Black Ferns Sevens captain Sarah Hirini is heading to Japan to play professional sevens for the Pearls club – something she wants to make more permanent once her international career is over, she tells Suzanne McFadden in an exclusive interview.
With a new caramel-coloured jersey on her back, Sarah Hirini hopes this is a prelude of what’s to come in her rugby career.
The Black Ferns Sevens captain has signed with Japanese club Mie Pearls to play sevens once the international season is over; she and husband, Connor, leave for the city of Yokkaichi next month.
“I’m so excited,” the 30-year-old multiple world champion says. “I feel it’s the perfect time to explore a different opportunity, and it’s something I’m looking forward to doing once I’ve finished playing international rugby.
“I was lucky I added a playing sabbatical in my contract with New Zealand Rugby I signed a couple of years ago, so if I wanted to do something like this, I had the opportunity to.
“I don’t when my time might be up, or when I feel like it’s up, so I want to do everything I can now.”
Hirini’s confident she’s still got a couple of years at the top of her incredible sevens game, and is driven by the desire to win a second Olympic gold medal in Paris next year.
When she got the call from her former Black Ferns team-mate Janna Vaughan – who’s now head coach of the Pearls – she knew it was an offer she shouldn’t turn down. But it still took a bit of deliberation.
Vaughan and Hirini have a long history playing together – from the Manawatu Cyclones, the Black Ferns Sevens and 15s, and in last year’s Super Rugby Aupiki for Hurricanes Poua.
“It was something I’d been looking at for a long time, something I’d been wanting to do, but the timing had never really worked out,” says Hirini, just home from leading the Black Ferns to victory at the Hong Kong Sevens on the weekend.
“When Janna reached out to say the Pearls wanted to get me over, I wasn’t too keen initially, knowing I was still playing here and I’d signed to play for another couple of years.
“But then I thought we’ve got a long pre-season, so I said to my husband ‘Why don’t I ask if we can come over for a couple of weeks and meet them?’ For me it’s a lot more around relationships than anything else.
“When I suggested that to Janna, she came back straight away and said ‘Yep, just come for as long as you can’. Then it slowly developed into ‘I’m going to definitely go and play’.”
Hirini checked out the culture of the club first, running it past Kiwis who’ve played and coached there in the past. That included Black Ferns Sevens skills coach and Chiefs Manawa head coach, Crystal Kaua, who coached the Pearls Sevens and 15s from 2018 to 2021 with her husband, Brent.
“It was really important Crystal said they were an amazing team to be part of,” Hirini says.
So thrilled were the Pearls to secure Hirini, the 2021 Kelvin R Tremain Player of the Year, the club’s general manager, Hisashi Saito, flew to New Zealand this week to present her with her Pearls jersey at the Black Ferns Sevens training base at Mount Maunganui.
“The value of that gesture was really important to me,” Hirini says. “I’m pumped he took his time to fly over and do that. I see that in women’s rugby, and I’m like ‘Wow, that’s pretty big’.”
Vaughan says it’s a huge milestone for the club, who’ve been around since 2016, to have one of the world’s best seven’s players with them this season.
“We know Sarah has the attributes both on and off the field that will enhance the way we play and the way we interact and connect,” the head coach says. “Watching her and the success of the Black Ferns Sevens so far on the World Series is exciting, and we hope she brings the flair and exciting rugby that her and the team have been able to produce this season.
“[The Pearls’] vision is to excite our region through the way we play and change the image of women’s rugby in Japan. We want to move from being a top Japanese club to a global club, and having Sarah involved will be instrumental in achieving that.”
Hirini will be in Japan for just over five weeks, and will hit the ground running, straight into training to play in three tournaments while she’s there.
“Having a coach I’ve played with will be really exciting for me – as well as having a couple of Japanese coaches and managers,” she says. “I’m going to learn completely different drills, a different style of play and have to adapt quite quickly to the way the team plays. It will be awesome jumping straight in and getting to know the girls as quickly as possible.
“I know a lot of Janna’s stuff is around connection and creating relationships first. I think I can help a lot with that too.”
Hirini admires the Japanese style of sevens play: “It’s very quick, and everyone is super fit. It’s really cool they’ve adapted their style in the last couple of years – they can step now, they have great footwork. I think we’ll all be trying to play an exciting brand of footie.”
She’ll also be playing with another former team-mate, Shakira Baker; the Black Ferns Sevens veteran and Hurricanes Poua back arrived in Japan this week. “I’m excited to be running off her shoulder,” Hirini says.
Harbouring a long-time dream to play and live overseas, Hirini hopes her experience will rub off on other Black Ferns Sevens players.
“It’s cool to show other girls in our team there are opportunities you can add in, or adapt to the things you want to do,” she says. “There are very limited opportunities to play sevens here in New Zealand – there are max seven World Series tournaments, and there’s not a lot else going on. So the more game time you can get, the better.”
After winning the Rugby World Cup with the Black Ferns 15s late last year, Hirini took seven weeks off rugby before returning to the Black Ferns Sevens – who’ve been unbeaten in the last five tournaments. She’s not worried about rugby overload.
“I know I’ll be energised by the fact I’m somewhere different, experiencing something completely different, and living off Japanese food, which I’m really looking forward to,” she laughs.
“I think it’s going to give me a lot more energy than sitting at home in a New Zealand winter. It’s summer over there and I’ll be with my husband – who I’ll probably spend more time with over there than I have this year.
“I probably wouldn’t have gone if Connor didn’t come, too. The team will only train two or three times a week, and play on the weekends, so there will be some down time. He’s never been to Japan and I want to go again later on, after I’ve fully finished. So this is a good amount of time to see if he likes it.”
Hirini admits it will be hard leaving behind their Airedale terrier, Booker, but she’s relieved he’ll be in good hands with her mother-in-law. “He was the first thought I had when Connor and I were deciding whether to go or not,” she says.
The Hirini’s much loved pooch, Booker.
There’s still one more World Sevens Series tournament left on this year’s calendar – in Tolouse, France, next month. Then Hirini will head home for four days before jetting off to Japan.
The Black Ferns Sevens are looking strong to claim a sixth World Series title, sitting 16 points clear of Australia.
Hirini isn’t sure where her future lies in the 15s game. “Last year was obviously an amazing experience – jeez, probably the highlight of my career – but I still love sevens, and travelling the world,” she says.
“Maybe there’s the potential to go back with the likes of Bunts [former sevens coach Allan Bunting] taking over the team.
“But I probably won’t play 15s in the short-term because I want another Olympic gold medal first. And that’s really difficult to get, so I’m just putting everything I can into winning that in Paris next year.”