The amazing story behind Ruby Tui's rise to rugby sevens stardom
Her eccentric nature and natural leadership qualities have helped define a dominant group that has won a World Cup, Commonwealth Games, several world series titles, and an Olympic silver medal.
It seems like she was born to be a Black Ferns star, but in truth her path to the top has been far from straight-forward.
Before becoming a professional rugby sevens player, she endured a troubling childhood that included dealing with an alcoholic father, constantly moving house, and eventually ending up in a women’s refuge.
“One of the reasons we kept moving was that my mom was in an abusive relationship and it was hard as a kid. I wanted to stay and help her, but I didn't want to be a burden and there wasn't much money. I didn't want her to have to look after me and feed me as well," she told Olympic Channel through a video link.
“So we went into the Women's Refuge, which is a charity in New Zealand that women can go to for no cost to just escape. It’s a last resort thing and man, it changed my life. I saw my mom stand on her own two feet as she could finally see that it was possible to be happy.”
While most people would feel a degree of self-sympathy for having such a situation thrust upon them, Tui has a different take.
“My childhood was a tough experience, but I'm so glad it happened," she said without hesitation.
"It's helped me in my career as I don't take things for granted. Even in the team now I want everyone’s voice to be heard, as we all come from different places and that diversity is a strength.
"Sports always brought me happiness"
“But no matter what was happening in my life or where I was, sports always brought me happiness,” the 28-year-old continued.
“If I joined a sports team, I had friends and I had something to look forward to every week.”
Rugby is New Zealand’s national sport and a key component of the nation’s culture.
While Tui was growing up it was mostly played by men at an elite level, and she focused most of her efforts on netball.
But when she enrolled at university, her financial status led her to a chance first experience of women’s rugby in its 15-a-side format.
“I didn’t even know women’s rugby was actually a thing until uni!” she revealed.
“I had to catch a bus to the netball courts and while I loved the sport, it was a mission for a student. Our student accommodation was right next to the rugby fields and a girl just came up to me and asked if I fancied coming for a run with them.
“So I bought some boots for 20 bucks, which was really expensive at the time, and had a crack.
“It was just this whole bunch of women that wanted to smash into each other, and I couldn't believe that they were also so nice and so welcoming. They didn’t care how good I was or where I came from - they just needed the numbers!"
Finding rugby sevens
As nice as Tui’s welcome was, no mercy was shown on the pitch.
Her 63kg frame meant that while she was more agile than a lot of her teammates, she was also a lot lighter, getting ‘knocked about’ regularly in the 15-a-side matches.
That largely successful introduction to rugby led her to switch once more.
“One day someone gave me a pamphlet for sevens rugby,” she said.
“It was the same size field as 15s, but with only half of the people. It was way easier to run around people. It was made for me!"
The speedster quickly climbed the sevens ranks, and in 2011 was invited to a trial with the New Zealand sevens team before making her debut a year later in Fiji.
Celebrating the haka and Maori culture
Making the national team meant being involved in one of the most-loved traditions in rugby: the haka.
The ceremonial war dance was used by the nation’s indigenous Maori people, and was adopted by its rugby teams in modern times.
While the haka may provide rich entertainment to adoring fans on the world series, it holds a deep cultural significance for the players and bonds them on a spiritual level.
“The Maori culture is the most beautiful thing, and quite a few of the girls speak the language,” she said.
“We are so proud as New Zealanders to be part of it, and to embrace the meaning behind it is special. It's about carrying every part of your being and spirit wherever you are. Representing every one of your family members and ancestors, and projecting them in your performance.
“It's really humbling that people love it so much, and I’d love to see other nations express their cultures in a similar way on the field.”
Fighting for professionalism
When it was announced that rugby sevens would make its Olympic debut at Rio 2016, Tui and some of her teammates set about getting professional contracts for New Zealand’s women, to match what was on offer for the men.
“I was always with women that worked so hard and never got a dollar, not a single dollar,” she said.
“I remember being told quite often that we'll never get paid, and never get the same treatment as the men.
“I got a couple of tops, that didn’t fit, but that was it. So I made it a personal goal to get basic contracts. Just so we didn’t have to train at 5 a.m. or late at night."
Showing all the tenacity and passion that they played with on the pitch, Tui and her teammates eventually succeeded in getting centralised contracts for the women.
