’s husband] coached and his legacy; now that they’ve left, I believe those in charge have not done a good enough job of developing new players.”

Looking ahead to this year’s World Cup (in Ireland from August 10), Davida – who played at two cups and coached the Samoa women’s team at another – says top form will
be essential if the Black Ferns are to reclaim their laurels.

“At the last cup [won by England], I think some fundamental errors were made, not so much by the players themselves but in terms of the game plan. While I don’t think they’ve turned every stone over since, I hope they have [addressed such issues], for the sake of women’s rugby in New Zealand.”

Partners in Union

The surname ‘Suasua’ is synonymous with Counties. Since coach of the Heat, Davida, legally married her long-term partner, Darryl (coach of the Steelers) earlier this year, the province officially has two Suasua’s at the helm.

The pair, who met as students at Edgewater College more than 30 years ago, first worked together on-field when Darryl coached the Auckland women’s squad. Davida says the key to their working relationship then, as it is now, has been in keeping their home and professional roles separate.

“We worked through it by maintaining that professional player-coach relationship and I think we did a pretty good job. So much so that there were many players who didn’t even realise we were together until later.”

Today, the couple remains united in their love of the game. Davida says, in some ways, their personal bond is conducive to an effective professional relationship.

“It makes it easier because we’re on the same page in regards to player expectation and seeing talent where others may not. We both love the game, which makes it easier to work together. We don’t always agree, of course, and we both can throw tantrums at times, but we definitely accept each others’ opinions.”

To read EastLife’s interview with Darryl, see our September 2016 e-edition accessible via the ‘past issues’ tab.