Ella Donald has been playing touch since she was a Year Five pupil at Havelock School. Photo: Peter Jones.

Ella steps into premier touch ranks

Ella Donald makes no secret of the fact that she has her sights set on a coveted Touch Blacks singlet and, given her rapid progress in the sport, it may not be too long until she is wearing one.

The 18-year-old Marlborough Girls’ College student, who trialled for the New Zealand under-20 mixed team at the weekend, has been chosen by Touch NZ to take part in a newly-established nationwide premier competition, which kicks off in mid-October.

In the Premier Touch League Ella will represent the Te Waipounamu (South Island) open women’s team against three other sides chosen from throughout the North Island.

She will be given an opportunity to rub shoulders with many of the country’s top touch exponents during the four tournaments, in Christchurch and Auckland, that will constitute the new competition.

“I’m really excited to be involved in something new and fresh like this,” said Ella.

“There are a lot of Touch Blacks announced in [the new league] so it will be a great chance for me to learn and improve my game.”

She admits to being slightly nervous about the premier league step-up but has met her new team-mates at a couple of recent training camps and expects the team to come together quickly.

With increased scrutiny on the impact of head injuries in rugby, touch is becoming a viable option for those wanting lesser contact.

“[Touch] is still physical, it’s just not rugby-physical,” she said. “When you are in the ruck you still have to be physical … when you are playing mixed especially, the boys give you a good old push.”

Being diminutive in stature, Ella has had to find ways of combatting the bigger opponents. “It’s all about body position, and the ability to change the way they are dumping the ball, which slows the play down. When you are not so big there are other techniques you can use,” she explained.

In top level touch the six players are generally separated into middles, links and wingers. In a mixed team, girls are usually found on the wings with one female link player, a role Ella traditionally fills and prefers.

She credits Todd Nicholas, a New Zealand masters rep from Marlborough, with helping her hone her touch skills.

“He has helped a lot with my training and fitness, he’s got great knowledge.”

Although Ella confesses that touch is her favourite sporting past time she is no slouch at several other codes, being part of the MGC senior A netball team and the local champion women’s basketball side, while also excelling at athletics.

She had played touch since her Year 5 days at Havelock School, rising up the ranks to represent both Marlborough and Tasman through the various age group levels, then gaining her first national honours as part of the NZ under-16 mixed development side which played in Australia during 2017.

Now she is chasing a place in the under-20 mixed side that will tour Australia in mid-January, having attended a couple of Auckland training camps alongside MBC student Keelan Murrell.

“I’d like to be a Touch Black one day, so hopefully if I make the 20s team I can carry myself up to the top level.”

Although touch can appear as a relatively simple game to the uninitiated, Ella says there is much more to it. She relishes the speed of play, the constant movement and structure on both attack and defence, plus the tactical side and the fact all the players on the field are regularly involved.

“To be a good touch player you need a good heart,” she explained.

“Apart from being physically fit and strong you need good communication skills and must be a good team player. You can’t be an individual in touch, otherwise they are just going to shut you down on defence.

“You’ve also got to be quick on your feet, agile and fast off the mark … be able to handle the ball well and pass well off both hands. Good tactical awareness and the ability to read the game is important, plus the mental toughness and determination to keep going for that touch and to turn the ball over.”

While she is describing the general attributes required to be a good touch player, Ella could well be outlining her own skill set, a combination that pushed her into the top echelon of the sport in New Zealand.

Touch trio beat heat to bag bronze in KL

Beating the heat was tough enough, let alone the world-class opposition, but the trio of Marlborough players at the 2019 Touch World Cup in Kuala Lumpur did both to bring home a bronze medal.

Josh Harrison, plus the husband-and-wife duo of Todd Nicholas and Katie Bradley, were part of the New Zealand Mixed 30 grade team who tipped over England in a third/fourth place play-off to bag bronze.

Playing two games a day in the draining heat, with the mercury hovering around 45 degrees and occasionally rising to 52, was a big ask for those not used to such conditions.

When the temperature topped 45 the games were played in quarters, with more breaks for hydration of both players and referees. When it went over 50, play was halted.

Harrison said the heat was oppressive. “A few went down with heat stroke. It was often so hot you had to force yourself to eat regularly and hydrate.”

Despite battling unfamiliar conditions the Kiwi teams achieved plenty of success.

The NZ Mixed 30 crew were in an 11-team grade and won eight out of their 10 matches. They beat Chile 15-3 and Scotland 13-4 on opening day, downed Singapore 13-0 before losing to eventual champions Australia 11-4. They bounced back to down Ireland 10-6 and England 8-2 before suffering their second defeat, a 7-6 reversal to the Cook Islands. The quickly recovered to tip over France 10-2, South Africa 9-6 and UAE 12-3.

The United Arab Emirates game was notable as it reunited the Marlborough players with former team mate and friend Jeremy Manning, now resident in the UAE.

At the end of the game Manning, once a professional rugby player and Fijian sevens coach, joined with his team to present the NZ side with a plaque celebrating the UAE’s “Year of Tolerance”. As well as providing a memory of the occasion it was designed to show their support for New Zealand in the wake of the Christchurch mosque shootings and recognize this country’s tolerance for what happened.

“It was a good game and great to play against Jeremy,” explained Harrison. “We had a moment’s silence before the match to remember the Christchurch victims … they had six Kiwis in their team … and we did the haka after that.”

In the semifinals the Cook Islands repeated their win over New Zealand, winning 5-3, before the Kiwis clinched third by downing England 9-3.

Bradley scored 14 tries to top the Mixed 30 team’s scoring, and was named as the side’s female MVP, while Harrison dotted down 11 times and Nicholas three.

Overall the NZ contingent won three golds – the 50s men, the 40s men and the 27 women – while the three open teams, plus the 35 men and women and the 45 men, picked up silver medals.

The Aussies dominated most grades to win the overall World Cup, their cause helped by the recent introduction of the NRL touch competition, with semi-professional touch teams being aligned to NRL franchises.

Among the NZ Mixed 30 team’s opponents was former rugby league star Scott Prince, who played 300 NRL games and represented both Queensland and Australia.

“He’s fairly handy,” said Harrison with a smile, “he certainly gave us a couple of lessons.”

Overall he felt the tournament went without a hitch. “Malaysia was a great place to visit. We had ice baths, physios and masseurs, which we needed … “[the organisers] really looked after us.”