With the start of the 2022 Rugby World Cup in New Zealand, women’s rugby is in the spotlight. Logan Savory has met with a three-time cup winner who some recent Black Ferns players have turned to for inspiration.
Casey Caldwell (née Robertson)’s annual vacation tally was never particularly healthy in her 20s.
From 2002 to 2014 – apart from a two-year hiatus due to a neck injury – the Southland farmer was one of New Zealand’s leading rugby players.
She took part in a total of four world championships and won three of them. It’s a remarkable athletic record that probably lacked the fanfare it deserved.
Caldwell recalls being given a watch after winning one of those world championships. Although the reality is that the trio of triumphs have only been fueled by a love of rugby and the people who are attached to the sport.
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During her time as Black Fern, she worked as a shepherdess on farms. This was interrupted by a four-year stint with Touch New Zealand in Christchurch.
Caldwell, who alternated between prop and No.8 as Black Fern, had to be selective about playing rugby at her day job.
“There were a few years when I had to take unpaid leave [on tour]. I was just lucky that I had bosses who let me do it. When I went to a job, I told them I played rugby,” Caldwell recalls.
“I think it’s all mine [annual leave] was picked up by rugby. There weren’t many vacations unless you stayed a bit after your tour.”
Though what made the act of juggling easier was the fact that tryouts were actually relatively infrequent during Caldwell’s tenure.
She debuted in 2002 at the age of 21 and completed her last exam in 2014 at the age of 33. In those 12 years, Caldwell only won 39 caps.
“The World Cup year was the year we got a lot of games. In some years we were lucky enough to play a friendly when it wasn’t a World Cup year.”
Those in the Black Ferns class of 2022 live a very different rugby life, both in terms of the financial and playing opportunities now available.
The Black Ferns were first given part-time contracts in 2018, with players earning a base fee ranging from $12,000 to $25,000.
This year New Zealand Rugby signed 30 full-time players. Base retainers start at $35,000, with services and appearance fees added. It is believed that top Black Ferns can earn around $130,000 under the contract model.
Signed Black Ferns commit to rugby between 24 and 30 hours a week. Personal development days have also been included in the contracts, allowing players to focus on non-rugby activities, including those pursuing a career.
It’s a different world from when Caldwell and company paid for their own gym memberships and took annual vacations to compete in world championships.
“I can’t moan. The players before us paid for it [on tour]’ says Caldwell.
“Yes my bank balance has taken a hit with all the travel and all that, but I loved doing it and that’s why I did it.”
“I wouldn’t change it. I’ve traveled the world and met amazing people.”
Caldwell has mixed feelings about the surge in investment and attention for the Black Ferns in recent years.
“I only hope so [investment] filters back to lower classes; that’s my concern. They’re pushing stuff through the Black Ferns, which is great, and it had to happen somehow. But it has to start in the lower grades,” says Caldwell.
“There needs to be a big push at the junior level for women’s rugby if they really want to improve the Black Ferns at the end of the day.”
That includes increasing the player base at junior level as well as increasing the skill level of younger players, she says.
Caldwell believes that introducing a few Back Ferns sevens players to the 15s program – Sarah Hirini, Portia Woodman, Ruby Tui – will provide shining examples of other 15s players who are just what it takes to to be a professional athlete. It has to be good in the long run, she says.
“These sevens girls are great athletes and if the whole team can get on board I think they’ll do really well.”
Caldwell’s rise to Black Fern was unique as she only started playing rugby at the age of 16.
Her sport was hockey, that was before some buddies at the Southland Girls’ High School hostel made her play for the school’s 2nd XV rugby team because they were short on players.
She caught the rugby bug and decided to apply for a rugby scholarship to Lincoln University in 1999.
This then led to rapid promotion to the Canterbury team and in 2001 the Southlanders played the Black Ferns in a warm-up game.
Over the next year, Caldwell was playing for the Black Ferns and their hockey exploits took a back seat.
“I didn’t have much time to ask myself what I really wanted to do.”
“I couldn’t keep both [hockey and rugby] and I really enjoyed the rugby.”
Caldwell is one of four players the current Black Ferns group used as inspiration for the start of Rugby World Cup 2022 in Auckland on Saturday.
The Black Ferns were divided into four “mini-groups” and Caldwell’s name aligned with one of these groups.
When the Black Ferns were in Adelaide for a friendly against Australia in August, Caldwell spoke to the players via Zoom about their rugby journey.
“I told them I’m not the most skilled or talented player, but I probably have the greatest determination.”
Caldwell’s path of representing New Zealand at a Rugby World Cup somewhat mirrors the path taken by current Black Ferns side Amy Rule and midfielder Amy du Plessis. Especially Rule’s.
Like Caldwell, Rule hails from rural Southland and was a latecomer to rugby.
Rule also took up the sport after being hooked up by some buddies during her senior year at Aparima College in the coastal town of Riverton.
After taking up the sport in 2017, Rule represented New Zealand at Test level for years in 2021.
A year on Rule will now represent her country at a World Cup in New Zealand.
du Plessis moved to Southland from South Africa at the age of seven. She emerged as a promising talent playing a key role in Southland Girls’ High School’s rugby success. It included helping Invercargill School win their first national top four final in 2016.
The 23-year-old made her debut for the Black Ferns in the 2022 Pacific Four Series in Waitākere against Canada.
Like Caldwell, Rule and du Plessis relocated to Canterbury to play in the Farah Palmer Cup en route to the Black Ferns.
Caldwell says she doesn’t know the Southland couple personally but has been keeping tabs on their progress.
“My mate trains Canterbury so I’ve been chasing them a bit.”
Caldwell’s current rugby involvement is limited given her workload as a mother of three and a farmer.
Although the 41-year-old previously showed promise as a coach. It included coaching the Wyndham senior team at Southland.
Under Caldwell’s supervision, Wyndham won the first class of Southland in 2016.
Caldwell hopes more women will get involved as coaches, and more specifically more people who want to coach women’s rugby teams.
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“It’s quite difficult to get people interested in coaching women’s rugby. We ended up coaching our club side for years because we couldn’t find coaches,” says Caldwell.
The 2022 World Cup begins on Saturday in Auckland with three games. The first takes place between South Africa and France, followed by tournament favorites England and Fiji, New Zealand and Australia round out the night.
A sell-out crowd of 50,000 is expected on Saturday, which will break the 20,000 attendance record set in France for a 2014 Women’s Rugby World Cup match.
Caldwell has been asked to manage Auckland for the occasion but has opted to instead tune in to TV from Southland to see how everything unfolds.
Casey Caldwell (née Robertson)
Provincial Associations: Southland, Canterbury
Position: Support & #8
Black Fern Caps: 39 (from 2002 to 2014).
World Cup victories: 2002 in Spain, 2006 in Canada, 2010 in England. (Caldwell also played in the 2014 event where New Zealand finished fifth.)