Find out how the New Zealander balances her rugby career with parenting

Black Ferns centre Carla Hohepa

Carla Hohepa’s lockdown routine included a morning run with her partner, Karne Hesketh. As you’d expect from two professional athletes, that daily run could get competitive but while Hohepa concedes that Hesketh, the former Japan wing, is the faster of the couple, she says: “I don’t make it easy for him, that’s for sure!”

It’s just one example of the Black Fern’s resolute nature. After all, she has returned to play international rugby after having a child not once but twice.

Hohepa grew up with rugby, both her parents representing Waikato, and was a regular in the family’s touch team, but netball was her sport until she went to the University of Otago.

Her flat-mate’s rugby team, Alhambra Union, were short of players one day in 2006 and she was asked to fill in. Soon she was playing provincial rugby, within 12 months she was making her New Zealand debut and come 2010 the wing was scoring the Black Ferns’ only try in the World Cup final as they beat England.

The speed she shows on the pitch was replicated in her rugby comeback after having her first son, Cohen, now eight. Having a family as an elite sportswoman takes planning and the couple had decided post-RWC 2010 would be a good time to start. Hohepa was back in training weeks after giving birth, with the Rio Olympics the next goal.

“It definitely wasn’t easy and it came with challenges, but I still wanted to play rugby again,” she says. “It was probably a lot of self-motivation to get back.

“I was told to take it slow, but listening and wanting are two different things! After my first child, I was back running after five or six weeks and had my first sevens camp after two months.

“If I was going for a run I’d put him in the pram and run the roads. If I had to do shuttles, I’d take him to the rugby field and put him on the sidelines. If I had to stop, I’d stop; it’s just a case of making it work.”

A wrist injury prevented Hohepa from going to Rio 2016, but she was part of another 15s World Cup win the following year. Then came son number two, Kojiro, who is now two. This time Hohepa took things slower, four or five months passing before she started running.

Black Ferns centre Carla Hohepa

Fast show: Carla Hohepa is currently playing for Waikato in the Farah Palmer Cup (Getty Images)

Test rugby wasn’t on the agenda and she was content playing at club level until the Black Ferns management called her up. She ended up starting all six Tests of 2019 at outside-centre. “The wingers coming through these days are half my age and very speedy, so it felt like this was the best time to move into the centres. I’ve always wanted to.”

Kojiro travelled with her to the Super Series in San Diego last summer, too, with NZ Rugby’s contracts offering support for mothers in the international squads. It will be interesting to see if other nations follow the union’s lead.

“I love international competition and the team environment. Last season my involvement with the Black Ferns was making sure what was available being a new mum.

“To get to take him and a carer on tour with me as part of the NZ Rugby system was amazing. I felt very blessed and lucky to be part of that environment and the team were really supportive of me bringing him on tour. He had 35 new aunties and uncles, if you include the management team too.

“It’s a huge step forward for women’s sport for NZ Rugby to put this in place. It helps female athletes know their career is not over if they have a baby. I don’t know if I’m a role model but I hope it shows it is possible to be a mum and a professional athlete at the same time.”

Hohepa is part of this year’s contracted Black Ferns squad and admits the family diary takes a lot of organisation. Not only are there all the rugby and kids’ activities but the juggling of life between Japan, where Hesketh plays, and New Zealand.

The next big date on the Black Ferns’ calendar is the 2021 World Cup. Now that there are just six weeks between the Olympics and the World Cup, we’re unlikely to see as much sevens and 15s crossover as we did in 2017, but New Zealand will still be favourites for the title and Hohepa hopes to be part of it.

“I’d absolutely love to play in a home World Cup. I’ll have to wait and see what our crazy lifestyle throws at us!”

Hohepa will be 36 when RWC 2021 kicks off but you wouldn’t bet against her given her tenacity.

This article originally appeared in the June 2020 edition of Rugby World magazine.

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