“We went to meetings with the governing body, laid out exactly how much we brought to the game, what our winning ratios were compared to the men, and why we deserve everything that they do."
Fast-forward to 2020 and both New Zealand teams enjoy equal access to the coaches and facilities in Tauranga.
“For kiwi (New Zealand) sevens players, the Olympics made our sport a professional option.
“I can't believe how far we've now come. It’s an amazing gift that I've received, to be able to live the dream full-time.”
Despite this life-changing moment, she feels that it was learning the sport as unpaid amateurs that laid the foundation for the current team’s success.
“And that weeds out everybody who's not there purely for passion, and with a good heart,” she said.
“In women's rugby we've just got this unreal, amazing bunch of people with heaps of camaraderie. That culture is one thing I really want to keep in our team." - Ruby Tui to Olympic Channel.
Rio 2016 Olympic heartbreak
After some indifferent early form, they eventually set up an all-Antipodean clash in the final against their old rivals Australia.
A thrilling match at the Deodoro Stadium ended in a heart-breaking 24-17 loss for the women in black, which stings Tui to this day.
“It still feels like I'm getting burned from the inside of my heart sometimes, because we wanted to win so badly,” Ruby Tui to Olympic Channel.
"That little rivalry we have with Aussie is frustrating, but awesome as well.
“They were the better team in that game, and it sucks because we didn’t play to our potential.
“I'm 28 now, and every minute counts to me. Every time I look back at that game I don't get bitter or sad, I just want to get even!”
They say there is nothing more dangerous than a wounded animal, and that certainly proved to be the case for this group of kiwis after their defeat in Rio.
With the majority of players choosing to remain in the sport, they won the 2018 Commonwealth Games in Australia, the 2018 Rugby Sevens World Cup in San Francisco, and the last two editions of the world series. Tui was also named World Rugby Sevens Player of the Year in 2019.
“That defeat made us closer as a team and it made us way more ruthless."
“We're way more honest in training with each other. It’s nothing personal against another sister, but if someone makes a crap pass they’re called out on it." - Ruby Tui to Olympic Channel.
Re-creating rugby during lockdown
Australia will be under no illusion how difficult retaining their Olympic title will be.
But the COVID-enforced Tokyo 2020 delay means that New Zealand will have to wait another year until they get their shot at redemption.
During the lockdown, Tui, like many other Olympians, suddenly found herself at a loose end and in desperate need of entertainment outside of training in solitude.
She decided that if she couldn’t go to a rugby pitch, she’d mark one out in her back-yard and use it to post videos of skill sessions online.
Further renovations included painting her house New Zealand black, and the cheerful clips quickly went viral in the rugby world.
“I was getting so crazy inside!” she admitted.
“Doing that, combined with our virtual team meetings where we’d all wear our team jerseys as we missed rugby so much really helped to keep my head in a good place.”
The importance of gratitude
During the Olympic Channel interview it became clear that the feeling of gratitude radiated from Tui, whatever happened in her life.
For the tough start that shaped her personality, for being welcomed into rugby, for gaining professional contracts, and perhaps most importantly for her family and teammates.
Despite the difficult upbringing she had to endure, she sees the light in any situation and never takes life’s small pleasures for granted.
One way she managed to maintain her positive outlook even when things got tough was through a gratitude diary, in which she would write a few simple things she was grateful for every morning and every evening.
“Back then I was considered a bit of a weirdo for doing it!” she said with a smile.
“But it really helped me focus on the important things, because you wake up with positive feelings and it just flows on through the rest of the day and the week.
“It seemed silly at the time, but jeez, I don't know what I would've done without it, to be honest. That gratitude is really special for me.”
Olympic redemption at the Games in Tokyo
There will certainly be a lot of gratitude if and when the world rugby sevens series restarts.
Then, Tui and her team can really step up preparations to win the one major accolade that so far eludes them: an Olympic gold medal.
But whether that return to action comes sooner or later, the prop forward will not lack any motivation when it’s time to go to work.
“I don't even need to light a fire, it burns inside all the time,” she said.
Of course, there is still one particular memory that drives her on like no other.
“Losing the Olympic final last time, I feel, will give us a little something extra.
“Underneath all the planning and tactical preparation, we've got this authentic burn to go one better. And I truly believe that we can do it."