The Black Ferns Sevens team have dominated the Women’s Sevens Series, claiming three of the four World Series crowns since its inception in 2012. Cam Neate meets the captain, Sarah Goss, and looks into the background of this world class athlete.
WORDS AND PHOTOS CAM NEATE
Sarah Goss led her team to take silver at the Rio Olympics last year, which also happened to be the sport’s debut appearance at a summer Olympics. From the frozen fields of Manawatu to an Olympic grand final on the other side of the world. For the majority of young Kiwi sportspeople, the idea of success is often found at the post-match tuckshop. The victorious mince and cheese pie or perhaps the player-of-the-day Moro bar. In conversation, it seems our cover story subject knew from a young age there was success to be had far beyond the walls of the tuck shop.
Armed with the exciting task of writing this feature on Sarah I found myself tracing my own steps back to the cold winter mornings in Blake Park, Mount Maunganui (the location for our cover shoot), searching for inspiration. Rugby, the great New Zealand sport, is for me rich in nostalgia: Wednesday after-school practices, freezing cold feet on game day, thick jerseys, mouth guards and half-time oranges. The nerves, the burning feeling in your throat as you sprint down the wing and the sweet victory of that very first try. It appears, despite my youthful obsession of the sport, my knowledge of the game, and the status quo of women’s rugby in New Zealand is today, rather lacking. Or was, until I sat down with Sarah.
Growing up in rural Manawatu, Sarah and her two siblings spent any spare time they had outside of school helping mum and dad on the family farm. A modest upbringing according to Sarah and a household that has not seen a lot of change since, with both parents still grinding out the farm work every day. “My parents would be working on the farm from 5am until sometimes 8pm. I remember getting home from school and we’d have to do our chores. We’d bring in the firewood in and cook dinner whilst my parents worked. We’d have dinner, watch the news and go to bed.”
It was in the frosty winter fields surrounding their home that Sarah began to dream of her future: an aeroplane pilot, a champion hockey player, Big Macs, hot chips and fizzy. Quite the banquet of ambition, but anything is possible when you are a kid. Once high school rolled around Sarah was off to boarding school, which not only saved her parents an hour daily return trip but it was there at Fielding High where Sarah was able to fully immerse herself in sports.
“It meant I was able to play whatever sport I wanted without my parents having to drive me around everywhere. It was all just there”. Gymnastics and netball transitioned into competitive hockey, and ultimately rugby in her final year at school. At the time, Sarah’s coach had recommended taking up rugby to help improve her fitness for hockey but she soon found the full contact and competitiveness of 15-aside rugby much more stimulating than hockey and as a result, traded her hockey stick for a pair of rugby boots. However, it was not a completely smooth transition into her newfound passion.
“I hid it from my parents for about three months, thinking they were going to tell me off for playing rugby. I felt like back then, there wasn’t much support for women’s rugby despite my family being massive rugby supporters.” But once Sarah decided to tell her parents of her new secret love, they were only disappointed they had missed watching her games and according to Sarah, “they’ve watched me ever since. I remember telling my parents back in seventh form when they asked what I was going to do following year and I remember saying I’m going to become a professional rugby player and back then they kind of laughed, but I am someone who will just go after it and I will do everything I can to prove people wrong. I’m stubborn, and it ended up happening.”
In 2010, the Black Ferns won their fourth consecutive World Cup against England on English soil. The live final on Sky Sports was something Sarah recounts as pivotal to women’s rugby, and it was a key moment that truly sparked the flame for her own competitive campaign. That same year, aged 17, Sarah was selected to represent New Zealand in the New Zealand Maori sevens rugby team, travelling to Italy.
Despite playing at an international level, these were still early days for women’s rugby in New Zealand and players were having to hold down full-time jobs to support their rugby careers.
Finally, in 2013 the New Zealand Rugby Union were able to offer full time contracts to the women’s teams, which Sarah simply says was “massive” and a transitional period she is certainly proud to have been through. “It makes you really appreciate what you get now”.
Throughout that period, Sarah studied at Massey University (she has been the recipient of the prestigious Prime Minister’s Athlete Scholarship for a number of years), and has worked hard to fit her studies around training. It’s clear that Sarah feels that education is the key to a life after rugby.
Sarah would train in a makeshift garage gym with local police officer and fellow teammate, Selica Winiata. The 5:30am training sessions were followed by extramural study and then back to the garage at 6pm once Selica had finished her shift.
