The Kahu Experience – by Setareh Brown

The AFL New Zealand Kahu are an indomitable team renowned for their physicality and undeniable spirit, who have been making history since their debut in October 2013 as the first ever female team to represent New Zealand in AFL.

When the 2014 Kahu team first arrived in camp on Wednesday 10th December, we knew this campaign was no exception, and that the AFL New Zealand Kahu would once again make history. We were playing the first ever female Indigenous Australian AFL team to travel across the Tasman, in a two match international series, which was to take place in Auckland, New Zealand.

The Kahu squad of 18 were to stay in Remuera, Auckland for the duration of the five day campaign. From the moment we became acquainted with our four coaches; Rowena Tatana, Michael Gregson, Jamie Hunt and Lisa Roper, we realised that we would be forced to undergo gruelling training sessions. These were focused on fitness and ball skills, to ensure we would be as prepared for the Woomeras’ unstructured, unpredictable style of play as possible. After an extremely arduous training session in sweltering hot Auckland weather, the entire squad earned a well deserved dinner break. Misuse of the barbecue caused assistant coaches Michael Gregson and Jamie Hunt to bid goodbye to a portion of their facial hair.

It was after our dinner break that the Kahu squad did something we had never done before; learned a haka, which was to be performed in front of our Indigenous counterparts in two days time. This particular haka was written by experienced haka writer, Mihaere Emmery who titled this one “Te Mana Kore nuku nei,” specifically for the Kahu team. It was an emotional time for the ‘older’ Kahu members who had been a part of the team for all campaigns, such as defensive star Kayla Paniora, who was a part of the Kahu when we previously performed chants before a game, in the absence of a haka.

Thursday 11th December arrived, and brought with it three training sessions. The first, which was at Onepoto Domain, was based on ball skills, and the basics of the game, but was made difficult by extremely wet weather, a contrast to the previous day’s desert like conditions. It was at this point where the Kahu members realised how highly skilled and diligent the sport demanded you to be. The second training session, also at Onepoto Domain, followed a whiteboard session where positions and tactics were explained over lunch. This whiteboard session proved invaluable for the team, especially for the 9 Kahu members who had never played a game of AFL before. This whiteboard session provided all players with an understanding of the game and it’s structure, while at the same time allowing the team some insight into the dynamics of this great game.

The third training session for the day was at Trusts Stadium, and was a combined training session with the Indigenous Woomeras. This was the first time the two teams had become acquainted. The New Zealand Kahu, like always, welcomed the team with open arms. Although the Kahu members had been training relentlessly for the vast majority of the day, we maintained the intensity level our counterparts had brought to training, which only reinforced how persistent and strong we are as a team.

Thursday evening saw the Kahu members introduced to an AFL NZ tradition; guernsey presentation evening, a night where players are presented with their coveted playing guernseys and commended on the amount of sheer hard work and dedication required to become a national representative in AFL. It is always a humbling experience to be presented with your playing guernsey, and it was especially exciting to see so many new faces receiving their guernseys alongside me. However, this particular presentation evening not only recognised the athletes from both sides of the Tasman for their outstanding achievements, but also thanked the AFL New Zealand staff such as Mick Coultard, Samuel Mckenzie, Alex Braae, Reg Ranchhod, Robert Vanstam and Woomeras Head Coach and AFL Head of Diversity Jason Mifsud, without whom, the international series would not have been able to take place. This was an exciting evening, where both teams were free to casually interact, ahead of their first game which was to be played the following day.

Game 1 saw the Kahu dominated by the Woomeras, and their unpredictable style of play. The physicality of both sides was undeniable, with the Kahu living up to their tough reputation. Even the Kahu members who had played AFL before were somewhat bewildered at the spontaneous style of play from the Woomeras. The 50% of the Kahu who had never played a game of AFL before; Charley Green, O’Shea Macmillan, Killarney Moorey, Aaliyah Clarke, Amber Clarke, Ruby Murray, Brooke Harris, Ivy Kapeli Esera and Aleexandria AhChee-Wilson played with flair and confidence, and displayed no difference in skill from the members who had played before, for which I commend each and every one of them.

On Saturday, the Kahu had a light training session with the Woomeras, where members of both teams traded game day stories from the previous day. This brief training session also provided Jason Mifsud the chance to offer some advice to the somewhat inexperienced Kahu team. “If you train hard, you will play hard. Train the way you want to play” said Mr Mifsud.

With the entire Kahu team having had at least one game under their belts, we returned to Parrs Park on Sunday December 14th ready to have another crack at AFL, and the Indigenous Woomeras. The conditions were less than ideal. It was incredibly wet which meant we needed to work harder than usual to maintain possession of the ball as it was slippery and hard to read. However, through a structured style of play which was introduced by Assistant Coaches Rowena Tatana, Jamie Hunt and Michael Gregson, which involved each coach being in charge of each zone, we were able to maintain possession of the ball and allowed ourselves to become incredibly close to scoring on numerous occasions. The first quarter was the Kahu’s best quarter in the team’s history as the opposition were held to a score of just 1.4. By the time the final whistle blew, the score was 105-0, the closest score the Kahu has ever had, and this was a tribute to the Kahu members and coaching staff and the amount of hard work and effort we, as a collective put in.

The post game function was followed by the imminent arrival of 4:30pm, which was when the Woomeras departed to catch their flights back to Australia. Upon saying their emotional good byes to their new found friends in the AFL New Zealand Kahu, the majority of Woomeras members traded their beloved playing guernseys with that of the Kahu. This small gesture showed the amount of respect the two teams had for each other, and allowed the Kahu’s sportsmanship to be put on display. It was incredibly difficult to see the Woomeras leave, as we had bonded so well with each other. It is very rare that you see two national representative teams share friendships as strong as the ones between the Kahu and Woomeras, however, these are two very special teams.

The pathway for female football in New Zealand is still in it’s infancy, however it is already providing incredibly talented female athletes with incredible opportunities in the growing sport. The football culture here in New Zealand is second to none, and is one AFL New Zealand can be extremely proud of. In my opinion, AFL New Zealand really does produce the highest calibre of athletes in the world.