You only have to spend a few minutes at Opunake High School to appreciate Lauren Burgess is a popular teacher among the students. "Miss, can you pass me the ball" is followed by "Miss, kick the ball over here" and "What you doing Miss?".
While she puts her popularity down to the simple fact she is a physical education teacher, it's obvious to the casual observer that her age (she's 25) and the years of being involved in team sport help her relate to the teenagers.
From the moment she was old enough she has been either running on to a rugby field or netball court. Somewhat surprisingly, given the success she has enjoyed with the more traditional women's sport, she admits the former has always held most appeal.
"I played rugby when I was 5 and I could only play until I was 8 so I took up netball," she said.
Together with older sister Erica, Burgess excelled at netball from the outset, moving through the representative grades at high school before eventually being named captain of the New Zealand secondary schools squad in 2004, a side that contained such illustrious names as Maria Tutaia and Cathrine Latu.
From there the midcourter became a regular fixture in the now defunct Western Flyers before also being involved in the Central Pulse and Southern Steel squads.
"I enjoyed playing netball but I never really had the passion to go further with it like I have with rugby," she said. "I've always preferred to be a Black Fern than a Silver Fern."
The "passion" she has for rugby can be traced back to the influence of her father, Owen, a stalwart of the Inglewood club who recently ended a term as senior coach.
Her transition back to the rugby field started a couple of years ago after the Stratford club decided to field a team in the Manawatu competition.
It didn't take long for her talent to be recognised - she was selected in the Manawatu rep side as a midfielder before a back injury sidelined her for the season.
She came back strongly this year and set her sights on making the national women's sevens squad. After being identified as a long-term prospect, she attended several training camps before being named in the squad to travel to Dubai at the end of next week for the inaugural IRB women's world series tournament.
It's an opportunity she does not want to let slip as she presses her claims to coach Sean Horan.
"I'm still a little bit shocked that I made it," she said. "I think it [the Dubai tournament] is hugely important because a few of the other girls have probably already cemented their spots for the later tournaments, so I have to impress."
Having being thrust into a forwards role by Horan, Burgess has been working hard on improving aspects of her game, most notably her breakdown work and strength over the ball.
One person who has not been surprised at Burgess' progress in the sport is former Black Ferns rep Cherry Blyde, who has been heavily involved in Taranaki women's rugby in recent years.
"She's outstanding," was Blyde's first reaction to a question on just how good Burgess was. "Her work rate is huge, she just keeps going. She's got a great pass and her leadership skills, both on and off the field, are excellent. She's a tried and true sportsperson and knows about the demands because she has been to a high level in netball."
Blyde has been mightily impressed with how Burgess relates to the younger members of the Taranaki squad, many of whom are still at school.
Not that she does not think Burgess could get better, a lot better in her eyes, once she sorts out some minor things in her game.
"Probably the contact side of things," she said. "Once they get their head around that, all the rest falls into place. It's just taking the ball into contact and the breakdown she has to work a little bit because she has all the determination and skills you need. She just needs an opportunity and once she has been given that I think Sean will find it hard to look past her."
Once past Dubai, Burgess hopes to be involved in the remaining tournaments on the IRB circuit in the United States, China and the Netherlands.
Long-term, her goal is to stay within the 30-strong national training squad that will move to a high performance squad next year looking ahead to Rio in 2016.
"There is also the [sevens] World Cup in Moscow next year, while Rio is the big picture, although there is a long way to go before then," she said.
At the moment she is not finding her training regime, which includes three gym and conditioning sessions a week, as well as aerobic training and skills sessions, too difficult to juggle with her professional life.
Just how far her fitness levels have progressed will be tested next week when she goes into a week-long camp with the squad at Mt Maunganui where the men's squad will also be preparing under the watchful eye of veteran national coach Gordon Tietjens.
- © Fairfax NZ News
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