Debbie Chase walked out onto the Memorial Ground pitch on 6 April, 1991 with a sense of responsibility resting on her shoulders.

Not only was Chase about to make her competitive debut for New Zealand, in the opening match of the inaugural women’s Rugby World Cup, but she had been selected to make another piece of history.

On the eve of the tournament, New Zealand coach Laurie O’Reilly had received confirmation that Māori elders back home had granted their permission for his team to perform a Haka.

Ahead of their encounter with Canada on the outskirts of Cardiff, Chase would lead 12 of her team-mates – two players of Cook Island and Samoan heritage had not been given permission to join in the ritual – in a rendition of ‘Ka Mate’.

In doing so, she became the first woman to lead a New Zealand rugby team in a Haka.

“My concern was that we had the permission from the tribe whose Haka it was,” Chase told World Rugby, “because I thought, ‘well, if [O’Reilly] doesn't, then I'm the face that will be wearing it’.

“It will never end… because once you're out there, you can't take it back.”

Breaking barriers

Chase and her team-mates had only had a couple of days to practise the ritual, but they were driven to do it justice and “show these men how to do the Haka”.

“My main thing to achieve was for us not to look like idiots or a bunch of girls jumping around, but to actually portray the same meaning of the Haka, you know, and not be labelled as wannabes,” she added.

“Being little and growing up, you're watching your brothers and they're learning the taiaha, they're learning the Haka and you're being told, ‘no, girls don't do that. Girls aren't allowed to do that’.

“So, it was all involved with the stuff that you [saw] growing up as a girl, the things that you were not allowed to do, that you couldn't do, and you were told what to do.”

Fortunately for Chase and her pioneering team-mates, their rendition of the ritual was well received and helped spur them on to a commanding 24-8 defeat of Canada in Ely.

Chase scored two of her side’s six tries and would earn glowing reviews in match reports in the following day’s newspapers, the only downside being that at least one of those publications ran a mis-captioned picture of the team’s historic moment.

“It’s a standard joke with us because there's a photo of us doing the Haka,” Chase’s centre partner in 1991, Natasha Wong, told World Rugby.

“Chasey was actually leading the Haka, but it says, Natasha Wong leading the Haka. So, that's quite funny.”

Chase jokes that Wong might have received the negative reaction she had feared back in 1991.

“I count myself really fortunate because I was prepared for some kind of a backlash because it was my face,” she said. “So, she could have saved me there!”

Making something happen

Like many in the New Zealand squad who travelled to South Wales for the 1991 tournament, Chase and Wong had been spotted by O’Reilly, who had a knack of detecting rugby potential in people from different sports.

Chase had a particularly eclectic sporting background, even by the standards of the women’s game in the early 1990s.

“My mother’s still the toughest coach I’ve ever had,” she said, having taken her first steps in athletics aged just three.

By 1991, Chase was a national discus and javelin champion and represented New Zealand at softball as well as rugby, while playing both basketball and rugby league to a high level.

Her involvement with league meant her place in the squad for the inaugural women’s Rugby World Cup was only confirmed after she had been reinstated by the New Zealand Rugby Union.

Once that had been received, though, she became integral to how O’Reilly wanted his team to play in Wales.

“I could always hear him on the sideline,” Chase said. “You could be in a crowd, for the World Cup, for example, and I could hear him.

“He used to say, ‘Chase, we need something. Chase, we need something’. And I'd hear that, and it would be, right, something needs to happen and somehow, I'd always make something happen.”

Flat ending

Chase retains fond memories of those eight days in South Wales, having fun on and off the pitch and making long-lasting friendships with rival players, particularly those from Spain.

However, the tournament would not have a happy ending for her, Wong or their team-mates as they were beaten 7-0 in the semi-finals by eventual champions, the USA.

The squad had travelled to Wales via Los Angeles and London, playing warm-up matches along the way, and Chase believes fatigue caught up with them at Cardiff Arms Park.

“It was very gutting, we were prepared to go all the way,” she said. “We believed we had the team to go all the way.

“When we played that semi-final, though, that was the flattest that as a team we were. So, I think we needed another day's rest, at least another day's rest, we hadn't recovered from the last game… we just had no juice in the tank.”

Despite being in the “best shape I have ever been in” three years later, Chase was denied the chance to compete at RWC 1994 as New Zealand did not compete.

She will, though, watch on enthusiastically when the showpiece tournament kicks off in Auckland next month.

“I always knew attitudes would change and it would just be a matter of time,” she said.

“I’m very excited that it's coming to New Zealand. There's so much support, the young girls in the community, they’re fans of the women players, they've got stars in their eyes.

“They're seeing their favourite players out there playing and they want to emulate them as well. They're fantastic role models that they have with New Zealand women's rugby.”