The names Collins and Umaga are revered in New Zealand rugby, especially so at Wellington Regional Stadium where the duo were stalwarts for Super Rugby’s the Hurricanes and the All Blacks.
Earlier this month, two of their less famous relatives took their first step to what New Zealand hopes will be an Olympic gold medal in women’s Sevens at the 2016 Rio de Janeiro Olympic Games.
Brenda Collins, the younger sister of former loose forward Jerry, and Soraya Umaga-Jenson, the niece of former All Blacks captain Tana, were two of the 20 players selected to play in the first women’s match held at the International Rugby Board’s Wellington Sevens tournament.
The exhibition game, won 15-0 by Collins and Umaga-Jenson’s Wahine Kaha team, was the culmination of the first open selection camp organized by the New Zealand Rugby Union (NZRU), as they sought to expand the player base ahead of the Rio Games.
“This is the first stage really,” Sean Horan, the first fulltime women’s Sevens coach employed by the NZRU said in the players’ tunnel after the game. “We have a recruitment drive, then international competition, then it’s all about going for gold in 2016.”
While New Zealand’s Black Ferns are the women’s World Cup champions, Horan said the purpose of the camp and the exhibition match was to try to discover a new talent pool.
The Wellington selection camp, the first of 14 to be held throughout the country, attracted 60 women. Some, like Collins, were rugby players, others, like 16-year-old Sinead Namana, had no experience. Others, like Renee Leota, played for New Zealand’s women’s soccer team at the Beijing Olympics.
“You look at Sevens, it’s still rugby and its about the fundamentals, but you’re looking for someone who is quick, can get into space and have the skill levels, but also who has the character to push themselves,” Horan said. “I think the standard of the camp was surprising ... and it was good to see the girls and the young athletes coming through. We also tend to forget that New Zealand is a rugby nation. A lot of these young female athletes, they play rugby and have for quite a while. Those who don’t have got a family member who does.”
Family members like 48-Test All Blacks flanker Jerry Collins, though Brenda Collins said she had turned up to the camp just to “give it a bash.”
“It was quite good,” the physical education teacher said of the training camp.
“It was good to get that experience, particularly from a female perspective, and it was awesome playing here,” she added of the match that was included as part of the first day of the Sevens tournament in Wellington.
Collins, who plays fullback for local club Northern United and had spent two years with the Wellington women’s team, said she really only played rugby for fun and her older brother “was the serious player.”
At 29, she was also unsure if she would still be in the frame for Rio.
“Hmmm. Possibly. I’ll see. Maybe I’m a bit too old for it, [but] who knows what may come of it,” she said with a smile.
Horan, who has a contract until the 2013 Rugby World Cup Sevens in Russia, will work intensely with New Zealand men’s coach Gordon Tietjens over the next year as the women’s squad is developed at invitational international tournaments.
“We identify an elite squad, then take it from there,” said Horan, who coached Bay of Plenty in New Zealand’s provincial competition for five seasons. “It’s all about identifying athletes who may be ready for 2016 and preparing them. The Olympics are just a massive opportunity for the sport.”