Feature | Rugby

Exclusive! Rugby ace Portia Woodman on her mission for double gold in 2021

The New Zealander reveals how spirituality and visualisation have underpinned her success, and helped her through tough times as she bids for Olympic and World Cup glory next season. 

By Andrew Binner ·

Portia Woodman is a rare kind of rugby talent.

While most professional players focus on either sevens or the 15-a-side version of the sport, the New Zealander is simultaneously one of the best players in the world across both women's formats.

With the national seven-a-side team, the destructive winger has amassed a record 975 points and multiple titles in the World Sevens Series to go alongside Rugby Sevens World Cup and Commonwealth Games titles, an Olympic silver medal, and the 2015 World Rugby Women’s Sevens Player of the Year award.

In 15s rugby, she was the top try scorer at the 2017 Rugby World Cup in Ireland, and was duly rewarded with another player of the year award after helping the Black Ferns lift the trophy.

But Woodman’s path towards the Tokyo 2020 Olympics, where she hopes to win the one gold medal that still eludes her, was suddenly blighted by successive leg injuries that threatened to bring her career to a premature end.

Relying on the principles that brought her so much success in the first place, the 29-year-old is now returning to peak fitness, and the coronavirus-enforced delay to the Games means that she now has a chance to win both the Olympics and the 15-a-side Rugby World Cup in 2021.

Portia Woodman (L) celebrates with the trophy following the Women's Rugby World Cup 2017 final in Belfast.

Portia Woodman’s rugby DNA

Woodman comes from a rich rugby lineage.

Her father, Kawhena, and uncle, Fred, were both capped by the All Blacks - New Zealand’s famed men’s rugby team - in the 80s, which she is reminded of regularly.

“Dad finished playing the year before I was born, so I never really got to see him play,” the Auckland native told Olympic Channel through video link.

“But wherever I go around the world, without failure one person will come up to me and say, “Are you Kawhena or Fred’s daughter?” Or, “I remember playing with your dad back in the day”."

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Wanting to be the fastest woman in the world

Despite being surrounded by rugby from such a young age in a country obsessed with the game, Woodman’s first sporting loves were in fact elsewhere.

“When I was younger, I wanted to be the fastest woman in the world, race at the Olympics in the 100 metre sprint,” she revealed.

“When I was about 13, I realised that I wasn't going to be fast enough. But I still loved the track and field, so I continued with it alongside netball.”

In 2012, the sporting prodigy was awarded a professional netball contract with the Northern Mystics.

However, just as she was on the cusp of selection for the national netball team, known as the Silver Ferns, the IOC announced that rugby sevens was joining the Olympic programme for Rio 2016.

She decided to attend a rugby recruitment camp and found immediate synergy with the sport, both from a physical perspective and the team-first ethos.

“The one thing that really stood out to me was the character-building drill we did. It was a bear crawl from the try line to the twenty-two (metre line) and back again. I thought, ‘Oh yeah, easy’, but it wasn't about getting there the fastest, it was about getting your whole team there, the weak and the strong. I had not really experienced that in any other team before and I just loved that part of it, the environment and the girls.

“Combined with the fact that I could finally open up over a 100 metre run and the physical contact side of it, I had found my sport.

“That said, I wouldn't be the player I am if it wasn't for my track and my netball. That background gave me the ability to run efficiently and, with netball, it's given me the footwork, the vision, the hand-eye coordination to catch and run. I think rugby is a combination of those two sports.”

Sacrifice and Olympic heartbreak

The only problem was that rugby sevens wasn’t professional yet.

This meant in order to train with the national team, she would have to have another job in order to keep paying the rent.

“We were expected to train like it was professional. We trained at five thirty in the morning until about seven thirty. I was a teacher's aid at that time, at daycare, so I'd go there and I was falling asleep when I was putting the kids to sleep, and then the team would return for training in the evening." - Portia Woodman to Olympic Channel.

“That dedication and buy-in from everyone meant that there was such a good vibe between the girls and we were a tight-knit family.”

The sacrifices paid off.

Woodman was a key part of the New Zealand team that won three-consecutive World Series titles from 2012/13-2014/15, and scored two tries in the final of a victorious 2013 Rugby Sevens World Cup campaign in Russia.

The team’s success was subsequently rewarded with its first professional contracts in 2014, meaning they would be in the best possible shape for the sport’s Olympic debut at Rio 2016.

New Zealand took home the Women's Rugby 7s World Series trophy in 2013-14.

Despite Woodman finishing the tournament in Brazil as the top scorer with 10 tries, the Black Ferns were agonisingly beaten by their fiercest rivals Australia 24-17 in the final.

“Shortly after that, I told my mom that I never want to feel like that again,” she shares.

“We celebrated our silver medals as that was still a huge achievement, but we went to work right after that. For the next four years we were like, ‘Bring it on. We're going to crack it and we're going to do everything we possibly can to go one better than last time'."

“Everything became about our culture, our environment, and enjoying each other off the field. If you're happy within yourself, you don't crumble on the field.” - Portia Woodman

The next year, Woodman helped New Zealand lift the 15’s Rugby World Cup as the player of the tournament, while she also starred in the sevens team that took out the Commonwealth Games, another Rugby Sevens World Cup, and three World Series titles.

