Dame Farah with the Rugby World Cup in 2006
“I never thought I'd be on the NZR Board or receiving a New Year Honour when I bought my first rugby boots.”
It was only after much reflection that Dame Farah Palmer, three-time Rugby World Cup winning captain of the Black Ferns, decided to accept the honour of Dame Companion of the New Zealand Order of Merit, announced in this year's New Year Honours. The honour is in recognition of her services to sport, particularly rugby.
Dame Farah (Ngāti Maniapoto, Waikato) ONZM, says it is both humbling and an honour to be considered worthy. However, when she first found out about the honour she had mixed emotions.
“I'm not one to put myself out there, as I really do believe in teamwork, and that the work is never of one, but of many - Ehara taku toa I te toa takitahi, engari he toa takitini.
“However, after much reflection, and discussions with my husband I decided to accept the honour to acknowledge all of those trailblazers in women's rugby and Māori rugby who haven't had the chance to be acknowledged like this.”
Dame Farah, who graduated from Otago with a BPhEd(Hons) in 1994 and a PhD in 2000, has held a variety of governance roles in rugby since retiring as a player in 2006, including serving as an independent member of the Māori Rugby Board and a member of the Women's Advisory Committee of the International Rugby Board.
She was also a member of the Ministerial Taskforce reviewing sport, fitness and leisure (2000), wrote weekly sport columns for the Otago Daily Times (2009-2014), and was a Player Development Manager for the Manawatū Turbos when on maternity leave.
Dame Farah became the first woman on the New Zealand Rugby Board in 2016 and was elected Deputy Chairperson in 2021. She currently chairs the New Zealand Māori Rugby Board.
She says the honour is “a chance to shine a light on how far we've come in rugby, which is becoming more inclusive and the sport industry in general is working hard to reflect the values and aspirations of a more diverse Aotearoa New Zealand.
“I thought about trailblazers in women's rugby like Sue Garden-Bachop, Helen Littleworth, Jacinta Nielsen, and Margaret McKenzie, to name a few, who were all involved in women's rugby in Dunedin. They've all continued to give back to rugby after retiring from playing, and Sue in particular was a real trailblazer who helped many of us get noticed by the national selectors at a time when they didn't come down south.”
She says there were also men who coached, administered and supported women's rugby, including JJ Stewart, Laurie O'Reilly, Brian Hayes and Darryl Suasua, “when no-one cared as much as they do now about women in rugby”.
Dame Farah's academic career, research and service focusses on the intersection of Māori and gender identities in high performance sport, sport for development and how these intersections can be applied in organisational and leadership contexts. In 2022, she was appointed as Pou Ākonga Executive Director - Māori Student Success at Massey University. She was previously Associate Dean Māori for Massey Business School.
Dame Farah is also a member of the Sport and Recreation New Zealand Ihi Aotearoa Board and was a founding trustee for Manukura, an education programme with a Te Ao Māori approach to excellence in sport, culture and education, which is now a thriving special character school in the Manawatū.
She says she is keen to be visible in this part of her life through her rugby, sport and academic roles, to encourage more women and Māori to pursue their aspirations and to champion causes that they're passionate about.
“I started playing rugby in 1992 in my second year at Otago Uni, and I loved it. I also worked hard to do well in my studies at the same time because I was very aware of stereotypes and limited options to make a living out of rugby. I never thought I'd be on the NZR Board or receiving a New Year Honour when I bought my first rugby boots.
“I just did what I loved, enjoyed taking on the next challenge, and found a way to give back to the game that has provided me with so much confidence, networks, friends and opportunities. I'm a big believer in a balanced focus, and encourage others – through mentoring, public speaking and the roles I hold at Massey and in sport – to combine their talents and abilities with a qualification so that they can be in decision-making roles to transform systems.”
Dame Farah received a scholarship from the YWCA and Māori Women's Welfare League, co-ordinated by the Hillary Commission, to attend the School of Physical Education. She's appreciative of how her time as a student at Otago in the 1990s widened her horizons.
“I was fortunate to get a scholarship to go to Otago University, and to receive support pastorally and academically from many of my lecturers – particularly from Associate Professor Rex Thomson. I definitely did a lot of growing up and expanding my opportunities while at Otago Uni!
“I still meet people today who studied at Otago. The alumni network is strong and provides great connections and friendships throughout life.”