Victoria Grant admits, light-heartedly, that she was “conned” into picking up an oval ball in high school. She did not realise, moreover, that women’s test rugby existed as she began to take the game more seriously while studying at university.

But following a stellar playing career in which she represented the Black Ferns at both sevens and 15s, and won two Rugby World Cups along the way, she is keen to give back to the sport as a coach.

In November, Grant was one of seven female rugby coaches selected to participate in the Women’s Sport Leadership Academy for High Performance Coaches (WSLA HPC) as part of a pilot programme in partnership with the International Olympic Committee (IOC).

Grant was attracted to the course by the possibility to work with, and learn from, coaches from a number of sports. As well as rugby, the international federations of cycling, rowing, tennis, triathlon and wrestling are also represented by participants of the programme.

“Coming from New Zealand, it’s quite insular,” Grant told World Rugby. 

“You don’t really do much work with other sports, so I think the great part of this programme is networking and learning off the other coaches.”

Grant did not wait for the WSLA HPC to begin her search for new experiences. In 2018, the former Black Fern was part of the Women’s Coaching Internship Programme (WCIP) at the Commonwealth Games, gaining on-the-ground experience alongside 19 female coaches from 11 countries across 12 sports on the Gold Coast.

In March of this year, meanwhile, she travelled to Japan and spent four months there as head coach of Tokyo Phoenix in the Japanese national sevens championship.

Embracing new challenges

It was an opportunity that came about through the team’s owner, who had spent time with Bay of Plenty women’s sevens in 2017 and had watched Grant coaching in person.

Moving her family, including four-year-old daughter August, to a new country came with its own unique challenges but it was an experience that Grant treasures.

“It was great to be part of a professional environment,” she explained. 

“Training every day, being in it every day, where I’m not used to that [in New Zealand] because I go in and out of coaching here. It’s all short campaigns. 

“So, being part of an actual professional team was great. It was a huge benefit but the challenges that come along with it were as well.

“Also [working] in the professional environment, and the challenges that come with working with players who spoke Japanese only and trying to get messages across in other ways.”

As for August, she was able to engross herself in Japanese life just as much, if not more, than her mum. 

Grant was able to enrol her daughter in a local kindergarten, and as a native Maori speaker, she picked up the language with relative ease. Grant junior’s main concern centred around how little Japanese school children are given to eat.

“It was amazing. Not only for me as a coach but for my family, being able to bring my family and for them to get fully immersed in the Japanese way of life which was really great for our daughter,” Grant said.

“My daughter, she was four when we went across and she went into full immersion kindy (kindergarten) so straight into Japanese, which was awesome. 

“No English but her first language is Maori so Maori and Japanese are very similar languages, so she loved it. 

“And it was awesome for her because they teach really disciplined, really structured which is the complete opposite to New Zealand. So that was an amazing experience for her. 

“There were a lot of teething issues, mainly around the food, because over there they don’t have morning tea and afternoon tea, they just have lunch. 

“My daughter’s used to eating all the time! So just having lunch was pretty hard for her, she cried for the first month just around the food. Not the language or anything, just around the food!”

From five-try debut to RWC glory

Grant’s journey through rugby is not one she would have imagined growing up as an avid netball player and sprinter. But then came that fateful day almost 20 years ago.

“I got conned into a high school game when I was seventh form, so 18,” she said. 

“They needed numbers for their team but they were playing a final. I knew nothing about rugby, all I knew was what they told me, which was to catch the ball on the wing and run as fast as I could. 

“I could do that so I got five tries my first game.”

It was while studying to become a physiotherapist at the University of Auckland that Grant began to take rugby more seriously and following provincial honours she was spotted by Darryl Suasua, and the Black Ferns beckoned.

Grant was a member of the victorious Rugby World Cup 2006 squad, although she did not appear in the final. Four years later, however, she was starting full-back and vice captain as New Zealand beat England at the Twickenham Stoop to lift the trophy for a fourth consecutive time.

“Even though it was awesome winning the World Cup in 2006,” she explained, “I really felt like I had skin in the game in 2010. 

“So, that was probably my biggest achievement or the proudest moment for me.”

'I never thought we'd have the World Cup here'

In just two years, the women’s tournament will head to the southern hemisphere for the first time as New Zealand hosts Rugby World Cup 2021.

Although she currently coaches sevens, Grant would welcome being part of what should be a momentous event.

“For New Zealand it’s huge to have the World Cup here,” she said. 

“I never thought we’d have the World Cup here for women’s rugby. So, it’s pretty exciting, I know all the girls here will have the opportunity to watch the other countries [as well as] the Black Ferns and even next year we have a lot of tests here – which is great.

“To watch it on TV is something but to watch it in the flesh is something totally different and just to feel and experience the Haka, it’s just something different.”