Rugby World Cup champ gone to the dogs

Rugby World Cup

The star of the Black Ferns side who won the 2002 Rugby World Cup, Monique Hirovanaa now defends our borders as a dog handler. The explosive halfback tells Adam Julian how much the game has changed ahead of this World Cup. 

Monique Hirovanaa was so good at rugby in her day, she was invited by the Buller men’s team to play for the battling province.

A Black Fern for the best part of a decade, she won the World Cup twice, in 1998 and 2002 – officially named player of the tournament in 2002 as the Black Ferns foiled England 19-9 in a tense final at the Olympic Stadium in Barcelona.

Today the champion halfback is a detector dog handler for Customs at Auckland Airport, a position she’s held since 2015. What’s the difference between managing dogs and forwards?

“Never work with animals or children,” Hirovanaa laughs.

“You’ve got to use your voice, remain composed and educate people as opposed to lecturing them.

“In rugby, a halfback is only as good as their forward pack. It’s similar in Customs: an officer is only as good as their dog. Nimbus is a new dog. He was born in 2019 and named by the public. He likes to find meat items, especially chicken where he goes a little crazy – so I have to get other officers to handle that.”

Monique Hirovanaa at work with her detector dog, Nimbus. Photo: supplied.

Hirovanaa started playing rugby in 1991, having represented Auckland in basketball, netball and touch.

Initially she was hard to handle as a fullback. The first officially sanctioned New Zealand women’s rugby tour was of Australia in 1994. Hirovanaa was a devastating debutant from fullback.

She scored four tries in the opening fixture against the ACT, and was imperious in the 37-0 blanking of the Wallaroos, scoring a try and setting up three others.

Hirovanaa converted to halfback in 1995. The Black Ferns walloped Australia, 64-0, in their only test of that season in Waitematā. Hirovanaa was so dynamic and dazzling, the following year the incumbent halfback and World Rugby Hall of Fame inductee, Anna Richards, was shifted to first-five.

Between 1996 and 2002, Hirovanaa and Richards partnered each other 22 times in tests and enjoyed 21 wins – by an average score of 57-5. On nine occasions the Black Ferns held their opponents scoreless.

“I was an explosive player, a bit of an all-rounder. I don’t mean to blow my own trumpet, but I could kick, pass and run. I think my time as fullback helped me develop a high skill level,” Hirovanaa says.

“Anna was really good at everything. She read the game so well and it became a case of ‘why have one good player on the pitch when you can have two’?”

Kendra Cocksedge, the most capped Black Fern of all time, is the most dominant player of the present generation. Hirovanaa believes her approach is quite different from the Canterbury halfback.

“I had my own style which was more intuitive, whereas [Cocksedge] has come through with Fiao’o Fa’amausili and grown into a great tactician and leader.

“I take a small interest in the game today. It’s changed so much from when I was playing. They get paid now so they have to be accountable for the way they perform. They still play for the love of the game but when you’re in the limelight you can get entitled at the top. You can’t go anywhere without your club and roots.

“I don’t want to be too negative, but it was really hard watching the tour last year. I think they are heading in a much better direction now.”

Hirovanaa couldn’t be described as entitled. She trained six days a week, and often with men.

“Towards finals time at Marist, we used to play against the under 85kgs. We would live scrimmage with them and run backline moves. Men are quicker and stronger than women so instead of beating them physically, you have to adapt and find another way to succeed.”

Monique Hirovanaa (left) receives her 2003 World Women’s Rugby Player of the Year from Gill Burns. Photo: Getty Images.

Hirovanaa won the Auckland senior club title with Marist seven times. So in 1999, the Buller men’s rep team lost all eight matches in Division III of the NPC. Coach Bernie Miller lobbied New Zealand Rugby to try and include Hirovanaa in the squad.

“If allowed, I would’ve played,” Hirovanaa laughs.

“Women playing against men wasn’t about women beating men. It was about challenging yourself and avoiding complacency, which playing women all the time doesn’t allow.”

The hard work paid off in 2002 for Hirovanaa. The Black Ferns sacrificed bacon, eggs, coffee, chocolate, alcohol and abided by strict curfews to defend the World Cup. They beat England, 19-9, in the final, flipping a shock defeat the year earlier.

Rugby News reported: “Hirovanaa pulled all the strings in a star performance, scoring one slick try when she scampered 25 metres down the sideline from a ruck, and then set up another for Cheryl Waaka after slicing through on a 20m run from a lineout. Hirovanaa also kept England pinned on defence with clever, well-placed high kicks, and she directed the forwards in several stinging, lengthy rolling mauls.”

Hirovanaa remembers the pressure put on her to perform in that game.

“I was told I was lucky to get the game. The coaches felt I wasn’t at my best, but I knew it was my last game, so I was just going to go out there and play,” she says.

“I don’t remember a lot of my games, because I was in the moment. But I remember the pass to Cheryl and the relief at the end. But to be honest, a lot of it is a blur.”

Hirovanaa has to keep a clear head in her shift work at the airport. Pre-covid, Auckland Airport operated 140 international flights from 45 destinations a day. During the height of the pandemic, she worked on border security and assisted with logistics.

She will be at the Black Ferns opening World Cup game against Australia at Eden Park on October 8. She played 24 tests and scored 13 tries, but those numbers do little to illustrate her impact.

In 1997, England arrived in Christchurch as reigning world champions and winners of 35 of 37 tests. In a legendary display, New Zealand beat England, 67-0, in a one-off test – with Hirovanaa scoring three tries.

Sometime later, Black Ferns selector and coach Vicky Dombroski met the late Queen Elizabeth II where she couldn’t remove that result from her head.

“I was invited to a function at Government House, wasn’t a dignitary, but somehow I ended up meeting the Governor-General and the Queen,” Dombroski recalls. “The Queen asked what I did, and I told her I was the New Zealand women’s rugby coach. She further queried, ‘Does England have a team?’ Without even thinking I responded, ‘Yeah we kicked your arse.’”

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