In 2008, La Toya Mason was persuaded to join the Black Ferns, Fiao’o Faamausili, Vania Wolfgramm and Renee Wickliffe at Wasps Rugby Club.
A year later she played for England against the Black Ferns in Esher, Surrey. It was the start of a 70-Test career, during which she was part of a 2014 World Cup-winning team and culminated in the 2017 World Cup final loss to the Black Ferns in England.
Mason is back in New Zealand where he coaches Taranaki at the Farah Palmer Cup and is helping to build the base for women’s rugby in the region.
“It was always my intention to return to New Zealand. When I retired I was just waiting for a job. Taranaki Rugby was the first to offer a development role,” Mason explained.
“When I first arrived in Taranaki, I thought, ‘What the hell is going on here?’ Things were bleak. We’ve made good progress building the game, but we still have work to do. Talking to the players to know what they think and having a good CEO and Board of Directors who want to promote girls’ football is crucial.”
In England Mason worked for the RFU as a community coach, growing the game in the Surrey region.
Born and raised in Auckland, Mason attended Massey High School and played for North Harbor as a teenager in 2001 and 2002.
She moved to Auckland soon after, where she alternated between the Storm and the B’s, who were competing in the National Provincial Championship at the time. A highlight came in 2006 when she helped her club, Marist, win the Coleman Shield and Auckland the national title for a seventh straight year.
“Marist and Auckland were pretty stacked back then, so it was quite difficult to get a glimpse of it. When I decided to go to England it was first a ‘sham university’ and then the premise changed to ‘what I have I lose’.
Mason thrived as a “loud,” “organizing” halfback for Wasps and was called to trial for England. She qualified for England through her four grandparents and debuted ahead of her mother, father and extended family.
England is the dominant force in the northern hemisphere. Mason was part of four Grand Slam Six Nations winning teams. In 2014 she came on as a substitute in the 21-9 final win against Canada in Paris.
“They love a train over there. The reaction to our win was crazy. On our way back to the hotel we stopped at a corner pub and it was packed with our supporters. We had Sky TV on the plane and a press conference in Twickenham when we got off. We met the Prime Minister and some of the girls even got VIP tickets to Rihianna and Jay Z concerts. We were backstage with Madonna and it was like, ‘What are we doing here?’
England won the BBC Sports Team of the Year award.
“The best thing I brought from England is a better understanding of what professionalism is. I got better at juggling work, rugby and life,” Mason mused.
“In England, roadside assistance is really expectant. It’s a different tempo, but there are little pieces about the breakdown that I didn’t really understand until I played over there.”
Taranaki returned to the Farah Palmer Cup in 2018 and failed to win a game until her 14th try against North Harbor in 2020. Last year they beat Tasman and narrowly led North Harbor and Hawke’s Bay. Greater cooperation between players and administration drives the improvement.
“Before the club season started we had four turnstile days on consecutive Sundays where anyone could come for coaching lessons. Neil Barnes (Taranaki men’s coach) chaired some of these sessions.
“We talked about the big picture. If a club has a squad of 30 players and a bye, why can’t they sack some players to help other clubs? The most important thing is that the girls play as much as possible and keep growing.”
Taranaki was beaten 21-10 by North Harbor in their opening game of the championship season. A slow start meant Taranaki was trailing initially, but they rallied valiantly and won the second half. defender Danielle Muggeridge scored a smasher from a try as she dived to take a low pass, executed a forward roll, jumped to her feet and batted aside three defenders.
Other standouts included second five-eighth Badinlee Munro-Smith and flanker Jacquelin Tulloch.
Taranaki is coming next week Trafalgar Park in Nelson to play Tasman whom they defeated 34-12 last season.