Eloise Blackwell and Aleisha Pearl Nelson on balancing rugby and careers

Aleisha Pearl Nelson and Eloise Blackwell – Auckland and Ponsonby teammates recently named in the Black Fern squad heading to the Women’s Rugby World Cup in Ireland. Aleisha is a registered nurse and Eloise (aka Ella) is a Physical Education and Health teacher at Epsom Girls Grammar School. The flatmates who both hail from Ngatiwai kindly agreed to share some of their journey on Beyond the Mark.

How long have you been playing rugby?

Ella: Since we were little, around four or five. Growing up I played for Mercury Bay Area School. Although one year I played for Thames because there was no school team Aleisha: I started playing club rugby in 2004 when I was fourth form. Back then, there was no age cap Ella: She used to play for Rifles but moved over to Ponsonby Aleisha: I moved over because of Ella and the girls Ella: Whereas, I’ve always played for Ponsonby since I moved to Auckland at 18. Aleisha: That’s when she made Auckland Storm. My home club is Kaihu Rugby Club. I gave my Black Fern jersey to them and coached their men’s top side one year.

So, you both moved to Auckland for rugby?

Aleisha: Pretty much, I was already at Epsom but ended up staying in Auckland for university. After that, I went back up North for a while and travelled back and forth for trainings. The trip is a three and a half hour drive each way and I was coming down at least three times a week for Club and then I’d make the trip for Auckland trainings as well. If I wanted to go to the Northland gym, from home it was just over an hour’s drive. The travelling was hard but that’s what was needed Ella: That is dedication. I made the move in 2009. I went to school in Whitianga until fifth form and then went over to Canada for sixth and seventh form on a rugby scholarship. It’s cool because there is a teacher from there who is now in the Canadian Women’s rugby team so every time we see each other I always ask about Shawnigan Lake School.

What do you think is your biggest achievement so far?

Aleisha: Getting my nursing degree, especially because I wagged a lot and most people probably assumed I’d be living a different life now…so I think I’ve passed all expectations. My mum is a nurse so it runs in the family but I actually started physiotherapy at AUT and realised I didn’t like it; I wanted to play rugby not strap people before rugby. Most of the girls within our rugby teams who are physios spend quite a bit of time looking after the rest of us when we’re preparing for training or a game Ella: The team physio is so backlogged we don’t always have time to wait for them so girls like Teresa (Te Tamaki) are always helping out.

Ella: My biggest achievement to date would be graduating as well because I am the first person in my family to do so. In 2013, I completed a Bachelors of Physical Education from University of Auckland and carried on into a one-year teaching degree so four years combined of study.

Did you go to university straight from high school?

Ella: Yep. Aleisha: I graduated in 2012 but originally had to complete a bridge year of study before starting my bachelors because I left school in sixth form. I enrolled into a sports course but it wasn’t challenging so I eventually applied for university. Ella: So we both studied and played professionally for three to four years. I was in my second year of studying when I made the Black Ferns.

How did you juggle study and rugby?

Ella: My exams and study worked out quite well. Thankfully, there were no conflicts with any tours Aleisha: I guess we just had to make it work. AUT gave me an ultimatum in the end because there is not much flexibility in programmes like nursing as you have to complete it within a certain timeframe. Although they were great with my clinical placements. They agreed to rostering me on for morning shifts so I could train in the afternoons. Doing 8 to 12 weeks of placements is a killer though! I also sat an exam early so I could attend a tournament overseas.

What is the best thing about rugby? Aleisha: Winning. Ella: Travelling with the girls to places we would never normally go and being paid to do what we love. Another good thing is the lifelong friends you make, the comradery and the skills you learn. Rugby is big, for example, I recently had teacher interviews and every parent who found out I play rugby spent an extra five minutes talking to me about rugby; usually about their own experiences playing rugby, and how much life skills it taught them.

So, what are your biggest lessons playing rugby?

