New NZ Warriors women challenge awaits rugby league's 'Aunty' Carmen Taplin

By Felicity Reid for RNZ 

The 'Aunty' of NZ Rugby League - Carmen Taplin - is used to working in the background, but COVID-19 has put her role of managing players' wellbeing under a spotlight.

Taplin has a history of being someone athletes turn to.

She has welcomed young players into her family home and toured for long periods alongside New Zealand rugby league stars, offering guidance.

But the NZRL wellbeing manager has a new challenge with the NZ Warriors women's side that will be based in Australia for the duration of the NRLW.

That a wellbeing manager is even part of the small team from New Zealand is a sign of the emphasis on athlete welfare during a turbulent time.

"It's been hard over the years," Taplin says. "Footy has always taken precedence over wellbeing managers, as they were not really seen as a priority back in the day." 

But COVID-19 has helped change the sport's focus during a rugby league season that nearly did not happen.

"I feel that, definitely, there has been a shift and I hope it stays that way going forward. I just think it is so important that we nurture all aspects, not just the physical.

"We refer to it in our campaign now as 'Te Whare Tapa Wha', around supporting the physical, the spiritual, mental and emotional in our whanau of relationships."

In 2010, Taplin was brought into NZ Kiwis management staff to help with logistics, but her role quickly expanded over the four years she was with the men's national team.

"[I was there too] bring the female element to a footy staff and to add that 'aunty' kind of feel to the squad."

Her caretaker position was a natural fit and she took it even further.

Manu Vatuvei, Taplin and Benji Marshall
Manu Vatuvei, Taplin and Benji Marshall Photo credit: Photosport

Helping the stars of the future 

Back in 2012, Taplin and her husband moved to Sydney with a plan to support young players.

Taplin says youth suicides in the Australia U20s competition motivated the pair to become house parents - an arrangement that the Sydney Roosters NRL club welcomed.

They ended up with a house full of 10 boys, including Australian representative Latrell Mitchell, who now plays for South Sydney Rabbitohs, and Kiwis and Roosters centre Joseph Manu.

That time in Sydney cemented Taplin's decision to pursue a wellbeing career path when she returned to New Zealand.

NZRL's links with the Warriors women's programme have seen her called into the support team for this unprecedented season, with players spending 10 weeks away from home, including quarantine periods in Australia and New Zealand on either side of the five-week competition.

Warriors captain Georgia Hale, along with Hilda Mariu, Madison Bartlett, Crystal Tamarua and Kanyon Paul, have all committed to the temporary move to Australia for the four-team competition.

"Women are so different, which I love," Taplin says. "We're very much in tune with our emotional self and I think they really appreciate that nurturing.

"I don't do anything magic. I'm just that ear... that someone that they trust and respect, and they're comfortable to come to if little things are getting them down.

"I'll sit down and have breakfast with someone, without the intention of having a catch-up or a wellbeing chat, but it always eventually turns into that. I am really blessed that I am able to have that with these girls."

New NZ Warriors women challenge awaits rugby league's 'Aunty' Carmen Taplin

Earlier in her career, Taplin toured with the Kiwis for eight weeks in the United Kingdom, so she's prepared for a long stint working away from home, but she is amazed at what the women were prepared to do to play this season.

"The NRL men - their work is rugby league, so that was probably never an issue, but these girls have had to consciously say, 'Well, can I get the time, 10 weeks away from home, from my work, are my kids going to be okay', and the crazy thing is they made that decision on not a lot of information.

"We still didn't have exact details, so these five girls have made the ultimate sacrifice. For a while, they weren't sure who their coach would be and they were unsure who their teammates would even be."

Australian Jillaroos coach Brad Donald has since been confirmed to guide the 2020 campaign, but the players are still waiting to meet the other women who will make up most of the squad.

The NZ-based players who couldn't make the sacrifice are not far from the players' thoughts, Taplin says.

"They are very conscious of the girls who wanted to be here just as much and couldn't, so they are a big part of our journey as well."

Taplin admits what she has left behind is on her mind too. She has a 17-year-old daughter living at home and a four-year-old, and she is still a house parent for one of the Warriors players.

"The real 'mamae' or hurt comes when we start to miss our families, and I feel it. It was my son's 22nd birthday on Thursday and it's the first time I have really been away from him, so I felt that, but the girls know and they support me just as much as I support them in that wellbeing space."

But Taplin did not think twice before committing to the campaign.

"I was always going, simply because I knew how tough it would be for these girls to be away."

Carmen Taplin
Carmen Taplin Photo credit: Photosport

Isolation island - paradise with a purpose.

The Warriors women players and two support staff - along with fellow New Zealander Amber Hall from Brisbane Broncos - are based on Milson Island, an hour north of Sydney, while they wait out their quarantine period.

Taplin says they are becoming a tight-knit group, given the unusual circumstances.

Each morning, the group 'karakia' by the water, share what they are grateful for and sing, before the physical work starts.

"In high-performance sport, what I've found is probably 80 percent or more is based on performance and physical," Taplin says. "But I don't think we spend enough time on those other areas and, as 'Te Whare Tapa Wha' goes, if all walls of the house are not strong, you're at the risk of the house falling down." 

Taplin says there is plenty to be grateful for while they are in "paradise", but she is also happy that they are able to bring some relief to an area hit hard by COVID-19 fallout.

"Because of COVID, they've had no-one on this island for six months, and it's a school sport and recreation camp, and it's paradise.

"The girls are getting VIP treatment, because the staff haven't had anyone here, so they're pulling out all stops. There is nothing they won't do for us and I think that put into context for us, we've made this sacrifice, but we see these beautiful businesses and how it is such an amazing space, and they've had no-one."