At the end of 2015, when New Zealand Rugby (NZR) canvassed opinion on which name to rebrand its Women's Provincial Championship with, one suggestion emerged almost unanimously: Farah Palmer.
Former Black Ferns captain, Palmer had led her country to victory in three successive Rugby World Cups between 1998-2006, a feat that led to her induction in the World Rugby Hall of Fame.
The New Zealand Herald described her at the time as “the face of New Zealand women's rugby” and that has not changed since the country’s premier women’s domestic competition was renamed the Farah Palmer Cup.
In December 2016, Palmer became the first female member of the NZR Board having been elected as its Maori representative, and two years later her passionate speech to the World Rugby Council helped New Zealand win the right to host Rugby World Cup 2021.
“When we were bidding for it once again I said: ‘Right, we’re going to chuck everything we can at this presentation and just really prove that we could host a really good tournament',” Palmer, who was subsequently appointed to the Rugby World Cup New Zealand 2021 Organising Committee, told World Rugby.
“We’ve been to some really interesting places like Amsterdam and Barcelona, now we can show the rest of the female rugby-playing world that we live in a place where rugby is front and centre and we have the best facilities and the best crowds.
“So I’m hoping that New Zealanders support the tournament and that’s what we’re driving at the moment.
“We need to get our New Zealand crowds to the games to show their support for women in sport, for women’s rugby, for the Black Ferns, for excellence, for being able to do what you want to do.”
Palmer says the RWC 2021 Organising Committee is “still working towards the goal of hosting” the tournament amid the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic and hopes the legacy programme that will run alongside it can “motivate, encourage and inspire young girls to think about the game”.
'I was hooked from there'
Such programmes were not open to Palmer when she was growing up in Piopo, a small rural town on the North Island not far from the home of another Kiwi World Rugby Hall of Fame inductee, the late Colin Meads.
Her first taste of playing rugby came in her final year of high school, in a village match. “Someone thought it would be great to get a group of women together and just give them some jerseys, give them about five minutes’ coaching and let them loose on the field,” Palmer recalled.
“I was one of those that volunteered to be part of that game, and I think it was a curtain-raiser for the annual married versus singles game for the men.
“So, it was a bit of a laugh and I remember lots of people mocking and laughing at us, and thinking it was quite hilarious. But there must have been something about that first game because I was hooked from there.”
It was on New Zealand’s South Island, having relocated to Dunedin to study at the University of Otago, that Palmer was able to explore her new passion.
Originally asked to play prop, it was as a hooker that she came to the attention of New Zealand selectors in 1995. Palmer’s past as a netball player helped her with lineout throwing, and the following year she made her test debut.
“Honestly, I pinched myself so much I’m probably black and blue, just from the fact I just couldn’t believe I was on this trajectory doing what I was loving,” she said.
“It hit me once I got into the team and I got a black jersey and I was surrounded by other high-performing individuals who made me realise it’s OK to be excellent, it’s OK to be single-minded and focused, and to be really passionate about something and give 100 per cent.”
Palmer became New Zealand captain ahead of Rugby World Cup 1998. Although she insists that it came as “a huge surprise to everyone”, the hooker went on to become one of the most successful international captains in the history of the game.
New Zealand beat the USA to win RWC 1998 in Amsterdam while victories against England in Barcelona and Edmonton respectively ensured the Black Ferns won RWC titles in 2002 and 2006 too.
Palmer’s last action as a player came in Canada but for once, with England trailing by less than a score and time up, she did not hold her destiny in her own hands.
“When I got up out of the ruck and saw Amiria [Rule] down the sideline there, I just thought, thank goodness, because it could have gone the other way,” she admitted.
“Those are the best games to win, when you know that both teams have given everything.”
Palmer currently works at Massey University as a Senior Lecturer and Associate Dean, Maori, having found time to complete a PhD between her first and second RWC triumphs.
Last month, she was joined on the NZR Board by a second woman, Jennifer Kerr, while fellow RWC 2021 Organising Committee member Nicola O’Rourke has joined as an aspiring director.
“I’m really, really happy that we are making progress with regards to diversity,” Palmer said.
“One of the things I said to myself, it was kind of like an internal driver for me, was that I’m very privileged to be the first woman on the Board but I didn’t want to be the only woman and the last woman.
“I wanted to make sure I did a great job and that I did what I could to encourage more women to put their name forward when there were Board vacancies. So, I’m really, really happy.”
Palmer might have swapped the pitch for the boardroom but she continues to lead by example.