Multi-code star winning Kiwi and Samoan hearts
Sui Pauaraisa is "blessed" to play for two countries in two sporting codes. Now her goal is to get more Samoan girls playing rugby. Taylor Curtis reports.
Imagine standing out on the wing on a rugby field, with space as far as the eye can see, and all you need is to receive a quick ball from the player inside you to score an almost certain try.
Except that player with the ball is none other than Masuisuimatamaalii Pauaraisa - the female version of All Black Ardie Savea, and a legend in her own right.
The real task here is not in pronouncing the name she inherited from a high chief’s daughter (or taupou) from the Samoan island of Manu’a - but instead managing to get the strong ball runner to flick you the offload.
Your safest bet is to simply let Pauaraisa unleash.
It’s been a momentous year for 31-year-old Pauaraisa (best known as Sui), as her beast-like skills and hard work caught the attention of top-level coaches in two codes, and landed her the opportunity to represent two countries.
She played rugby for Samoa, and league in New Zealand’s first women’s NRL team.
“It’s a privilege and an honor to represent two different countries in two different codes. I must say it’s a blessing, but behind it all it is the hard work that’s been put in,” says Pauaraisa, from her home in Christchurch.
“I knew I wasn’t able to get into the Black Ferns jersey, due to playing for my country [Samoa], but luckily I got the chance to represent league and found myself in that black jersey. It means the world to me.”
Although she may have cancelled out her eligibility to represent the Black Ferns, she believes she’s been given a greater opportunity in captaining Manu Sina, the Samoan women’s rugby side.
“Playing for Samoa is everything to me. The culture we have is unreal – it’s very similar to a tight sisterhood on and off the field,” Pauaraisa says.
Last month, she led Manu Sina in the Oceania 15s championship in Fiji. The team only came together three days before the tournament, but still managed to make the final, where they lost to the host nation.
“Regardless of the results, we came away with a successful campaign and won the hearts of our Samoa. Hopefully this will push our people to support our women in rugby and fight for equality in the game,” says Pauaraisa, who has also captained the Manu Sina sevens side.
Pauaraisa’s desire to grow the game in Samoa stems from her upbringing there, and is inspired by the growth women’s rugby has had in New Zealand.
“I grew up in Samoa and moved to New Zealand at the age of 13. Rugby wasn’t a big thing back in school, although we did have a team and played locally against other primary schools,” she says.
“But Samoan parents were always against [girls playing] rugby, as it was always a men’s sport, not for us women. I’ve always loved playing contact sports so I used to sneak out and play alongside the boys.
“I am forever grateful for the opportunity that’s available here in New Zealand. I’ve grown my skills and knowledge of the game, and I intend to help grow the game back home in Samoa. That’s where my heart is at, as they lack support for girls.”
As if conquering one code wasn’t enough, Pauraisa decided to give league ago. It turned out she’s a natural.
After taking and making the big upfront tackles for over three years, she made the Warriors team for the first Women’s NRL competition this year.
“This is only my third year of league and it’s a dream come true. Being the first ever player from the South Island to be in the Warriors women’s team is unreal,” she says.
“It’s such a massive pathway for our women in league and hopefully I’ve paved the way for our players in the Canterbury region.”
Pauaraisa caught the eye of Warriors coach Luisa Avaiki for her fitness, strength and speed, combined with a great work ethic and motivation – especially with Pauaraisa in Christchurch, and the team based in Auckland.
After making the Kiwi Ferns squad for the first time this year, she made her test debut for the Ferns against the Jillaroos at Mt Smart Stadium in October.
Her 10-year-old daughter is now playing league at her mum’s Linwood Keas club. “It’s a massive pathway for her, and who I strive to inspire,” she says.
Not only is Pauaraisa an elite athlete in two sports, but she’s also a mother of two girls – Pine and Paia - and she works as a clinical administrator with the Canterbury District Health Board.
Although the number of semi-professional contracts in league and rugby are slowly growing, many female athletes still need to hold down other jobs. For some, it might be hard to divide responsibilities. But not Pauaraisa.
“My job as an administrator involves a lot of confidential information that you can’t take home. It’s a system that drives you crazy and freezes your brain most of the time, but training is one of my energy boosts that switches me on straight after work,” she says.
“But my special energy boost is the hugs and the kisses from my babies.”
This multi-talented athlete finds time to train around her family, work and community commitments because of the strong supportive system she’s built around her.
“I wish I was contracted full-time for either one of the sports to help pay the bills. It’s very difficult, but I am blessed with an amazing supportive husband who takes so much time in looking after our girls,” says Pauaraisa, who was based in Auckland during the Women’s NRL season.
“It’s not only his support, but support from both our families, friends and our parents, who would take the girls with open arms when I’m away.
“At the end of the day, you have to work to pay the bills and to feed the kids. You must have a ‘can do’ attitude and the right mindset in everything you do.”
One day, Pauaraisa may need to choose between rugby or league, but for now she’s determined to train for both until they clash.
When it comes to switching between codes, and the non-stop strenuous training, she says it all comes down to the “extra one percent” she puts in beyond the mandatory training regime.
Pauaraisa may be a beast on the field - and there’s no doubt you’d give a sigh of relief that she’s on your team, and not the opposition. But this beast has a heart of gold and her team-mates say she’s someone you would want to follow into battle every time.
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