If scaling the summit of high-performance sport is beyond the capabilities of most people on this planet, then achieving that feat in more than one discipline borders on superhuman.

Melissa Ruscoe was a New Zealand international football player, who had captained her country from centre-back, when a team-mate suggested she attend a pre-season training session at a local rugby club in Christchurch.

Ruscoe, who was 23 when she swapped a round ball for an oval one, admits she could “barely walk” following that initial run out. But, in spite of those aches and pains, she was hooked.

She soaked up knowledge about her new sport like a sponge and, as she moved from the wing to the back-row, she excelled. Within five years she had been called up to the Black Ferns squad.

Ruscoe played all five matches as New Zealand won Rugby World Cup 2006. Four years later, in England, she captained the Black Ferns squad that sealed a third successive global triumph.

“Wearing the black jersey or representing your country from whatever country you're from is a huge honour and privilege,” Ruscoe told World Rugby.

“You grow up, you see your favourite sporting personalities and you think it's amazing in the Olympics and world champs and that sort of stuff. You think it's pretty cool, and you're a bit like 'wow’. 

“But to actually finally get there is, for yourself, pretty special and wearing the jersey once – let alone going to two World Cups – was pretty amazing.”

Developing and learning

Ruscoe says she was overwhelmed when she first walked into a Black Ferns training camp. “I don't even think I spoke,” she admitted. “You're just continually developing and learning.”

It was a similar story when Ruscoe took on the New Zealand captaincy ahead of RWC 2010. Her predecessor Farah Palmer led the Black Ferns to three successive Rugby World Cup titles between 1998-2006, imbuing the armband with a certain amount of pressure. 

“You always look back to where the Black Ferns have come from and you respect that work and everything that previous players have put into the team,” Ruscoe said.

“Then you look at someone like Farah Palmer or Rochelle Martin, all those key leadership people that were in the Black Ferns when I first started. It was massive to then take, I guess, the shoes of Farah. 

“That in itself was mind blowing to get that opportunity. So, then [you get] shivers, the Black Ferns have won all these previous World Cups and then we roll into another one.

“You’ve got that pressure of the media in some ways putting it on, saying that you're going to win. But us as a team, knowing that we weren't the world champions, we weren't the team from 2006.

“We probably created a lot of the pressure on ourselves and as a captain, you've got to take some of that on your shoulders as well.”

The Black Ferns would, of course, win a fourth Rugby World Cup in south-west London. Fast forward a decade and Ruscoe is keen to pass on her considerable experience and expertise to the next generation of female talent in New Zealand.

Having retired from playing following the RWC 2010 final victory against hosts England at Twickenham Stoop, the 43-year-old’s first steps on her coaching journey were made at Christchurch Football Club in 2013.

Ruscoe then served as an assistant coach for Canterbury Women from 2015, but was overlooked for the head coach job last month when Blair Baxter was named as the successor to Wayne Love and Kieran Kite.

Bright future

However, that experience hasn’t dented her enthusiasm for coaching and, having attended the World Rugby women’s High Performance Academy in Stellenbosch in May last year, Ruscoe is open-minded about where her career might take her.

“I'd never applied for a head coaching role so just going through that process is the learning step. So that's all valuable learnings that I can take,” Ruscoe explained.

“I think there'll be pathways… obviously not right now in the middle of this (pandemic), but there will be. 

“I've always thought about overseas and looking at possible positions that might come up overseas, and that's still something on the radar. Obviously, not right at the moment, but yeah, it'll be something that I'll certainly look at. 

“Who knows how the [women’s] competition will develop here. It may head down like a Super Rugby type pathway here between New Zealand and Australia. 

“If that was to happen, then there would be other opportunities through that as well. So, yeah. One door closes, another one opens, so to speak.”

Ruscoe’s horizons were only expanded by her trip to South Africa, where she took part in the inaugural women’s HP Academy. The participants remain in contact through social media.

“Having that opportunity was fantastic and I can't thank New Zealand Rugby enough for that,” she said.

“To get there and not really know what you were going into, and then all of a sudden you're with 20 other coaches from around the world who are all experiencing things differently, but also quite similar. 

“Their roles and responsibilities and the struggles of the women's game and all that sort of thing. So it was great to get there and see, actually there's others [and] we've now got a group of friends that we can call on.”

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