After a bad run of injuries, the fly-half thought her Test dreams were over. Now she’s leading the Black Ferns at a home World Cup
Meet Ruahei Demant – a leader and a lawyer
Wayne Smith believes Ruahei Demant will be an important leader for the Black Ferns for some time to come, but the fly-half wasn’t so convinced by her own captaincy credentials. When the New Zealand boss first broached the subject of Demant becoming skipper ahead of June’s Pacific Four Series, she responded: “Are you being serious?”
“I was really shocked,” she expands. “The coaches were talking about leadership and I was in disbelief. It’s not something that I ever thought could happen or I’d tried to aspire towards. When I was told I was going to be captain I couldn’t believe it. I still can’t believe it.
“It was hard going into the first camp after the announcement. I didn’t know if I should do or say what I normally did – I already say so much as a ten – or more, or if the girls would be sick of hearing my voice!
“If I had to describe my leadership style, I think I’m collaborative with the leaders in the group. I want to hear opinions, to make sure everyone’s voices are heard and acknowledged. Like most footy players, leading through actions is the easiest way. I’m also really lucky that we have a great group of leaders who all have different strengths, so we get the best out of each other.”
Demant namechecks veteran scrum-half Kendra Cocksedge, experienced forward Charmaine McMenamin and her co-captain for the O’Reilly Cup series, Kennedy Simon, amongst those who contribute on the leadership front. That network was no doubt important given all that happened prior to Demant being appointed captain.
A review conducted after last year’s heavy losses to England and France found multiple flaws in the Black Ferns set-up. Glenn Moore resigned as head coach, Smith came in as director of rugby with Graham Henry and Mike Cron also joining the back-room team, players were navigating turning professional… There was a lot going on but Demant believes the players have shown plenty of unity.
“It’s been a new year for the team. We’ve been through some challenges, but we’re coming out the other side and playing decent footy. The girls have done really well to stay together. There have been a lot of changes this season within the team, but I feel like our culture stayed really strong and has got stronger.
“It’s awesome to have coaches who have worked in professional environments before and they are guiding us to be the best players we can be. The style of game they’re coaching is giving players a lot of freedom to express themselves.
“Wayne is a very passionate coach and that rubs off on all of us. We go into training, analyse footage, do extra stuff outside training and it’s fun; we want to do it because we want to play on Saturday. It’s a great environment to be in.”
The back-room changes have resulted in improvements on the pitch. Demant talks of being a lot fitter and those strides in conditioning mean the squad are able to play the more expansive, attacking game that Smith is looking for. The experienced coach has recognised that the Black Ferns can’t match the set-piece dominance of England and France, so is looking to exploit teams out wide and with ball in hand.
It’s worked so far, Smith winning his first nine games in charge. That included three wins in the pool stages of the Rugby World Cup, which gave them the top seeding for the quarter-finals – where they will play pool opponents Wales again.
It’s quite a turnaround from those record defeats in Europe less than a year ago, but Demant is all too familiar with the ups and downs of sport, particularly the downs. She had not one, not two but three knee reconstructions between 2013 and 2015, all the injuries suffered while playing sevens (“my body is not designed for sevens”).
While the recovery from the first two – one left, one right – went relatively smoothly, the third (left again) cast doubts over whether she would ever play again.
“It was tough. I knew exactly what I needed to do to get back to play, but it was just hard – the surgery was hard, walking was hard, everything was taking ages. My mates would be playing a touch game and I’d want to jump in but I couldn’t even do that. I just wanted to get to the stage where I could play with my mates again.
“There’s now a lot more awareness of mental health and how injuries can be so isolating. I was pretty fortunate that I had a lot of support around me. The hardest part was that a lot of my friends and my sister (Kiritapu, who made her Black Ferns debut in 2015) all play rugby, so I’d go to watch games and support but it was really hard to not be part of that.
“I stopped going because it was too hard. I’ve talked to mates who’ve had a bad run of injuries and everyone says the same thing, ‘Stop going’. You feel sad not to be doing it.”
By the time she got back on the pitch in 2017 – a year and a half after the injury – Demant had shelved dreams of playing international rugby and simply wanted to play with her friends. Yet the following year she was making her Black Ferns debut. “It was surreal, I never thought it would happen,” she says of her Test bow.
Now she’s leading her country at a home World Cup. And as a pro. NZ Rugby gave out full-time contracts earlier in the year in the hope of improving the side’s chances of delivering a sixth world title come November, so the 27-year-old has put her career as a lawyer on hold.
Having said that, before the World Cup preparations ramped up over the past few months, Demant was volunteering at a community law centre as she found it strange having so much more time on her hands.
“I could do it when it suited me and it aligned with my passion, why I chose to study law, of wanting to help people,” says Demant, who is yet to decide on a legal specialism but is interested in both family law and commercial law, in particular sports contracts.
“It’s always been normal to juggle things, to balance playing sport when you’re not professional. Ever since I started playing rugby in Auckland I’ve been surrounded by great women who have amazing careers outside sport and are such well-rounded people. Having to balance footy and work, footy and uni, was normal because it was modelled by my team-mates.”
While Demant now lives in Auckland, she’s originally from the small town of Ōmāio in the Bay of Plenty. She played a lot of sports growing up, including football, hockey, netball and basketball, and while she’d long chucked a rugby ball around with her cousins, she didn’t start “playing properly, with boots and stuff” until she was 13.
A girls’ team had formed at her older sister’s high school, so Demant and her younger sister Kiritapu – both still at intermediate school – also joined. “My dad really liked rugby and he wanted us all to play.”
There was only one team so they were amongst the youngest members at the start, but that proved beneficial when Demant decided to start playing club rugby in Auckland. There was no women’s team close to where they lived, so Demant, aged 17, and Kiritapu would drive the hour (or 90 minutes, depending on traffic) after school for training at College Rifles, a club she still plays for now.
“I’m from quite an isolated community, so we were used to travelling long distances. The club we chose has always supported us and the women in the team were empowering, had strong personalities and were really nurturing towards my sister and I. They set really high standards, so we would see what they did and try to copy them.”
Her first coach at College Rifles was Anna Richards, the former Black Ferns fly-half who won four straight World Cups between 1998 and 2010. When you’re a teenage ten there surely aren’t many better people to learn from and Demant describes Richards as one of the biggest influences on her career.
They still work together regularly as Richards is an assistant coach for Auckland Storm, Demant’s provincial side that competes in the Farah Palmer Cup, and is the women’s high-performance manager for the Auckland Rugby Union.
“She has a big heart and cares for players,” Demant says of Richards. “She was a very smart player and for me, as a ten, she helps me a lot in my position.
“The best advice I’ve ever received actually came from Anna. When I play I sometimes get a bit stressed, I feel I can’t get into my own game, so she says to remember what my strengths are and to just play. She’s such a calm person and she reminds me to have fun.”
Demant has certainly been having fun in the black jersey in recent weeks.
This article originally appeared in Rugby World magazine’s November 2022 edition.
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