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The thrill of the FPC

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Taylor Curtis on making history and the thrill of the Farah Palmer Cup

On eve of week one of the Farah Palmer Cup, Canterbury’s Taylor Curtis reflects on her team’s historic maiden title in 2017, and why they are ready for the brand new season.

We never discussed the idea of making history. It didn’t really cross our minds until we were inches from potentially making the final and, even then, what was before us was talked about purely in a light-hearted manner. We knew that our captain, Stephanie Te Ohaere-Fox (AKA Foxy), and the little nugget, Kendra Cocksedge, had made the final a handful of times but had never walked away with the trophy but that was never something they would have wanted us to dwell on. Even so, we all thought one thing: ‘We better not let these two
legendary Cantabrians down’.

The season had started well for us, even before the competition had begun. Something had catalysed in training and there was a new sense of direction for the team. Yes, in past years we all had played hard and we all lived and breathed rugby as it was, but this time the feeling was more relaxed, more assured than it had been in previous seasons. I think we were all beginning to feel like we belonged in provincial rugby. It was a world cup year, women’s rugby was on the rise. We had the one thing every team needs: excitement at the prospect of a tough and thrilling competition.

The nature of the women’s game at club level means we all knew each other, and understood our collective strengths and weaknesses. We had bonds that had been tightened on cold Tuesday trainings, and tested on combative Saturday afternoons. We were mates, really, a band of sisters connected by the game we loved. We reinforced those friendships through the grind of training.

Still fizzing over the fact we made history??

A post shared by Taylor Curtis (@taylorcurtis6) on

We wanted to improve individually and as a team, making sure everyone took ownership of their tasks and that we were present mentally with everything we did, from training and fitness to the ultra-competitive mini-team challenges. Let us be clear here: There is no love lost in a mini-team challenge. This is an opportunity to muster every dirty trick and double-cross in the book. We had themed our teams around Game of Thrones, which was rather problematic for those among us who had never seen the show. The GoT Geeks among you
out there will appreciate the fact that no one liked “The Lannisters”.

We felt we were in great shape for the first game of the season against the Otago Spirit and managed to win comfortably if not with a lot of the polish we were looking for. The Spirit, just like their male counterparts are a team imbued with a certain physicality and fight that takes a lot to tame. Getting the win gave us confidence for our next assignment, but we knew it would be another level up.

It was a season of firsts for our team, and one of the most memorable was a rare chance to play on Eden Park. Regardless of where in the country you hail from, there is no doubt that Eden Park remains the Holy Grail for players. Of course we tried to pocket the excitement and play it cool, but walking out onto that field upon arrival and feeling that turf under the boots was a genuine thrill. Maybe it was a little too much for most of us.

I can still remember going through some high ball drills in the warm up when the heavens opened and a biblical rain began to fall. None of us saw it coming, and from that point on none of us could see the balls coming either! It was high-risk Falcon weather and we did our best to take our catches without taking a ball straight to the face. We were almost giggling by the end of the drill, and as we finished up, the rain stopped and the clouds parted. Talk about timing! We knew then that we were ready for anything. Anything, that is, except a Storm of a different kind. Auckland absolutely annihilated us that afternoon, winning 41-12. If we were going to be any chance, we were going to have to fight fire with fire.

There was plenty of soul-searching following that Auckland loss. We were on the hunt for the Iron Throne, but if we had thought it would be easy, we had been handed a harsh lesson in reality. We needed to bounce back quickly and found a groove against the Cyclones the next week. That set us up for another Auckland trip – this time to face perennial contenders, Counties-Manukau Heat. It was to be a turning point for us in terms of our process and mentality.

What the Auckland loss had taught us most was that we needed to play the best rugby we could without thinking of the final outcome. We needed to stay in the moment and trust what we were doing. Yes, the Heat were going to be tough but if we kept playing for 80 minutes, we would force them to stay with us, rather than allow them to set the pace. We became aware of just how important our finishers were – not just when they entered the game, but in constant communication from the sideline. All afternoon the bench barracked for the girls, imploring them to get up from the tackle or praising the clearing and ruck work. It was non-stop, and so were the girls in the middle. They had subjugated the desire to get the competition points, preferring instead to focus on playing a full game of good rugby. In the end, we had the victory: 32-29.

