Sarah Hirini has put her name up alongside the great New Zealand rugby captains
Sarah Hirini has put her name up alongside the great New Zealand rugby captains.
The Black Ferns Sevens skipper is unlikely to ever enjoy the acclaim of elite All Blacks captains such as Wilson Whineray, Brian Lochore and Richie McCaw. Sean Fitzpatrick will probably never have to cede his place in the pantheon to her, but that shouldn’t diminish the scale of Hirini’s achievement at the Tokyo Olympic Games.
It’s not a gender thing, more a Sevens one. That version of the sport pales in comparison to 15s, regardless of it being the best iteration of the female game.
The Black Ferns are an outstanding side, but one that hadn’t won when it absolutely mattered.
Their capitulation to Australia at the previous Olympics cast a pall over the programme. Sure they swept all before them the rest of the time, but they hadn’t claimed the prize of greatest consequence.
That they were finally able to – at these delayed Olympics – speaks volumes for the entire group, but no player produced a greater performance in the final than Hirini.
There must have been a temptation to try and finesse their way to victory over France, in the gold medal match. To assume that athleticism and skill would be enough to prevail, following the pulsating semifinal win over Fiji.
But that kind of approach can lead to errors and open the outcome to chance. Hirini never allowed that.
Time and again, she carried the ball direct into contact. There was no stinting in Hirini’s effort as she battered the French defence.
The great All Blacks captains haven’t necessarily been great orators. Some haven’t even been great players.
But they’ve been men that others were happy to follow. Men who gladly put their head where others wouldn’t put their foot. Men who were happy to do the “shit” work.
Hirini followed in that proud tradition at these Olympics. She took ownership for the result and ensured that “chokers’’ would never be a word associated with this group of women again.
Part of the Black Ferns getting over their failure at the Rio Olympics has been talking about it. They reasoned that they would never achieve their potential if they hid from the truth of that campaign.
It’s a heavy burden to carry, though, when anything less than a gold medal is a failure. The fear of that could cripple other teams, but not this one.
That was what was so impressive about Hirini in that finale. She never allowed doubt to creep in, because she kept that team on the front foot throughout.
Repeat efforts are hard in Sevens. It’s not easy to play a full match, particularly when you’re a forward like her. The temptation is always to look for fresh legs as the minutes tick by.
It’s testament to Hirini’s qualities as a player and athlete and leader that she was going as hard at the end of the 26-12 win over France as she was at the beginning.
It will be interesting to see how history judges this Black Ferns team and women’s Sevens as whole. It feels as if it’s still treated as something of a novelty, rather than the pinnacle of the female game.
But it’s surely Hirini at the head of that line. She doesn’t have the speed and evasive skills as the others, but she’s as tough a player as you’ll find.
In time, it would be nice to think this team gets their due. That people realise how special this group is and how hard they’ve worked mentally and physically to be Olympic gold medalists.
Lesser players would have failed, but not this group. No, led by their truly inspiring skipper, they delivered when they had to.
You can’t ask more from athletes than that.
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