Alice Soper spends the weekend in rural Bay of Plenty with Gary Paul, one of the original Black Ferns props, who’s returned to her hometown, Poroporo, and brought rugby back for the first time in 30 years.
Geri Paul is waiting for me in the carpark of the local kura in Poroporo. She’s there early, as she always is, fittingly silhouetted against a mural of the fearsome warrior, Taiwhakaea.
She’s slight and spry, not necessarily what you would expect from a former Black Ferns prop. But Paul was never one to conform to other people’s expectations.
“By the way, I’ll be picking your brains to help my hooker,” she informs me as we walk. I’ve just arrived and I’m already on her team.
Inside the hall, she talks to me about the game we love and the side she’s building. The lights are on a timer, and they soon decide we’ve left because we’ve got lost in the conversation. We dance around to turn them on again as the team rolls in.
As each player arrives, they move around the group and give a kiss on the cheek before the clock hits six and everyone’s here, ready to go.
“They’re on time because they love it,” Paul says. “They love each other, they love being in each other’s space. And no-one is going to come to training dreading or hoping that so-and-so doesn’t turn up. They’re more like ‘Oh where are they?’”
This emphasis on ‘connection first’ is textbook Geri Paul – back in her Bay of Plenty hometown, setting up a women’s rugby team here for the first time in three decades.
“You need her on the field and the only way to get that is actually off the field. And that’s lost on a lot of coaches,” Paul says.
“They think, I’ve just got to teach you this skill, you can play 10 and you’ll be right there for our nine. Yeah but if I don’t like her, she’s on her own. If I don’t know her, I’ll be there, but her mate will be there faster.
“So you’ve got to get that environment where yeah, that’s just your mate. And then the skills will be handy to know.”
Paul’s return to the women’s rugby scene in her hometown is a lot more intentional than her departure was to Taranaki in the mid-1980s.
“This will sound crazy, but I probably went for fish and chips and ended up there,” Paul laughs. It didn’t take long for her to get settled in New Plymouth and find work, thanks to the social safety net of her first chosen sport.
“I had a lot of people I knew back then through softball,” she explains. “And just like rugby, if you met up with a softball person, you could walk into their house.”
Gary became an integral part of the emerging Taranaki club rugby scene, playing for the Tukapa side. The hard grafting forward had an unshakable commitment to her team.
This loyalty was put to the test when she was named in the first New Zealand women’s rugby side, who were to play the California Grizzlies in 1989.
“It was the same weekend as the club finals for Taranaki. The purest athletes probably don’t want to hear it, but I remember thinking ‘I’m not going to play for New Zealand, I’m going to play for my club’,” Paul says.
A phone call with Dad soon checked those priorities and she was off to make rugby history.
When the finals rolled around the next year, though, Paul skipped a provincial tournament to run out for her club. That commitment to the community may surprise some, but it’s ultimately the secret of Paul’s success.
“In ’91, I made the World Cup squad and back then you had to pay to play. So I had to come home. I was 24, living in New Plymouth with no whānau, I wasn’t going to come up with that money,” she says.
“My family ran a golf tournament, and came alive [a kind of fundraising party] and a batons up [raffle]. Between those three things, my family had raised $8000. The trip was going to cost $5000. Even though there was no women’s rugby here at that time, I think just about every club going then donated money.
“So I put it in the paper, I said a big thank you. And I said ‘When I get back from the World Cup, I’ll start women’s rugby. I’ll come back to the Bay and start it up’.”
And she did just that. Paul returned from his trip to Wales and started knocking on club doors.
“The irony was they’d give me money to go but didn’t want to play,” Paul remembers. “We had a lot of clubs, but some laughed, some said they weren’t ready. But in 1991, we had six teams – five clubs and one school.”
From these humble beginnings, Bay of Plenty women’s rugby grew. Today, it’s the home of the gold medal-winning Black Ferns Sevens program.
Paul credits Noel Horlock, head of the local referees and manager of the 1992 Bay of Plenty women’s team, with helping her open doors. When she headed back to Taranaki to chase reselection for New Zealand, it was Horlock who kept the home fires burning.
It was Horlock, too, who greeted me in the Poroporo clubrooms and took me out to the carpark to lay out this period of women’s rugby history on his bonnet. Pride of this legacy was understated but evident in his eagerness to explain the connection between the players past and those today who are wearing the red, white and blue.
Poroporo’s prodigal daughter has returned once again to the Bay, to the club run by the matriarchy of Pauls.
Geri takes her place as the women’s coach, sometimes a team substitute (at aged 56) and the after-match DJ.
Her sisters Flo, Raiha and Bev, make the kai for the teams; there are no pizza deliveries here. Another sister, Ngahuia, has been the club president for the last eight years and runs the show from behind the bar. It’s a family affair on the field too, with nieces Missy and Pauline on Poroporo’s team sheet.
“I went from Taranaki where it was G, Coach or whatever, to Whaea, Auntie or Nan! I have been on this field for way too long,” Paul laughs.
She won’t be stepping off anytime soon, though. Achieving their goals for their first season back after 31 years, Geri still has bigger dreams for her Poroporo team and rugby of the Eastern Bay of Plenty.
Dreams that include the establishment of a local academy so that local talent doesn’t have to leave, like she did, to play in the black jersey.
“I don’t care what skills you show these girls, I want them stronger when they leave, mentally,” says Paul, who’s also coaching the NZ Māori U18 Kōtiro team.
“I want to create strong wāhine who will know that ‘No, this is not right’, or ‘Yes, I like that’. Not meek and mild, hiding in the corner, just go with the flow. I think if you can create that, they’ll create good rugby.”
That good rugby and its community is on full display on game day. The men stake out the ground and the supporters create a grandstand of vehicles to surround it.
Poroporo went down fighting to the eventual competition runners-up, Waikete. Paul has made it a rule that there is a dress-up theme for each home game. This theme along with kai and waiata is shared with their opposition.
The respect for what Paul is building here is on full display. It’s the captain of Waikete, Delwyn Fraser, who takes out the best dressed for wearing a cheerleading costume in full Poroporo colors.
“You were a big pou in Taranaki but you belong to us,” Fraser reminds all in attendance in her after-match speech.
Gary Paul is back home in Poroporo – and so is women’s rugby.