Three weeks ago Anna Richards was expecting to watch the latest
generation of Black Ferns attempting to win a fourth successive
Women's Rugby World Cup title on television from back home in
However, the veteran fly half will instead be wearing the famous jersey and lining up in the starting line up to face South Africa in New Zealand's Pool A match at Surrey Sports Park in Guildford, England, on Friday.
Richards initially missed out on selection for the New Zealand squad, but when Amiria Rule was forced out after running out of time to recover from a knee reconstruction, the call went out for the most capped player in Black Ferns' history.
"I didn't expect to be playing, not after I was dropped from the team, but it's a great surprise and I'm very happy to be here," explained Richards, who will be playing her 45th international since her debut against Australia in 1990.
"I was really lucky to be able to go to those 6am trainings, twice a week, and nasty sessions on a Monday night! I never retired, I was just skulking away in the background and lucky enough to get a chance."
This will be the fifth Women's Rugby World Cup for Richards and New Zealand, the fly half being one of only two players in action over the next two weeks in Guildford who played in the inaugural tournament back in 1991 in Cardiff.
Missing a medal
The other is Sweden's Jennie Öhman and for Richards, the fact that the 12 teams involved in Women's Rugby World Cup 2010 are housed in a 'village' within the Surrey Sports Park brings back fond memories of that inaugural tournament.
"It reminds me of 1991 because we were in a university campus in Cardiff, and it was really cool. You'd get to see a few of the other teams and catch up a lot of the players," recalled Richards.
"Spain [in 2002] was hard, we were all spread out all over the place and we didn't see anybody and we actually saw very few of the games, so it'll be quite nice to actually see some teams play, catch up with other people and soak up the atmosphere."
Richards has played a prominent role in New Zealand's dominance of Women's Rugby over the last 12 years and already has three WRWC winners' medals to her name, but that doesn't mean she isn't hungry for more success come 5 September.
"My Mum stole one of my medals so maybe I need to replace that!" joked Richards.
"All squads are different and they're kind of the same. We've got some great talents, some good old heads, hard trainers and I do think we have the potential to win. I don't think it's going to be easy, but we have the potential.
"We can't say we've had a smooth road in our build up with the loss of the NPC and funding. We've only had seven games since the last World Cup so you can't say we've really played a lot together, which is one of our big hindrances.
"So I think people aren't thinking we should win, they look at our build up and I think some people feel a bit sorry for us!"
New Zealand have only ever lost three of their 49 international matches, the most recent a 10-3 loss to England at Twickenham last November, and Richards admits defeats can be a positive.
"Given that we don't have a lot of Test matches and we haven't lost that many it's always a good wake-up call [to lose], and it does make you refocus and work a lot harder - and it makes you not expect to always win, which I think is very good."
"Before 1998 we were in the wilderness back then as well, we hadn't seen very many Test matches and you just have to remain intense with what you do back home and you've got to work with what you've got. It's not the situation it's how you react to it."
The selection of Richards, a few months shy of her 46th birthday, as the replacement for key player Rule may have surprised a few, but her value to the team is not lost on captain Melissa Ruscoe.
Age no barrier
"Anna's great, she's got that leadership ability and skill so for some of our younger ones it's great because they can feed off her and use it as confidence as well," explained Ruscoe.
"She would probably admit that she's a little but off the pace, but you can't take away the skill and make a pass and put a player in the hole. No matter how fast you are or how old you are, if you've still got that skilled ability it's going to make a difference and we will definitely be using that.
"The backlines are going to be firing, it's really exciting just at training to see the backs run. From a forwards perspective I like standing up and seeing them crossing the line for sure!"
First up for the defending champions is South Africa, a side that are unrecognisable from that which made their Women's Rugby World Cup debut four years ago in Canada and suffered five heavy defeats.
"I think they'll be really good," admitted Richards, who played for the Black Ferns with the mother of one of her teammates Huriana Manuel. "I played them a couple of years ago with the Nomads and they were very physical, had good speed and some really good skills.
"I think they just needed to learn the game a little bit more and I think that's what they've done the last couple of years. They came away with a great series win against Scotland [in June], so I'm expecting a really good game."
Watch Anna Richards and New Zealand take on South Africa LIVE on RWCWOMENS.COM on Friday from 16:15 local time (03:15 Saturday NZL; 17:15 Friday RSA).
For those in the UK and Ireland, the match will be streamed live on host broadcaster Sky Sports website and available on demand on the official WRWC 2010 website 24 hours later.
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