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Grace Brooker: In control of emotions and growing after injury setback

By Adam Julian
AUCKLAND, NEW ZEALAND - JUNE 14: Grace Brooker poses for a portrait during a Black Ferns Portrait Session at Millenium Institute on June 14, 2023 in Auckland, New Zealand. (Photo by Hannah Peters/Getty Images for New Zealand Rugby)

November 7, 2021, is likely to be the worst day in the career of Grace Brooker. Not only were the Black Ferns dealt a record 15-56 defeat by England but in the 24th minute Brooker left the field with a debilitating knee injury.

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It would be seven months before Brooker could run again and 476 days between games of rugby for the Canterbury second-five.

Brooker admits she still carries a lot of pain but insists she’s a better player.

“When I was injured I watched a lot of rugby with the perspective of a professional player for the first time,” Brooker told RugbyPass.

“That allowed me to grow my tactical awareness and became more alert to the space and where the defence is, and what they are doing.

“When I came back I found myself making decisions more quickly rather than hesitating for a couple of seconds. It’s been great to provide game drivers on my inside with another voice.”

The greater incisiveness of Brooker was utilised by Sir Wayne Smith at the World Cup. Brooker was summoned to do remote video analysis.

Further evidence of her superior instincts was on display a few weeks ago when she scored two tries for Canterbury in their 42-12 win over Bay of Plenty in the Farah Palmer Cup.

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Earlier this year she helped Matatu win Super Rugby Aupiki, rekindling a formidable partnership with fellow Black Fern, Amy Du Plessis.

“Aupiki was awesome. Who wouldn’t want to play beside their best friends? The vibe of that team is one of the best I’ve experienced and we had an amazing coaching staff of Tony Christie, Blair Baxter, Whitney Hansen, and Dan Cron,” Brooker said.

“Dupes is an absolutely amazing athlete, a determined, passionate, and knowledgeable person.

“The best thing about our relationship is that we challenge each other. If something goes wrong the other one will tell them. Criticism is always solution-focused.”

Brooker made her long-awaited return to the international arena in the Black Ferns’ 39-17 win over the USA in Ottawa.

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“I was balling my eyes out during the national anthem. I was so proud and relieved to be back and then I caught the eye of my physio Jen Ardagh who was laughing and that made me cry even more,” Brooker said.

“Jen is the biggest reason I’m back on the field. There were some dark times in recovery but her empathy, knowledge, and support were massive.”

The Black Ferns were in a massive spot of bother against the USA. Halfback Iritana Hohaia was red-carded for a high tackle after two minutes and shortly thereafter the Black Ferns were down 5-17.

Something had to give. World Rugby Player of the Year Ruahei Demant was brought onto steady the ship. After half an hour Brooker was replaced.

“I was upset to go off the field. I wasn’t playing my best but I felt like I was playing well enough to be there and that was the feedback I got afterwards.

“I guess the biggest thing about that Test match for me was just getting back in the arena again. I loved the tour. The environment was a lot freer than it was in 2021. The expansive and physical style we’re trying to play is really fun and suits our strengths.”

In 2020 while playing for Canterbury against Hawke’s Bay, Brooker dropped the ball over the try line and reacted with a big grin and flamboyant forward roll which went viral on social media. It was an unusual response to a mistake but speaks volumes of her positive character.

“That was one of the biggest moments of my life because I got a lot of grief for it which helped me put errors and pressure into perspective. When I used to make a mistake I’d slap my arm or leg and get really negative. Why did I behave like that? It wasn’t a tight game so it didn’t matter. I was relaxed and having fun. Why was I upset afterwards? I dropped the ball over the line in the final which was a bigger moment and almost more costly.

“I wrote a psychology paper on the incident and my research showed negative psychology leads to stress and negative physical movements. We can control our emotions in lots of ways by trying to be more positive and neutral. It’s not always easy but it helps ourselves and others around us.”

Brooker scored an A+ for the paper.

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