Sarah Hirini

From the field to the heart: the inspiring journey of a world-class rugby player

Legendary Black Ferns Sevens’ captain Sarah Hirini (née Goss), Ngāti Kahungunu, is one of the most well-respected players in international rugby, a two-time Olympic medalist, and current world champion. She has an impressive list of accolades to her name. In 2019, she became the first female player to bring up 200 matches on the World Series. In the same year, she was made a member of the New Zealand Order of Merit, and was the first woman to be awarded the prestigious Tom French Memorial Māori Player of the Year. Sarah is the third woman to appear on the cover of the New Zealand Rugby Almanack, and won the Sport New Zealand Leadership Award in 2023.

Discovering a passion and overcoming adversity

Growing up in rural Manawatū, the Massey alumna had an amazing childhood on the family farm. Sarah and her siblings shared the household chores, helping on their parents’ farm after school, on weekends, and during holidays. Though she didn’t grow up in a rugby family, they were a very sports-loving household, supporting the All Blacks, Silver Ferns, or whatever New Zealand team was playing. 

“We always followed all sports on TV; whenever any Kiwis were competing, we would watch it in the lounge together,” Sarah recalls.  

It was at Feilding High School that Sarah fell in love with rugby and fully immersed herself in sports. Initially, she played hockey and then began playing rugby after accompanying some friends attending rugby tryouts. “I thought it’d be a good fit for my hockey, and if I did one more sport, I didn’t have to do homework after school,” she laughs.

Sarah was so passionate about rugby that she wanted to play it full-time, “I wanted to be a professional rugby player and make the Black Ferns team.” But with no obvious professional career path for women in rugby back then, she continued her passion for rugby as an amateur.

After leaving secondary school, Sarah obtained a scholarship to commence full-time studies at Te Kunenga ki Pūrehuroa Massey University, undertaking a Bachelor of Arts (Māori Knowledge and Sports Science).

“I was encouraged to attend university by my sister, who was studying accounting and was the first person in our family to attend university. I didn’t know what I wanted to do but knew I was passionate about sport and Māori studies, so I decided to do a Bachelor of Arts in both.”

In 2012 Sevens became an Olympic sport, and Sarah, who was in her second year of study, attended one of the trials where, along with the other participants, was put through various fitness, speed, rugby skill, and character assessment activities. Of the 800 who attended the trial, Sarah was among the 30 deemed promising enough to participate in a training camp at Waiouru.

Being picked up by the national Sevens team was a life-turning point, and a dream came true, she says., but she had to work hard to fit her studies around training. 

I love what I do, and I know how hard it is and how much work it takes to be in the team, but living out a dream is very motivating. I was very lucky to receive a sports scholarship which helped with fees and allowed me to stretch out my degree by distance learning – thankfully, Massey offers this study style!” Sarah scaled back her studies and kept learning part-time for eight years.

Sarah Hirini

Rise to prominence: embracing leadership and winning championships

Since becoming New Zealand Rugby’s first contracted professional female player in 2013, Sarah’s career has gone from strength to strength, resulting in numerous accolades and a packed trophy cabinet. 

She was named captain of the Black Ferns Sevens at just 21 - a great opportunity as well as a big challenge. “I had to mature quickly and deal with issues within the playing group. I was and still am very lucky with my support network that I lean on for advice or even an ear when I need them. They made that challenge a lot easier,” she says. 

Sarah has built a reputation as an outstanding leader, hard-working forward, and humble character. The team brought home the silver medal from the 2016 Olympics in Rio and gold from the 2020 Olympics in Tokyo, as well as winning Rugby World Cup Sevens in 2013 and 2018 and winning the World Series six times. 

Beyond the game: giving back

To this day, Sarah is still so excited to have received the first professional playing contract, knowing how much of a step forward it was for women’s rugby in Aotearoa New Zealand. While women’s rugby is constantly growing as a global sport, Sarah is aware that there is much work to do in educating young women about what it means to be a professional athlete, both on and off the field.

She is passionate about inspiring young people to excel. For her, inspiring the next generation is about creating opportunities to share the love of the game, and she often visits schools to chat with young students. “Encouraging girls to see rugby as a pathway, a career opportunity, is a cool challenge. I want to show them my positive experience and share what I’ve learned along the way.”

Looking into the future

Getting up early and having a cold shower and coffee is Sarah’s “Me” time on a typical day. Then she heads into training, where she does extras with the trainers – first a pre-field meeting, then an hour-and-a-half field session, recovery, food, and meeting before an afternoon in the gym or on the field again. That’s been Sarah’s routine for the past few years.

Outside of rugby, Sarah enjoys traveling and spending weekends at home - she lives for walks on the beach with her husband and dog, loves eating nice food and hanging out with whānau and friends. 

While based at Mount Maunganui, Sarah obtained her private pilot’s license in 2021 after three years of study. “I’ve loved being able to do something outside of rugby and not allowing rugby to be my only passion.”

Reflecting on the last 11 years of her career and looking into the future, Sarah says, “I am grateful for the life that I get to live and have picked up the challenge of joining governance roles to help grow as a person but also try and make a bigger impact than just playing on the field. I also know rugby doesn’t last forever, so it was always important for me to have a degree and other experiences to use once I decide to retire. I’m lucky that Massey was very helpful in that process.”