Ella: Teamwork is the biggest thing and being able to transfer that skill into our professions too Aleisha: Do the mahi get the treats, yeah. Ella: Working with different people and being open to other opinions. Humility as well. Aleisha: Also, talent is not everything. Working hard is the most important thing. There are so many other talented players out there but they are not willing to work hard. Ella: If you’re not putting in the work, your spot can be taken. Nothing is guaranteed because there is always somebody else willing to work harder Aleisha: We’re always nervous about that, even for Auckland, and we’ve been playing for Auckland since we were 18 or 19 but we can’t rely on that – we need to do the work. Ella: That mentality also comes from the senior players and the Black Ferns environment and it sticks with us. Aleisha: Another one is sharing knowledge with one another. You want everyone to have the same opportunities and what it comes down to is who can execute it better. Because if you’re holding onto the knowledge then you’re not really playing as a team.

Is there a connection between the All Blacks and Black Ferns?

Aleisha: not really Ella: I wish so that we could touch on their knowledge. We met the Maori All Blacks during the June series and Aleisha knows a couple of them Aleisha: yeah, I do a lot of scrumming training with the Maori All Black boys because there are not many places in Auckland for girls to scrum and I know them from back home. That also means another training on top of everything else but we want to be the best so that’s what we have to do.

How often do you train?

Aleisha: Four compulsory sessions per week for the Black Ferns, three as a Black Fern group. They’re roughly about an hour and a half in the morning and two hours in the afternoon. Ella: Then we have club, which is two nights per week, and Auckland training during rugby season so when we get a night off we just want to relax. Aleisha: But, training and playing is a balancing game. We’re trying to get fit but at the same time we can’t afford to get injured so we need to be conscious of that every time we take the field Ella: I’d like to play every club game Aleisha: and out of all of us Ella is able to because she’s fitter and she plays full games for the Black Ferns. Whereas for a prop, we usually play from 20-60 minutes for club because our ankles and calves blow out, we have a higher risk of injury because of the workload and high impact involved in our positions so we need to consider all of these things to get the balance right.

So, you must have good support to be able to train, play and work?

Aleisha: My parents are good and I admit they were my ATM for a while, sometimes they still are Eloise: I’d admit that’s the same for me Aleisha: Both our families and friends are really supportive. Ella: I’ve got two brothers, who are 14 and 24 and the eldest has two little boys. Aleisha: I’ve got one brother, Daniel who was on the TV show First Dates and is really supportive of my rugby.

How would your family and friends describe you?

Ella: We can describe each other if you like Aleisha: I would say Ella is down to earth, a hunter, gatherer type of person Ella: We’re really similar. We have similar backgrounds, similar upbringings, similar families. Aleisha: We’re both really grounded because we’re from hardworking small town farming families.

Future of women’s rugby?

Aleisha: The stats show growth in women’s rugby but it’s all in the school grade level and then it drops off again. Mainly because there is a huge difference between school and club rugby. For example, if you’re new to rugby in fifth or sixth form and you decide to play for a club once you leave high school, you’re playing with mature women and in most cases Black Ferns and that’s daunting.

Ella: We’d like to get more coverage because we work so hard and we have the skills Aleisha: yeah, some men really enjoy watching our games. If people saw what we could do or if decision makers encouraged and watched the women in their lives to play rugby, I reckon they would appreciate and do things differently Ella: In France, people genuinely recognise us and ask for photos all the time. Compare that to being home and being asked if we play for the Silver Ferns. Don’t get me wrong, it has improved since we initially made the team but I hope it continues to get better Aleisha: Women’s rugby is turning professional overseas along with other sporting codes for women – England has gone professional, Canada is trying and with social media and the 7’s profile being boosted it all helps the future of women’s rugby. In saying that, it’s probably a blessing that we’re not professional (yet) because we’ve had to focus on other things – we’ve studied and completed our degrees so when we retire from rugby we have something to fall back on Ella: whereas the men normally don’t Aleisha: so generally, after their rugby careers they struggle because they know nothing else.

Your future plans?

Aleisha: Finish playing rugby and then start having babies. But obviously the World Cup is our main focus for now. Ella: We’ve got three pool matches, and potentially two play offs, depending on where we get to. We will try our best and give it everything. Some of the girls will retire this year so the game against England in the June Series was their last on home soil so it was a big moment. Aleisha: In a weird way I would rather lose now then win all the build-up games and lose when it counts. We’re definitely gonna take it to them!

The Women’s Rugby World Cup kicks off on 9 August 2017. To keep up to date with Aleisha, Ella and the Black Ferns check out https://www.rwcwomens.com/


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