Itunu looks back with pride on long, strong career

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Campbell Burnes     11 Dec 2018     Getty Images

The 34-year-old loose forward played her 39th and final Test match for the Black Ferns against France in Grenoble last month. It wasn’t a fairytale ending, France engineering a 30-27 upset, but Itunu started at No 8, played 75 minutes and was the pick of the Black Ferns pack, making several surges with the ball along with her trademark aggressive tackling.


Straight after the match, the team performed an emotional farewell haka for Itunu and fellow retiree, captain Fiao’o Faamausili, an acknowledgement of two great warriors for this team.

Retirement had been in the back of Itunu’s mind for some time.

“I was looking at retiring after the last World Cup because I wanted to play with my sister (prop Aldora Itunu). But I got injured, so I didn’t participate much at that World Cup. I kinda wanted to finish my career still playing and being on the field and on a high rather than being injured. That was literally my last game, so I left everything out on the field,” says Itunu, confirming she will not be donning the boots again for either her beloved Auckland Storm or the Ponsonby Fillies.

“I knew that even though we didn’t win, it was the start of something new and exciting for the Black Ferns. Fi and I have helped the (women’s) game get to where it is and now it’s about the newbies coming in.”

The future will be about hooking into coaching at first with Ponsonby, and she has a desire to give the police force a crack, following in the footsteps of the likes of Faamausili, Selica Winiata and Charmaine Smith. Of course, she will be on the sidelines cheering on Aldora too.

Itunu has come a long way from the raw talent out of west Auckland’s Kelston Girls’ College, who was one of the first of Auckland Rugby’s Pro Sport intake. The likes of Jerome Kaino and John Afoa went through that unheralded programme with Itunu.

Her Test debut came in 2003 at the tender age of 18. She was named off the boot of the scrum against a World XV at Eden Park. The Black Ferns won 37-0 that day. That she has not racked up more internationals since then is due to injury and stiff competition from the likes of Casey Robertson and, latterly, Aroha Savage and Charmaine McMenamin.

“I just remember thinking: ‘What the heck am I doing here?’” says Itunu of her debut. But she learned quickly, helped by legends of the game such as Anna Richards and Rochelle Martin. She soon proved she belonged.

By 2006 she was winning the first of three WRWC titles, playing a central role in Edmonton, Canada, as the Black Ferns held off a fast-finishing England in the final.

“I had a lot of special moments, such as my first cap for the Black Ferns, but my biggest one was playing alongside my sister for the team when my parents were present.”

That came in June 2017 in Rotorua. The Black Ferns lost, but that attitude of ‘family first’ is a key tenet of the Black Ferns’ culture.

While Itunu preferred No 8, she was more than capable of operating on either side the side of the scrum, though she jokes no one wanted to lift her in the lineouts.

Her time at the Storm, where she won multiple provincial titles, always raises a smile.

“I learned so much at the Storm, just about sacrifices, work ethic and playing as a team,” she says.

Coaches Davida White and Darryl Suasua were early mentors, and she laughs at the memory of the so-called ‘Chub Club’ in which those players needing extra work would be put through 10 Hennie Mullers before training!

While Itunu may be best recalled for her long 15s career, it is worth noting that she played 11 tournaments for the Black Ferns Sevens from 2009-14, before the team enjoyed the high profile of today.

“I was surprised I was selected for them in 2009. I had originally only gone to train with them to get my 15s fitness up. At the time, I didn’t think I was fit or fast enough to play sevens, but to experience that environment and to see how it has progressed to now, is just really exciting.

“It gives the young girls a career pathway, but the environment in both the sevens and 15s teams is like family. They are great people, if you meet them in person. That’s what I am most proud of in these teams.”

There are no regrets, though she says would love to have looked after her body more rather than throwing it around with reckless abandon over many years. But then again, that’s one of the many reasons fans admired her play.

Linda Itunu departs the game as an active player held in the highest regard. And a Black Ferns legend.