Emma Jensen ended her long and successful playing career wearing Hawke’s Bay’s black and white hoops, and the three-time Rugby World Cup winner now has an opportunity to shape the future of the game in her home region.
Jensen, 43, was elected onto the Hawke’s Bay Rugby board of directors earlier this month, having made the decision to hang up her boots at the end of last year’s Farah Palmer Cup.
It was a sense of duty that brought Jensen home in 2018, following two decades away in Waikato and Auckland, and she is keen to help grow playing numbers in the region while providing a bridge between high school rugby and the elite game.
“I knew that I wanted to give back to rugby in some form or fashion,” she told World Rugby.
“I just wanted to fill the spot and was lucky enough to hear about [the board election], and then thought I could offer quite a different perspective in terms of what the people on the board already have, because of my career and playing ability.”
Jensen added: “I guess I like seeing the bigger picture of where things are going in terms of where Hawke's Bay Rugby is going, and where that is and where it sits within New Zealand Rugby.”
Increasing player numbers
The decision to step away from playing was made in order to focus more time on her young family, she has daughters aged two and five months, and on her job as the deputy principal at a girls’ high school.
Jensen also coaches at the school in Hastings, and has started taking players to club training sessions at 16 in order to help their transition between junior and senior rugby.
“What I'd really like to see in terms of rugby in general, is the increase in numbers and the stickability, especially in our junior grades,” Jensen said.
“I see that when they leave high school, there's a huge drop off in terms of where they go. Because, obviously, it’s… for girls, in particular, school rugby straight into club rugby — and it's a bit of a gap.”
She added: “I just think that if we have more players playing then you are going to create that competitive environment, which then breeds players that will really give it everything for the game, but also they'll make what they want out of the game as well.”
That is something Jensen has certainly done since she first picked up a rugby ball as a 15-year-old. She soon graduated to the Hawke’s Bay women’s team and later excelled for both Waikato and Auckland, as well as the Black Ferns.
The scrum-half made the move to Auckland, where she spent 14 years, primarily so she could play alongside World Rugby Hall of Fame Inductee Anna Richards and further her international ambitions.
It was a gamble that paid off handsomely, as Jensen won 49 test caps for the Black Ferns and represented her country at four Rugby World Cups — winning three of them.
Her proudest achievement on a rugby pitch remains the Rugby World Cup 2010 final at Twickenham Stoop, in which New Zealand silenced a partisan home crowd to edge a narrow contest 13-10.
“The atmosphere at the game was just huge,” Jensen said. “Us doing the Haka and them singing ‘Swing Low, Sweet Chariot’, you know, it just really epitomised the rivalry that we've had with England for so many years.
“And, yeah, it was just a telling thing because it was nice to beat them at home as well.”
Jensen welcomed the news, which would guarantee New Zealand’s entry into two new competitions — WXV and a qualifying tournament featuring Australia, Canada and the USA.
“It opens up doors for us in terms of getting girls exposed to test matches,” she said. “That was obviously a problem for us. We had hardly any.
“In my time through the Black Ferns, I went through a stage where you'd have one or two [matches] a year and then you’d come to a World Cup year and you'd have maybe five games. And, most of those games would be played at the World Cup.
“So that, in terms of the increased games and exposure, would be huge for New Zealand, because then you're getting more girls out there and you're going to get the right girls in the team for the right reasons as well.”
In her coaching role at Hastings Girls’ High School Jensen can see first-hand the quality of players coming through the system in New Zealand.
And, she is confident the Black Ferns will be well prepared for an increase in test matches in years to come.
“There's a really good crop of young girls coming through, which is awesome for New Zealand rugby,” she said.
“There’s a stack of talent and I see it through the secondary schools as well, where I just go, 'oh my gosh, how the heck?’"
Should Jensen’s own two daughters decide to follow in their mother’s footsteps and pick up an oval ball, then they won’t have to look far for a coach.
“They’ll probably be forced to [play rugby],” Jensen joked. “But, if they want to do that then I want to see them through too.”