Most fans of the game would be unaware that the Farah Palmer Cup also has its own challenge trophy. Just as it is for the Ranfurly Shield, the JJ Stewart Trophy is a much-prized provincial possession and the victory meant it was ours. Unfortunately, it had been left by one of the Heat girls in Auckland, so there was a race to get it to the stadium to hand it over. We thought it was hilarious. I’m not sure the Heat thought they would be needing to give it up that day!

On the flight home the JJ Stewart sat next to me on the plane, although the flight attendant was rather concerned it was a hazard. Its two steel goal posts sticking out from the top do give it a rather menacing appeal. That said, it’s a perfect design for code heads like Grace Brooker. She would spend many hours over the next few weeks perfecting her coin football flicks. Grace Brooker: the Queen of Extras.

The momentum was ours. From there we despatched Tasman, Waikato and Wellington and set up a semifinal showdown against Waikato. We began to think that the Iron Throne could indeed be ours but we needed to stay in the moment. The semifinal was slated for AMI Stadium in Christchurch, home of Canterbury and Crusaders rugby and another chance for us to play on one of the most well-known grounds in the country. We knew what had happened last time we ran out on a famous ground. We were going to damn well make sure
we weren’t overawed this time.

Semi-finals are such head trips. There is excitement, certainly, but there is also dread. Sudden death is such a brutal thing in sport, and as much as you try to treat it as any other game, you know that there is so much more at stake. There were also other factors to deal with – we had to warm up outside the ground and then take a long walk to the stadium to play the game, a situation that would be repeated just a few weeks ago in Sydney for the Black Ferns and Wallaroos test match – but we refused to let these small obstacles get in the way. Confidence, process, trust. That was our mantra. On a windy afternoon at AMI Stadium, it all came together. We defeated Waikato 60-26. We were heading to the final.

A week later, we returned to Pukekohe to face the Heat. It would be one of the most intense afternoons of rugby any of us had ever known. Seven times Canterbury had been in the final, and seven times we had come away with the runners-up medal. We had history against us and ahead of us, barely acknowledged but in the backs of our minds all the same. We wanted this so badly now. But so did the Heat.

It took 33 minutes before there was any score in the game. Kendra Cocksedge kicking a penalty to put us 3-nil up. We were playing a massive pack – the Heat renowned for big ball carriers and big hitters. In the second half, Grace Brooker was cleaned up by Timara Leaf, resulting in a yellow card for the Counties second-five. Still we couldn’t find a way through the line. A dropped goal extended the lead midway through  second spell, and then Kendra was taken out after a lineout and the Heat were again reduced to 14 players.

We were 6-nil up, into the final quarter and looking to play from anywhere. From nowhere, Lanulangi Veainu, the young Heat winger intercepted a width pass and sprinted away under the posts to score. Hazel Tubic, one of the legends of the women’s game, slotted the conversion and the Heat led by one.

I would tell you that any of us remembered the next 15 minutes, but it was a blur. We kept pushing, punching away at the Heat defence, and making tackles when they had the ball. We kept talking, encouraging eachother to stay in the fight. We were chasing the game, chasing the Iron Throne, but we just needed to stay patient. With two minutes to go, after pressing hard on the Heat line, Rebecca Todd, our tough as nails number eight, dived over for the try. The title, finally, was Canterbury’s. If you ever want to see unadulterated joy, check the highlights of Kendra Cocksedge at the end of the game. I don’t know if it could have meant more to her.

And now here we are again, on the eve of the new season. It is great to say that while a few faces have changed, the passion from last year has returned. We are set on regaining that feeling of being part of a well-drilled team, one that wants to be better and wants to help every member be better. We want to keep learning and evolving in everything we do but there is no thought of a title defence. This is a new season. We are ready.

We know that the expanded season will present many more challenges for us, challenges that we – and all the women in this competition – accept. We all want the same thing: to play the game well, and to win. We want that feeling of being in the final again. As Crusaders Coach Brad Mooar once told us, “The hard work is all the games leading up to the final, the final is when you play to have fun.”

Long may the fun continue.

Taylor Curtis is a Canterbury women’s rugby player, studying Media and Psychology at the University of Canterbury.

Instagram: @taylorcurtis6

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Taylor Curtis on making history and the thrill of the Farah Palmer Cup