Portia Woodman was the top try scorer at the Rio 2016 Olympics.

The importance of visualization

Rugby sevens is known for the lung-busting fitness that is required of players, in addition to breath-taking displays of explosive speed and strength.

With an intense global travel schedule, the game can take its toll on players both mentally and physically.

Subsequently, the New Zealand sevens programme fully embraced the importance of mental wellbeing on performance, and this focus became another key component of the team’s resurgence after Rio 2016.

“Without doubt, 90 percent of the game is mental,” Woodman continued.

“We have a dream job, but the places you have to go to, the dark spots when performing and training and under extreme pressure and being able to cope with it is huge.

“My mental escape is at the beach, it’s my safe place. If I’m having a bad week or month, the fresh air and the water help me reset.

“Visualisation is also important for me. I know it sounds vain, but I’ll look at some highlights, watch me do my thing and just feel it. Sometimes the external pressures of what people expect of you, can be too much.

“It’s about going back to why I love the game, that connection with the girls, that’s what gets me going.”

Portia WOODMAN

New Zealand
Rugby
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Number of medals

1 Olympic medals

1

Olympic Games

1 Olympic Games

Coping with a career-threatening injury

There is nothing like a serious injury to test any professional athlete’s mental resolve, and so it proved in 2018 for Woodman.

Fresh from winning the World Rugby player of the year award in 15s, she ruptured her Achilles at training, which was to take her out of the sport for a whole year.

“It was hard. But the cool thing was that there were small wins to celebrate every two weeks, like getting the cast off, pointing the moon boot further down, not using crutches, and eventually walking and running again. Those small celebrations got me through it," she said.

Woodman returned to sevens in 2019 at the Oceania championships, only to injure her hamstring again in what was then the run-up to the Tokyo 2020 Olympics (before it was postponed due to the coronavirus).

The hamstring injury took longer than expected to heal, leaving the speedster to wonder if she would ever play again.

“It got to a point where I didn't want to be on the field anymore. I can't see that light at the end of the tunnel.

“I had to talk to our mental skills coach, who told me it was normal to feel that way as I hadn’t had a chance to play. I think that advice combined with my friends helping remind me why I love the game, and that there were an Olympics coming up helped me back."

The importance of spirituality and Maori culture

Woodman is of Maori descent, and when she takes to the rugby field in either code, she is representing more than herself.

In addition to the famous black jersey and nation, she is playing for her ancestors.

“In our culture, we are taught that if it weren't for those who went before you, you wouldn’t be who you are today," she revealed.

“In the sevens environment, we live by the mantra of leaving ‘mana’ in our wake, which is the honour and admiration you have earned. It gives you power and it gives you purpose. We try to enhance it wherever we go." - Portia Woodman

“The boat is our visual and we are all in it together. If our culture is not there, then the boat sinks. Whether you are Maori or not, our team supports this ethos as we are all New Zealanders.”

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The female Jonah Lomu

Ask any New Zealander who their favourite rugby player ever is, and one name will crop up more than most: Jonah Lomu.

It is therefore unsurprising that rugby’s first global superstar - who also played wing for New Zealand in sevens and 15s - was Woodman’s first rugby hero.

“When I was nine, I told my dad that I wanted to be the female Jonah Lomu,” she said.

“I think I was watching a replay of him running over the English boys in the 1995 World Cup. So to hear people call me that or, you know, compare me to Jonah Lomu, that's incredible, because I still feel like I'm a little netball player trying to play rugby sometimes.”

Despite her modesty, the reality is that among the newer generations of rugby players and especially among young girls, Portia Woodman is the name that many are now hoping to emulate.

As a role model, Woodman hopes to inspire Maori girls and boys, showing them that they can do great things despite growing up in small communities.

“I want them to know that they can achieve the dreams I'm currently living.

"Coming from a small town doesn't have to be our excuse not to make it. The ultimate goal is for kids to understand that whether it's in sports, arts, academics, whatever they want, they must always shoot for the stars and never give up on achieving their goals.”

Jonah Lomu scored a record 15 tries for New Zealand at the 1995 Rugby World Cup, and died from a kidney disorder in 2015.

Hoping for a golden double in 2021

Being pipped to the gold medal at Rio 2016 has provided a huge source of motivation for the sevens team, and Woodman’s first priority is to try and right that wrong at the Olympics in 2021.

“The sevens girls have been dreaming of that gold medal for nine years now, and we want to win it for the Black Ferns legacy, and all those that have contributed to our success over the years," she said.

“It would be absolutely insane to win it, and would be such a great gift for everyone back home."

But that will only be half a job done for Woodman, who has every intention of helping New Zealand defend their 15’s Rugby World Cup title just one month later on home soil.

“I'm going to give it a crack.

"If the coaches want to take me, then I'll be happy. If they don't, then that's fine. I'll be following them around the country and fully supporting our girls.”

It's difficult to see any coach turning down the chance to have the experience and talent of Woodman's in their squad. With a clean bill of health and a burning desire to keep on winning, there is little doubt she will be leaving 'mana' in her wake in 2021.