It is an elite group of players who have tasted glory in both a Women’s Rugby World Cup and Rugby World Cup Sevens. Fewer still have achieved that feat aged only 22.
But what makes Stacey Waaka’s story all the more impressive is that she feared her sporting career was over following a serious bus crash in September 2011.
Waaka was on her way home to Ruatoki, a small town south of Whakatane on New Zealand’s North Island, when the school bus she was travelling on was shunted from behind by a truck as it attempted to make a stop.
As the bus careered into an adjacent paddock, the future Black Fern – who was sitting towards the front of the coach – was propelled into the seat in front of her.
She still bears identical scars below each of her knees where her legs collided with the metal bars of the seat in front, but initially Waaka did not realise she had been hurt.
Her first thoughts were for the safety of her young cousins who were also on the bus. Waaka had lost her school bag but managed to keep hold of her mobile phone and phoned the local police as she led her family members to safety.
“We think that we’ve hit [and] the impact’s been so hard that I’ve hit the bars of the seat in front of me and I’ve flipped or whatever, and I’ve landed towards the back of the bus,” Waaka recalled.
Leading others to safety
“I just remember waking up and [hearing what sounded like] millions of children crying.
“It was such a heart-breaking feeling and my first thought – which was so silly – was ‘Ah, is the bus going to blow up?’ But we hadn’t tipped or anything, we were fine. I’d just watched too many movies!
“So, I just tried to help everyone that I could, got my little cousins off the bus.
“I didn’t actually know I’d been injured until maybe 10 to 20 minutes later and my little cousin was like ‘Oh Aunty, you’re bleeding from your legs’ and I kind of looked down and all this blood and flesh and everything was kind of hanging down.”
Remarkably, according to local reports at the time, in those “10 to 20 minutes” Waaka was also able to walk to the nearby Matariki Early Childhood Centre where she phoned her mother to tell her what had happened.
The bus had been carrying students from Trident and Whakatane High Schools as well as primary school children from Taneatua and in all 36 people required medical treatment following the incident.
Waaka was praised for her role in rescuing the younger children from the bus but as she returned to the wreckage and realised the extent of her own injuries she had only one concern.
Although yet to pick up a rugby ball, Waaka was a New Zealand touch youth international and promising netball player. A life without competitive sport was not something she wanted to contemplate.
“Obviously the adrenaline had kicked in and I had no idea,” Waaka said.
“It was a pretty scary thought and the first thing I thought was ‘I can’t play sport anymore’. That’s how much I love it.”
Fortunately for Waaka, following a few stitches in hospital and a couple of months of recovery at home she was able to restart her fledgling sporting career, although she still has problems running on hard surfaces.
The crash did not leave any obvious mental scars to match those on her shins – “when you’re young you think you’re invincible” – but has shaped the way that Waaka has approached challenges in her life since.
“I’m always saying my favourite quote ‘everything happens for a reason’ because I don’t know why that happened but I’m still here today,” she said.
“So, whenever there’s a little bump in the road I’m real positive about it and that’s kind of my outlook on life. It is what it is. Keep going forwards. If you can’t control it, oh well.”
There has been plenty that Waaka has been able to control since that September day seven-and-a-half years ago.
She had been encouraged to give rugby a go by friends and coaches at school before but had her heart set on becoming a Silver Fern and representing New Zealand at netball.
But one day, after sevens had been confirmed as an Olympic sport, 16-year-old Waaka decided to give in to the nagging and see what full-contact rugby was like.
“I didn’t think too much of it until I gave it a go and I was like ‘Woah, I love it!’,” she said.
Despite early reservations over tackling – “it was a little bit scary” – she excelled at her new sport, thanks in part to the games of lounge rugby she played, and got bashed up in, growing up in a family of union players. Her brother Beaudein is a former New Zealand sevens international.
Waaka dedicated herself to rugby, making sure that she “had to train, I had to eat good and all those sorts of little things” in a way that she previously had not.
Her hard work paid off and in 2015, aged just 19, she made her Black Ferns debut. Two years later Waaka lined up at outside-centre in the Women’s Rugby World Cup 2017 final in Belfast, where New Zealand beat England 41-32 to win a fifth title.
Eleven months later she was in the Black Ferns Sevens squad that retained their Rugby World Cup Sevens in San Francisco.
Did Waaka think it was possible to achieve both so soon? “Definitely not,” she insisted.
“When I made both teams, I was on top of the world but to win it I was just like ‘Oh, Wow!’ No words to describe it really.
“But when I first started playing my main goal was just to make the team and have fun. To have those results is just the icing on the cake.”
Not that Waaka has finished baking just yet. “I would love to go to the Olympics,” she said.
“That’s the number one goal at the moment. And I always told myself that number three’s my favourite number so I want to play in three 15s World Cups, that’s kind of my major goal before I settle down and retire.”
Waaka has had to deal with so much in her young career – a shoulder reconstruction, knee surgery and broken elbow can be added to the lacerations she suffered as a 15-year-old – it is easy to forget that she is still only 23.