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Behind the Cups with Ash Kara

“Behind the Cups,” is a new series where we sit down one-on-one with people from club land for an in-depth conversation discussing their rugby journey. Behind every cup are the unsung heroes that help build upon the legacy of our game.

Ash Kara is quickly becoming a local legend in Women’s rugby, leading both on and off the field as a player and coach. Ash is no stranger to rugby union, but it wasn’t until the age of twenty-five when a mate invited her to come and join a local team that her rugby career took off. She has been dominating ever since.

I sat down with Ash as she shared her connection to the game we love; and looked back on her impressive rugby career so far and her goals moving forward with the support of her family and local community.

Goulburn dirty reds

How are you, Ash? You have been incredibly busy this year and especially within the past few weeks it’s great to be able to meet with you and share your amazing journey in rugby. Tell me a little more about yourself.

It has been a busy time right now, it’s always ongoing. I was born and raised in Goulburn, I graduated in 2010 from University of Canberra gaining a Bachelor of Education (Secondary Education in PD/H/PE and Mathematics). I lived in Europe from 2011 to 2012 on a working holiday. Very proud Māori heritage and very much a family person going back to New Zealand once a year to be with family. I’ve always played touch, netball and soccer growing up. I played first played rugby union when I was 12 for a year then returned playing in my mid 20’s. My Mum and Dad are from New Zealand and have strong ties to rugby. Dad played a lot of high-level rugby union for Waikato growing up. I have an amazing husband and a beautiful son.

I started playing rugby again for fun after my best mate Carly Hill from Queanbeyan convinced me. I love playing for the physical aspect and the comradery. There is no other sport in the world that comes close to rugby union and the bonds you make with your team mates on and off the field. Rugby is a lifestyle choice and I have grown up with it around me! Both playing and coaching! It brings out the best in people. It is technical, problem solving, challenging, accepting of all shapes, sizes, backgrounds, ages and cultures and it's fun.

You’re a full-time Teacher and as soon as the school term finished you jumped in to coaching the Barbarians in the Australian Schools Rugby Union National Championships. Can you share what that experience was like and how the girls went.

Yeah, it was a great experience. During the school holidays from Thursday 7th to Saturday 9th of July 2022 I went to Knox Grammar Collage to coach the NSW Blues 16s Girls Barbarians Team in the Australian Schools Rugby Union National Championships. 

The championships have a 48-year history of the boys playing, and this year is the inaugural year for the girls 16's and 18's rugby 7's competition. The NSW Blues team had to finish in the top two teams to progress into the grand final on the third day of competition. 

On Thursday the NSW Blues team lost both of their round games making it a do or die on Friday. The NSW Blues team won both of their games against NSW Grey team and marginally lost both games to Queensland Invitational on Friday. With these results the NSW Blues team finished second on the ladder setting up NSW Blues verse Queensland Invitational in the grand final on Saturday. 

The grand final was exceptionally skilful, hard hitting, and fast. Queensland drawing first blood; however, they missed the conversion right in front. NSW Blues scored next making it 7-5 with 3 minutes to go before half time. Unfortunately, Queensland muscled there way over the try line with a minute to go before half time to make it 7-10. With a big kick off and penalty on half time the NSW Blues decide to kick for touch giving them the line out. NSW Blues won the line out and spread the ball from coast to coast with speedy foot work and a sprint down the sideline to score a try two minutes into extra time taking the lead 12-10 at half time. 

Second half was just as exciting as the first. NSW Blues getting first points on the board making it 17-10. As the clock was counting down there was a yellow card given to the NSW Blues team for foul play leaving them with 6 players for two minutes. NSW Blues defended as hard as they could not conceding any points. Late in the second half another yellow card was handed to the NSW Blues team for a ruck infringement causing another 6 v 7 overlap. Queensland managed to score right on full time on the sideline leaving them with pressure of kicking the conversion to take it into extra time. Fortunately for NSW Blues, Queensland missed the conversion, making the NSW Blues team the 2022 Australian Schools Rugby Union National Inaugural Champions! The NSW Blues team celebrated in style all running into a mass huddle of joy and jubilant cheering. 

Off the back of great success in the grand final, 4 players who played exceptionally and consistently well throughout the entire tournament from the NSW Blues team were selected into the Australian inaugural 2022 Girls 16's Rugby 7's Merit Team. I am very proud and honoured to coach this team and represent Goulburn High School at the Australian Schools Rugby Union National Championships. 

2022 Blues Barbarians

Wow, congratulations with your success and to the girls for making the Merit Team. I know a lot of hours and dedication went in to get to where you are. From balancing career, family, trainings, and games; rugby really is a lifestyle. At what point in your life did you choose the rugby lifestyle?

I would even say I was born into it. I have grown up with rugby all around me. I have grown up a part of the Goulburn Dirty Reds Community and it’s a lifestyle I love which has shaped me today. Being ball girl, running the tee out, watching Dad coach, watching my brothers play for years and filling in here and there in juniors. Growing up watching Super Rugby on TV and Tests Matches with the family was a part of our weekends cheering for the Chiefs and All Blacks. As an adult putting on the rugby boots and playing my first game of XVs when I was 25 years old was very nerve racking at the beginning. I never thought I would be given representative honours in Brumbies Super W and AON 7s, but I succeed through dedication, hard work, determination, resilience, and family support. 

