21 Nov 2023

Niall Williams-Guthrie and the interesting choice facing women’s rugby players

2:33 pm on 21 November 2023
Blues Women head coach Carlos Spencer and new signing Niall Williams-Guthrie at Eden Park.

Blues Women head coach Carlos Spencer and new signing Niall Williams-Guthrie at Eden Park. Photo: supplied

Analysis - Code-hopping is nothing new for the Williams family, and Niall Williams-Guthrie followed in her brother's footsteps this week by confirming her commitment to the Blues in 2024. Her brother, Sonny Bill, played for the side from 2017-19 and when asked about what his reaction was, Williams-Guthrie didn't hold back.

"He said 'stop copying me'. I said 'man, I'm not copying you… we're gonna win!'"

It was a good line that got a decent laugh out of the sizable media contingent at Eden Park. William-Guthrie was herself amusingly surprised at the interest, but it's a good sign after what has been a fairly up and down season for women's rugby. Super Rugby Aupiki got an uninterrupted season and put on a fantastic final, then the Black Ferns dropped two tests at home for the first time and finished a disappointing fourth in the inaugural WXV 1 tournament.

But from an individual player perspective, Williams-Guthrie's move to the Blues Women is an interesting one. For a start it's likely she'll be the only 35-year-old, male or female, that will be making their pro fifteen-a-side debut next year. But that's not to say she's a late bloomer: Williams-Guthrie is an Olympic medallist and NRLW veteran, which shows that the door is still pretty open for female rugby players to move around.

Williams-Guthrie is part of the foundations of what is now women's professional rugby in New Zealand. Her time in the Black Ferns Sevens outfit has meant she has been a professional athlete for longer than most of the All Blacks, giving her the ability to transition to a stint with the Gold Coast Titans last season. This move to the Blues will be a big step though, with her only experience in the fifteen-a-side game being a handful of club games in 2020. That was only through circumstance rather than choice, as the Sevens side was unable to travel due to Covid restrictions.

"There's always challenges," Williams-Guthrie said.

"Just the technical side of it. I'm blessed that I've come from Sevens so I know the rules around the ruck and that stuff. It'll just be like having more players on the field. I think coming from league will help too but the dynamics around the flow of the game, it's about coming around and setting that backline."

She is excited to be playing a part in the new expanded Super Rugby Aupiki competition, which has been expanded to 10 weeks next season.

"I was really pleased with the quality, the way it's been in the last couple of years. Even stuff like goal kicking, girls are slotting them from the side-line now, it's really cool to see," she said.

Niall Williams with her older brother Sonny Bill at the New Zealand Sevens Olympics announcement.

Niall Williams with her older brother Sonny Bill at the New Zealand Sevens Olympics announcement. Photo: PHOTOSPORT

However, while she is literally following in the footsteps of her brother (new coach Carlos Spencer joked that it's only a matter of time before she pulls on the boxing gloves), Williams-Guthrie is by no means alone in terms of moving from sport to sport. In fact, she's not even the only one in the Blues Women, with newly minted World Rugby Breakthrough Player of the Year Katelyn Vahaakolo making the Black Ferns a year after playing for the Newcastle Knights in the NRLW.

In an ironic twist, Williams-Guthrie's long-time Sevens team mate Tyla Nathan-Wong had to fly to Paris to receive her World Rugby Women's Sevens Player of the Year award only hours after playing for the Kiwi Ferns, off the back of an NRLW campaign with the St George-Illawarra Dragons.

"When you're in the Sevens team, you're in this bubble," Williams-Guthrie said.

"You forget there's a world outside of it, and now that I've left the Sevens bubble it's like 'wow, there's all these opportunities' and it's really cool to be a part of it."

Katelyn Vahaakolo scored two tries in the Black Ferns win over the Wallaroos.

Katelyn Vahaakolo scored two tries in the Black Ferns win over the Wallaroos. Photo: DJ Mills / www.photosport.nz

It's certainly something that isn't open to her male counterparts. Not even Williams-Guthrie's illustrious brother could move from sport to sport within the same season, or even state that they are heading straight back to rugby league before their stint in rugby has even started. That's exactly what Williams-Guthrie did at Eden Park, mapping out a move back to the Gold Coast and an ambition to play for Fetu Samoa at the next Rugby League World Cup.

"You're going to have women who want to take up these opportunities while still being in the top New Zealand rugby teams. I guess it's all about embracing it rather than pushing it to the side."

It raises an interesting situation for NZ Rugby. They certainly wouldn't be minding that the NRLW is providing a few months of employment during a period when the only alternative is the provincial, amateur Farah Palmer Cup - a competition with a few question marks over its future. The problem for NZR though is that the NRLW is only going to get bigger, specifically in 2025 when the Warriors have announced they will relaunch their women's programme.

So there may well be a shelf life for the sort of open ended career paths that Williams-Guthrie and her team mates are enjoying. But for now, she's just happy with the way things are.

"In life, opportunities come and when you're in the moment things change. I'll never say never, because if I did I'd be a liar."