Allan Bunting, coach of the Black Ferns Sevens teams says Sarah has an “unbelievable work ethic, a relentless desire to learn, grow and look for every opportunity to better herself.” There was no funding or fancy recreation centres in those earlier years of Sarah’s career, but her concentrated self-motivation and gruelling hours of training would soon begin to pay off.
Goss modestly accepts that leading New Zealand to victory in the World Sevens tournament in 2016, and winning silver in Rio, were particularly proud moments. It is evident however that these awards and accolades are somewhat trivial to her true personal pillars of success; being able to fly her parents to international games, working with local school children and donating sponsored gear to those who need it is. Sarah says “Being successful to me is about knowing I’ve done everything I possibly can to achieve my goals, this hopefully means I’m inspiring others to do the same.” Fellow Kiwi Olympian, Rose Keddell from the Black Sticks, acknowledges Goss’s unique journey in women’s rugby, the milestones and the success it has had under the guidance of Goss. “Sarah has been through all the major changes in New Zealand women’s rugby. From gaining contracts and funding, seeing women’s rugby become a professional sport and of course being in the Olympics last year. The sport is in a really good place.”
Compared to Sarah’s fierce and powerful on field performance, there is a very soft and warm side to her demeanour. Sarah’s eyes are teary when she speaks of pride and family, the personal trials and tribulations of a closet rugby player to one who performs now on the world stage. At twenty-four years young, you could say Sarah Goss is killing it, though contentment is not a word used often in her vocabulary. Sarah is conscious about keeping everything her life fresh and exciting and not allowing rugby to be her only passion.
“If there’s something in my mind that I want to do, I have to do it. I was in 6th form and called the local aerodrome and said I wanted to join the flight school. They sent me out a package and all of a sudden I was going up in a two-seater Cessna before school, watching the sunrise around the Manawatu ranges.”
I like to stay busy. If I didn’t have something outside of rugby then I’d feel stale and I would worry about rugby all the time and that’s not healthy for anyone. For me, having that rush of being in an aeroplane, it gives you perspective. This is a theme we often return to in conversation. Sarah recounts one time she was up in the air on a practice flight and her door swung wide open. “All I could see was the ground below me. I got such a rush, I wasn’t really scared, it just made me feel alive. It’s important to have these moments, and life outside rugby to give balance. I did 12 hours towards my PPA and then had to stop because rugby took over. Once I get my degree then I will get back into it.” Sarah has also nearly completed her bachelor of arts degree, majoring in Maori studies and a minor in sports science. It has taken her about seven years so far, fitting in papers between tours and training, but the end is in site.
“I’m doing a full immersion Maori paper at the moment which I’m finding very difficult because I’m not fluent in Te Reo”, she laughs, “then I only have one other paper to get my degree. My sister was the first person in my family to get a degree and now I can’t wait to get mine.” It all comes back to those words from her rugby coach, Allan Bunting, that Sarah “has a relentless desire to learn, grow and look for every opportunity to get better. She is a natural leader who inspires by her actions and words. She will be successful with whatever she puts her mind to.”
And the rest of those childhood ambitions? “Before Rio, I didn’t have hot chips and fizzy for a whole year. The nutritionist was like ‘what are you even doing?’ I didn’t have to give them up totally, but it was my inner competitiveness. I convinced myself that if I gave in, I wouldn’t make the Olympics. The night after winning silver I went straight out for hot chips and fizzy and it was all I ate for a month”.
Photographing and speaking with Sarah on the exact rugby field I once played on was quite surreal. I probably would have thought back then that I would be the one being interviewed as a rugby star, not the dude with the camera around his neck. But there we were. A professional rugby player standing on my old patch of grass looking amazing and strong and elegant and determined. And me, well determined to capture all that.
This was a new adventure for me, not a job or a task or work but more an opportunity and a challenge to do something new. I find people fascinating, it is almost a hobby of mine to hear new stories and gain knowledge from all walks of life. Sarah’s story is intriguing on so many levels and it was humbling to spend the day getting to know her. I am proud of what she has achieved so far in what is only the beginning of her career and in particular her stance on success and the importance of being a positive role model. Perhaps once the battery dies for good on my camera career, I’ll make a late comeback for number 12 in the black jersey. After all, it’s a game of two halves.
Player of the Year 2014 + 2016 Black Ferns Sevens.
Rio 2016 Olympic Silver Medalist.
135 matches played on World Series Sevens.
29 World Sevens tournaments.