My journey in collaborating and creating a Women’s team in my hometown is something very special to me. Being a part of the coaching staff and playing group has been very rewarding for its 4 years of history. Being able to give back to my hometown is incredible especially seeing the growth in this space with young girls in high schools to ladies in their mid 30s coming to join in and participate in this wonderful sport. That’s the best part about rugby, it’s all inclusive and accepting for all dynamics of life. There are no stereotypes as anyone, and everyone is always welcome to play!

That’s why I say rugby is a lifestyle choice!

A lot of work goes into implementing rugby union programs within your local community, can you share the process of getting it off the ground and what’s instore for women’s rugby in Goulburn.

I implemented a rugby union program at Goulburn High School from 2015 to present focusing on junior and senior girls in rugby 7's. In 2016 the junior girls 7’s school team won the Brumbies regional 7’s series. Three years later in 2019 the same team came first in the Kiama 7’s High School knockout and then 5th in the state top 10. In 2020 the team won the Brumbies regional 7’s series with the senior girls 7’s school rugby team. School sport has given Goulburn High School Rugby grants for specific rugby coaching from the Brumbies.

Coaching GHS girls

I was having great conversations with my Dad in about 2017 discussing how the hype is there we just needed the numbers. We talked about who could be get involved, what people do we want to target, who’s going to be the team manager, who’s going to be the assistant coach because I still want to play and coach.

Off the back of winning the 2018 Women’s Premiership with Tuggeranong Vikings in 2018 I thought how I can use that momentum to get something up and running. We got all a list of 35 names of women from across different sports and backgrounds and invited them to come out and try rugby union. We used our social media platforms, personally calling and messaging women, telling them bring a plus one, encouraging them to just give it a go. We had about 15 girls show up the first night. There was a big focus on ‘just give it a go,’ and ‘bring a plus one.’

With that I put a plan in place with a small group of committed people to get a Goulburn Women’s Rugby Union Team up and running to compete in the 2019 A.C.T. inaugural 10’s competition. I am head coach of the Goulburn Women’s Program which has been running from 2019 to present. I captained the team to win the 2019 10’s premiership.

In 2020 I was blessed with a son and decided to coach in 2020 our first XVs women’s team. We finished 4th in the A.C.T. competition. We were able to maintain numbers in the 2021 season and I returned coaching and playing. We came 4th overall however COVID cut our season short. We were going to be very competitive in the semi-finals.

This year in 2022 we decided to go back to playing 10’s due to several ladies being pregnant and some sustaining ACL injuries from the previous season. This year is a rebuilding year for our women’s team trying to gain interest again and see if we can build in to being a XVs team again in the future.

I really agree with just giving it a go and encouraging everyone to bring a plus one can change your mentality. When I was about 16 or 17 there wasn’t a team I could join for my age group at the time, but I was old enough to join the Premier Women’s XVs competition. While watching a first-grade game I convinced my sister to play and two of my cousins to give rugby a try. My cousins had never played a game of rugby in their life.

We told them just give it a crack and see how you go. They loved it, playing the whole season for Canberra Royals. Looking back, we talk about that season being a highlight in our lives because of the connections we made with our teammates, and club, and the memories we made as a family. We gained so much more confidence in ourselves as women especially playing a sport that is heavily targeted towards men. We saw ourselves differently after playing that season, we felt stronger.

IT'S EMPOWERING!

Stepping on to the rugby field is empowering. Stereotypically rugby is a men’s sport. We had one woman who came out to play this year who was never too interested but she finally showed up and says, “What have I been missing out on all these years?”

After playing her mentality changed, she wasn’t just playing for fun but for the love of improving and reaching for her goals of playing in Super W. Unfortunately, she is taking time off to recover from an injury but now she sees that she can come back and keep pursing her dream.

She’d say to me, “Ash I should have just come when you first asked because I’ve missed out on all this time.” I’d always remind her not to think about the things she missed out on but rather how her previous experiences have helped her on her journey to rugby.

A lot of women feel like they aren’t physically up for the challenge, but our team and club show that they are. Anyone can play from all walks of life whether they’re finishing high school, a university student, a full-time mum or playing their first game. All women can find a sense of empowerment when they play.

At what point did you find yourself empowered to go beyond your local club and to coach and play at higher levels?

Well, I love leading. I really enjoy leading whether a small group or a large group of people. Obviously as a schoolteacher I lead students every day. In my first year playing I took a back seat just enjoying playing but in 2014 I made my first rep team with Brumbies and got a bit more confidence. I thought “Oh, I can actually do this!” but in 2015 I didn’t make the rep team and needed to step back and upskill myself. It made me realise I need to be fitter; I need to be faster; I need to have better ball skills and tackle techniques. In 2016 I was selected in another Brumbies team but this time off the bench. Not being in the starting team made me a lot hungrier. In 2017 was when I really focused on rugby 7s, that’s when I captained the AON 7s.

