In a string of firsts, Black Fern Helen Mahon-Stroud was the first NZ women’s rugby captain, who scored the first try in the inaugural Rugby World Cup in 1991. She’s since gone on to groundbreaking roles in netball and cricket, and a long career with the police, Jane Hunt writes.
Possessed with boundless energy and enthusiasm, Helen Mahon-Stroud finds it hard to shy away from a challenge.
A trailblazing sportswoman, Mahon-Stroud has traversed the differing worlds of high performance sport – as a rugby player, netball coach and cricket manager - in tandem with a variety of roles in the New Zealand Police. And all with remarkable success.
While they may seem poles apart, Mahon-Stroud sees many similarities between the high performance sporting arena and policing. Motivated by challenges and passionate about sport and the community, Mahon-Stroud has switched seamlessly between the two for many years and she shows no signs of slowing down.
“The parallels are amazing,” she says. “Just the skills and the culture. The police have adopted methods of training which you would pretty much find in sport.”
Mahon-Stroud created a unique sporting record after being involved in the high-performance arena in three different codes – as a Black Fern at the first Rugby World Cup in 1991; as coach of the Canterbury Tactix netball side for the first four seasons of the ANZ Championship; and team manager and high performance manager of the White Ferns for over three years.
She's also a mum of three children, who are all competitive athletes in their own right. And now she’s flexing her policing credentials.
At 54, Mahon-Stroud is about to become a detective. Thinking she may have done things about face, after many years as a uniform attachment to the Criminal Investigation Branch (CIB) of the police, she’s been completing her detective qualifications, which all going well should happen next May.
Playing club netball in Christchurch in 1989, Mahon-Stroud happened on rugby by chance when she accompanied her Canterbury netball team-mate (and celebrated Black Fern) Anna Richards to a club rugby match.
Short on players, Mahon-Stroud took to the field and scored seven tries - and so began a rugby career of note.
That same year she was selected as captain of the first New Zealand women’s rugby team, who played the California Grizzlies side in Christchurch, and won 13-7. She followed that up with a tour to the US and Europe with the University women’s rugby team, the Crusadettes, where they won 17 of 21 matches.
Then she was chosen to play at the inaugural women’s World Rugby Cup in Wales in 1991, where she forged a little slice of history.
“I played in the first game and scored the first-ever try in a women’s World Rugby Cup which has been talked about a lot,” Mahon-Stroud says. The Black Ferns won that opening match against Canada, 24-8, and on the wing, Mahon-Stroud scored a hat-trick.
“There’s been a lot of conversations about the game and how cool it was that we were breaking new ground, in an era of paving the way.
“I didn’t think much of [the try] at the time. People subsequently started mentioning it more often as time has gone on and yes, I do look back now and think that was pretty cool.”
The Black Ferns were knocked out of that tournament at the semifinals stage by the United States, who went on to beat England in the final.
“The 1991 World Cup was 31 years ago, and it certainly didn’t look like this one."
The team had the support of New Zealand Rugby, but it took until 1998 before the women’s World Rugby Cup was finally sanctioned by the International Rugby Board.
That led to a belated capping ceremony in 2018, when 46 Black Ferns were presented with their caps. Mahon-Stroud is Black Fern #10.
She was among a band of former Black Ferns invited to the opening day of the current World Cup at Eden Park a month ago, and marvelled at the experience.
“I’ve been loving seeing the quality of play, not just from those top four, but also the likes of Japan and how far they have come. Some of the skills, it’s like `wow’. And seeing these teams and countries really engaged with a programme and seeing how far they’ve come is wonderful,” she says.
“The standard of top players during that opening game [between the Black Ferns and Australia] was amazing with their athleticism and skillsets. And just walking around and seeing what was going on pre-game with the traffic, the big crowd pouring in, the entertainment - it was pretty overwhelming.
“The 1991 World Cup was 31 years ago, and it certainly didn’t look like this one. It’s fantastic to see where we’ve come from and where we are now.”
Mahon-Stroud married former All Whites football goalkeeper, Alan Stroud, and after the birth of their first child in 1998, she moved into netball coaching.
She took the helm of a variety of school, age-group and club teams before another ground-breaking move saw her installed as head coach of the Tactix for the new trans-Tasman league, launched with much fanfare in 2008.
“When I applied for head coach of the Tactix for the ANZ Championship, I applied for two years leave without pay [from the police]. But I only had one year off because the Tactix didn’t have a lot of money, so I went back to the police part-time,” she says.
“That meant part-time police work and fulltime coaching as well as having three young children. I look back now and go, `Oh, gosh, what was I thinking?’”
But it was too good of an opportunity, Mahon-Stroud explains.
“When the ANZ kicked off, it was that first step towards professionalism, and players were more than fit and capable. So, it was the eve of a big change for the sport in New Zealand and to be involved with that was a pretty good opportunity and that’s why I did it,” she says.
“So, I pretty much stayed coaching fulltime and working part-time from 2008 to 2011.”
Then after a year focused on work and family, she switched codes again. In 2013, Mahon-Stroud’s services were called on by New Zealand women’s cricket coach Katrina Keenan, who wanted a part-time team manager with high performance experience.
“I was still coaching club netball and thought the cricket role would be something different, so I took it on and really enjoyed it,” Mahon-Stroud says.
Having no background in cricket, the ever-proactive Mahon-Stroud eventually took on the dual roles of team manager and high performance manager, as the White Ferns had no programme at the time.
“I thought they should have a high performance programme alongside the Black Caps,” she says. Once she worked on building a programme for women’s cricket, it was a role she would fill for three-and-a-half years.
“After that, I felt that I had probably achieved as much as I was going to achieve,” she says.
Turning 50, Mahon-Stroud thought she’d take some time out to gather her thoughts. But that proved short-lived.
“I thought I’d have a sabbatical. Taking a year off and doing nothing sounded really cool; walking the dogs, playing ladies’ day golf… but that didn’t really work out. I got bored after about six weeks,” she says.
“I went back and did another six-month contract with the police. Then I had another think about what I was going to do and I’m now probably one of the oldest females to go through the development programme, working towards becoming a re-sworn police officer with the CIB.
“I’ve done things a bit differently. I’ve been out and done other stuff like high performance sport and come back in - but yeah, that’s the path I’ve taken.”
The sporting genes of Mahon-Stroud and her husband have been passed on to their three children.
Ben, 24, has been playing football in Finland, and is soon to be the UK. Georgia, 22, is at university in Wellington doing a landscaping degree and was a training partner for the Manawa team in this year’s national netball league. And Lucy, 19, is studying criminal justice at Canterbury University, and is also a high achieving surf-lifesaver and board paddler at regional level.
“Meanwhile the husband, he’s semi-retired. He’s got his own business with a pub, walks the dogs [two soft-coated wheaten terriers, Izzie and Gus] and plays golf,” Mahon-Stroud says. “That might be me in another few years, but I’ve still got some unfinished business.”
*The semifinals of the Rugby World Cup 2021 will be played on Saturday at Eden Park, with Canada taking on England at 4.30pm, and the Black Ferns facing France at 7.30pm. Coverage of both games will be live on Spark Sport and Three.