St Mary’s College year 13 rugby player Justine McGregor had no inclination of her selection in the Black Ferns XV rugby team that was named at the start of this week.
“It was a shock, and I didn’t know that I was part of their plans and that they were talking about me,” said Justine.
“I felt like there were elements of my game in the recent Farah Palmer Cup playing for Wellington where I had performed well and expressed myself, but I didn’t know that I was in the selection frame for this team.”
Justine heard of her call-up, which is the Black Ferns development team and thus a stepping-stone towards full international honours, when she answered her phone at home and it was coach Whitney Hansen on the other end who told her the good news.
The team assembles for a week between 17-24 September and plays a one-off international against a Manusina (Samoa) XV on Saturday 23 September at Pukekohe.
Justine is one of five teenagers in this squad and is the youngest, aged 17. Her Petone club teammate Harmony Kautai (aged 19) is also selected.
Her selection is little surprise to those around her as she has been a rising star in Wellington women’s rugby for a couple of years and recently spent her second season playing for the Wellington Pride, impressing with her skill and maturity on the wing or in the midfield and appearing in all six of their competition matches.
This year she also played her second full season of club rugby, transferring from Marist St Pat’s to Petone, and producing several eye-catching performances that belied her youth.
“I enjoyed my season of club rugby this year for Petone, stepping up more and going into games with more vision and confidence. We had a really good team culture and even though we didn’t win the title there were plenty of highlights.”
Justine played at centre for Petone in the Wellington Women’s club rugby final, marking two former St Mary’s College players and later Pride teammates in the midfield, Monica Tagoai and Drenna Falaniko. MSP won the decider 36-32.
Justine has played 20 club rugby matches for MSP and Petone combined and has scored 16 tries, including scoring a hat-trick on debut last season for MSP against Poneke.
Her move to Petone this year was to be nearer to home (Lower Hutt) and in large part to be coached by Shannon Nightingale, who has also been the St Mary’s coach for the past three years.
“Shannon has helped me a lot on my rugby journey, and I wouldn’t be where I am to this day and wouldn’t have accomplished what I have without him. He tells me to stay humble and to be the hardest worker in the room and he not only wants me to succeed on the field but off it too.”
Justine was part of a group of St Mary’s players who played for the club under Nightingale this year.
She also thanked strength and conditioning coach Joel Marshall. “Joel helps me with my speed trainings, my gym sessions and my fitness and his help over the past few months has been invaluable for me.”
Justine’s preferred position is centre. “I love being busy on the field and challenging myself and working with and communicating my ideas and always learning.”
She captained the St Mary’s team this year to the Wellington title, and they split their matches towards the end of the season with rivals Manukura, but lost the match that counted, the Hurricanes final and Top 4 qualifier.
“We lost that game, but I’m really proud of the team and the players. For a school that doesn’t have a field I feel for girls just hustling their way to get to trainings outside of school we do well.”
She also enjoys sevens rugby and plans to go to Condor 7s at the end of this year as her final school tournament.
Last December, she played in the New Zealand Under 18 Girls Sevens Team at the World Schools 7s tournament, alongside former St Mary’s player and Pride teammate this year, Arene Landon-Lane.
Justine learnt a lot from that team playing in a high-level environment, as well as playing in the Farah Palmer Cup this year with the Wellington Pride.
“Personally, I only got half a game last season, but being in the squad really playing pushed me to do better and I took every opportunity I could this year.
“It was a difficult season results-wise, but we weren’t far off, and people don’t see the hard work that the players put in. The Pride will come back stronger in the future.
Justine started playing Rippa rugby several years ago.
“My uncle took me down to the Wainuiomata club where I started, and him and my cousins were a bit shocked when I picked up a ball and ran and immediately took to the game!”
From there she moved over the hill to the Hutt Old Boys Marist Junior club and subsequently kept playing through to secondary school.
Her first sport was softball, while she has also played netball, touch and rugby league. “From year 12 I just wanted to focus on rugby and sevens, so I dropped all other sports.”
Justine is still working through her plans for next year when she leaves school, but what is certain is that rugby won’t be far away from anything she does.
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