Emma Jensen to achieve a first for women's rugby

Getty Images

Lynn McConnell     07 Sep 2017     Getty Images

In a first-class career which started in 1999 with Waikato, Jensen already ranks as the player with most first-class games in New Zealand, including 49 Tests, reaching 150 when playing in the 10-10 draw with Bay of Plenty at the weekend.
She also sits in second place, behind Kendra Cocksedge, on the all-time points scoring list in New Zealand with 551 points.

She put her longevity in the game down to her fitness with her only major injury a broken leg suffered two years ago.

"I pride myself on my fitness and staying fit," she told, "and if you are fit you're enjoying your rugby and you're less likely to get injured and if I do get injured then I'm doing all the right things so that's professionalism as well."

Jensen has played through an era of significant advance in women's rugby, something that made a decision early in her career all the more worthwhile.

When first making the Black Ferns team in 2002, Jensen had to decide which way her sporting future would turn. She was managing to play both hockey and rugby to New Zealand age-grade level but it was taking its toll and while she enjoyed playing hockey the greater opportunities available with rugby won out.

Rugby's appeal developed from a basic love for the game which grew through playing Touch Rugby and then Sevens. Initially it was in Hawke's Bay that she started out, playing three seasons for the representative team but it was for hockey reasons that she made the move to Waikato in 1999.

Continuing to play rugby, she was part of a good rugby club team and that helped her win selection for Waikato.

"The Touch Rugby connection was a natural progression for most women because the skills you have in Touch obviously transfer through to rugby and the better you are at ball skills in the game of rugby the more competent you are going to be on the rugby field," she said.

Her first selection for New Zealand followed in 2002 and then she had a five-month stint in Italy with Messina.

"It [playing in Italy] wasn't what it is now, it has got a lot better. I knew I wasn't going for the rugby per se there, I was more going to see what life was about and to enjoy the food and the culture," she said.

When she returned, the company she worked for, Oakley Sunglasses, moved to Auckland so to keep her employment she also moved allowing her to continue the combination she had developed for New Zealand with first five-eighths Anna Richards, initially through playing together for College Rifles, but then through Auckland and New Zealand.

"If I wanted to go further in New Zealand rugby I wanted to build that combination between nine and 10.

"I admired Anna as a player. I first played with her at my first World Cup in 2002 and I thought it would be a great opportunity because she was such a great player and had such good knowledge that she was willing to share as well so it really helped," she said.

At the same time she realised she wanted to do more in the game, perhaps through coaching, and that led her to take on a teaching career and the position she now holds at Epsom Girls' Grammar.

On the playing fields, Auckland enjoyed a complete dominance of women's rugby winning the national title in 15 of the 17 years it has been contested. Wellington won in 2006 and last year Counties Manukau claimed the title.

Jensen said that win by Counties Manukau was evidence of the rise in skills and ability of players around the country.

"It just proves that each province is getting better and the more that girls are getting involved in rugby the skills levels are going up. That's what has impressed me the most, seeing how much skill is actually going into the women's game.

"It used to be quite a lot of jungle rugby everywhere but now people are understanding the game better and that is showing in some of the results. We drew with Bay of Plenty at the weekend and all credit to them, they played well. We obviously have a whole new team and that is exciting as well because you have got young girls coming through," she said.

Jensen said another factor in the development of the women's game has been the critical element of time management. Because the women are not professional, but have a professional attitude towards their training and preparation, they need to be good at managing their days.

"I honestly believe that made me a better player because I had to get my training done, go to school then get more training done. You're there for a good time, and a short time, so you don't want to muck around while you are there and you have to have focus and everything else," she said.

Among the areas of skills progress, Jensen said she felt passing had improved a lot through the years.

"That's in terms of what people are getting now in their width passing. I think kicking has got a lot better because it wasn't really in the women's game but if you look at Counties Manukau Vic [Victoria Subritzky-Nafatali] just destroyed us with her kicking game. Those two skills have definitely improved," Jensen said.

Having played over such an extended period, Jensen has also seen the public perception of the women's game change.

From times when people didn't realise women played, when they were forced to play on Sundays because grounds weren't available on Saturdays, they were now attracting television coverage which had lifted awareness significantly about the women's play.

That had been reflected in the media frenzy that followed the Black Ferns success in winning the World Cup last month in Ireland.

Each World Cup was different she said, but she believed the Irish event had been well promoted around the world. Having attended four World Cups, and winning three gold medals, Jensen said the 2014 event was still enjoyable in spite of New Zealand not being good enough on the day when it mattered.

On a world level the game was also a lot stronger and that was helped by the more competition the northern hemisphere sides had among themselves.

"Us, Australia and South Africa don't play that much in terms of women's rugby but the northern hemisphere countries play a lot more games and get more resources pushed into their games," she said.

Jensen acknowledged the issue of paying women's players was a tough one. It was something she would like to see because the obvious career path would see more women committing to the game with the ability and time to focus solely on rugby.

"That would be the ideal but I think we obviously need a programme within New Zealand that is going to cater for these girls," she said.

It involved the structure through club, provincial and international, the little things that allowed the big picture to happen, she said.

In terms of her future involvement in the game, Jensen is uncertain as she feels she has been so involved in rugby that she still has much more to do in the education field. But for the moment it is about rebuilding the Auckland side and that starts on Saturday against Canterbury.