We had Sharni Williams (Australian Rugby Sevens Captain and Olympic Gold Medallist) and Cassie Staples (Australian Rugby Sevens) playing on the team. I go to the coach and say “Am I supposed to captain the Australia Rugby Sevens Captain?” He said, “Yeah, Ash you really are!”

I admire Sharni so much she’s one of my rugby heroes. She’s not flash, she’s one of those determined workers. She does all the really hard work on and off the ball. She always there to support. She’s not necessarily the fastest girl but she always sticks her tackles. She’s positive across all aspects of the game. I was really inspired to be captaining her and I wanted to be more like her. She gave me great advice and the push to keep going. It was in 2017 when I recognised that that was my opportunity and from there more opportunities came. That was the turning point I realised I could do this.

Ash Kara AON 7s

What an experience! Opportunities really did come along; you have had an impressive rugby career so far with many achievements to be proud of. Can we go over your representative honours.

2014 – Brumbies first cap at fullback v NSW Country

2016 – Brumbies 7’s in Adelaide

2016 – Brumbies XVs scrum half Brisbane

2017 – Captain of the inaugural AON 7's UC Brumbies for all 4 series

2018 – Super W Brumbies player, starting fly half

2019 – Super W Brumbies 30 women squad fly half

2019 – Girls Assistant Coach Brumbies Youth 7s

2020 – Women’s Brumbies Super W Interim Coach

2020 – ACT Country Women’s Head Coach

2021 – to present - Women’s Brumbies Super W coaching staff

2022 – Captain of the inaugural South Coast Monaro Women’s XVs

2022 – Brumbies sideline commentary for men’s Super Rugby and women’s Super W home games with Bill Wood

2022 – NSWCHS Girls Rugby 7s Seconds Coach

2022 – First XVs New South Wales Combined High Schools Boys selector scrum and fly halves

2022 – New South Wales Barbarians Girls 16s Head Coach

With any sport its more than just one person, there’s a whole support system that helps make your goals and aspirations come true. Who are your greatest supporters?

I am very thankful and blessed to have a large support base in Goulburn. Starting with my family, especially my husband and dad. Dad is at every training session and every game day always offering advice and looking where we can improve. We have an amazing coaching staff including assistant coaches, managers, water runners, professional photographers, videographers, and physios/first aiders. The Goulburn Rugby Union committee has always been supportive of our Women’s journey and always gives us the resources we need. Brumbies, NSWCHS and Goulburn High School have been very supportive to me with my playing and coaching journey. Without all this support I would not be in the position I am today.

When I stepped away to have my son and came back to the game Brumbies was very supportive. They upskilled me in coaching courses and gave me coaching opportunities in Super W and School Girls Brumbies 7s during my pregnancy. This has kept me highly motivated to stay apart of the rugby scene and lifestyle. For me to achieve in rugby a lot of time and energy goes into it. It’s not just a one-person profession it comes from the support of your family. My parents, my husband and son are huge reason why I continue to keep going and follow my dreams.

I have seen major growth and development in the local community with girls and women in rugby! I am so happy to see so many different representative pathways now available which I did not have the luxury of when I was growing up! There are so many opportunities now for girls in rugby living in the country and I am excited to keep on seeing locals achieve in higher representative honours in the future!

Ash Kara and Son

It has been a pleasure to talk with you Ash, thank you for all you do for women in rugby! Before we say goodbye, we have a fast round of questions for you.

Alright, here we go!

First question, what is the last song you listened to?

Wiggles – Big Red Car! This morning when I dropped my son off, “Toot toot, chugga chugga, Big Red Car!” You can tell I’m a mum.

That’s a classic song! Who was the first person you texted this morning?

My husband, I told him to have a good day work and said I loved him.

On your mobile phone what is your most used app?

Settlers on Catan, that’s how I switch off at night. I was Candy Crush fan from 2010, I got up to level 5000 and needed to move on to something else.

5000! Oh, wow I just started playing and I got excited making it to level 300.

You got this! Only a few thousand more levels to go!

What is your number one game day snack?

Bananas! It’s my go to an hour before a game and a cheeky bacon and egg roll in the morning.

What is your top 3 favourite movies right now?

Harry Potter and Deathly Hallows Part 2, Shawshank Redemption, and it’s got to be Lion King. I’ve been pumping Lion King with my son.

What is your favourite rugby memory?

I have two. The first one was when I was 12 my Dad goes the boys’ team is short, want to play? Don’t tell Mum. I went home with a fat lip and Mum wasn’t too impressed. Then the second was being presented with my first Brumbies jersey back in 2018.

Thank you again Ash, it’s an honour to hear your journey and to witness the amazing work you are doing for women in rugby both on and off the field. All the best moving forward!

*Notes about Interviewer: Georgia Rae Abel was raised on the sidelines of the rugby field watching her dad coach and brothers play before strapping on the boots herself. Playing in Junior rugby, on her high school teams and in Women’s Premier 15s. Georgia Rae has a wide background in rugby on and off the field.

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