Black Fern takes game back to her Whanganui roots
World Cup-winning Black Fern hooker Sosoli Talawadua has returned home to Whanganui, where she's helping revive women's rugby with a brand new team.
The young girls in the new Whanganui Metro rugby team naturally look up to the Black Fern in their midst, Sosoli Talawadua.
But the World Cup winner and veteran rugby front rower shies away from the admiration.
“I've had a couple of messages from the girls saying they look up to me. But I try not to think of those things,” Talawadua says.
“I try to say: ‘I'm just one of you’. I'm just trying to play rugby and help out a little bit.”
The fact is, she’s helping out a lot. Talawadua is throwing all of her experience into reviving rugby in her hometown of Whanganui.
The eight-cap Black Fern hooker, who was part of the victorious 2017 Rugby World Cup side, has returned home from Hamilton and works part-time as the women’s and secondary schools’ rugby development officer for the Whanganui Rugby Union.
The union already had a goal to get a women's club up and running in the region. But when 31-year-old Talawadua started in her role last year, the new team - Whanganui Metro - came together much faster than expected.
And it helps that Talawadua, the player of the year for the Manawatū Cyclones last season, is lacing up her boots for the Metro side too.
Getting a team on the field hasn't been simple, but Talawadua says it's been helped by having a CEO who’s a huge advocate for the women’s game. Bridget Belsham became the first woman and youngest CEO of Whanganui Rugby in 2015, after switching over from administration roles in greyhound racing.
“Bridget’s been really pushing for this team to get off the ground,” Talawadua says. “It’s also been great for the girls to see women in other roles, not just as players.
“It shows there are other pathways and heaps of opportunities in rugby for them. Plus, she’s pretty fair across the board and also helps in every part of the game.”
Although they haven’t won a club game yet, the Metro team is improving each week.
“The girls don’t really care too much if they win or lose,” says Talawadua. “They were just really happy to get points on the board last week. As long as the girls are learning new skills then we’re pretty happy for now. We're just trying to make sure it’s a fun season for them.”
Having played school and representative grades growing up in Whanganui, Talawadua says she’s excited about being part of the women’s rugby revival in her hometown.
After six years living in Hamilton, the former Waikato captain decided to move back home with her husband, Isoa, and their young daughter, Marisela-Grace, who's now two.
“We decided it would be nice to have our daughter grow up around the grandparents and her cousins. Then this opportunity came up which was really amazing,” Talawadua says.
A Samoan-Kiwi who comes from a family of 12, Talawadua was back on the field three months after her daughter’s birth.
Leaving the region for university and more rugby opportunities is common in Whanganui, but rebuilding a club competition will hopefully provide more development pathways for women to stay and play.
“There was never really the next step - like a women’s team - for the girls to join once they finished school, so it’s pretty cool to have a team here now which makes me proud,” Talawadua says.
“And we’ve already had one young girl who’s been pulled into the wider squad for Manawatū, and that’s just one year into the competition.” Talawadua has been taking 18-year-old Montel Vaiao Aki across to Palmerston North with her for training.
Starting up a team is an ongoing process. This year they have a committed squad of 21 players in comparison to last year’s eight.
“It’s been a lot of time spent on the phone, messaging people and looking for players who showed some interest. We’re always open for new girls to come down,” says Talawadua.
“It's really cool because even though they don’t know anyone else, they’re still open to coming down and putting themselves outside their comfort zone, which is a big ask for them.”
They’ve even gained a team member who saw a training session while she was running on the track at Cooks Gardens. “She came over and asked ‘What are you playing? Can I join?’ And she's loving it,” says Talawadua.
For now, Whanganui Metro play in the Manawatū women’s club competition, for the Prue Christie Cup. But Talawadua would love to have a full club competition in Whanganui in the future.
“If we all stick together and come out of this season, and the girls are still fizzing for another year of rugby, then that will be success for us,” she says. “Then maybe in another two years or so, we could help set up another club team.”
Talawadua's life just got busier. She’s now back training for the Farah Palmer Cup with the Manawatū Cyclones – the team she vice-captained last season, alongside her captain, Black Fern and aspiring referee, Selica Winiata. This year they also have the services of Black Ferns Sevens captain, Sarah Hirini.
“The skills I have been learning with the Cyclones, I try to bring back to teach the Metro girls and they're loving it,” says Talawadua, who was the 2019 player of the year and most valuable forward for Manawatū.
The significance of hosting the Rugby World Cup in New Zealand next year is not lost on the experienced front rower – especially the thrill of having family and friends come to cheer on the Black Ferns. Talawadua had both her dad, Eddie Tofa, and husband at the last tournament in 2017 in Ireland.
Talawadua would love to be back in the Black Ferns squad again.
“It would be a big dream, but I'll get to the end of this season and see how we’re tracking. Because I know it takes a lot of hard work, especially with having a baby. I know there are exceptional athletes in there who do, and I look up to them,” she says.
Family support has been crucial for Talawadua, as motherhood brings another layer of consideration when trying to compete at a professional level.
“It is a big juggle especially now that I'm in Whanganui and I have to travel over to Palmerston North for Cyclones training. Sometimes if I don’t have anyone to watch bub, then hubby will come along and they hang out on the field or in the gym area until I’ve finished,” Talawadua says.
She knows when the Farah Palmer Cup season begins next month, the commitment will ramp up even more.
“There were a few weeks last year where I was travelling up to four to five times a week which is crazy. It's like having a part-time job just travelling. I could be an Uber driver,” she laughs.
At the moment, Cyclone sessions and Metro trainings take up four nights a week, leaving one night free for family time. Then there’s rugby on the weekends. And then repeat the next week.
“I was always sporty growing up and then I started playing rugby in high school and it became a passion. I play rugby, teach rugby, live rugby and watch rugby,” she says.
And because of that, it makes sense to have Talawadua leading the surge and inspiring the next generation of players, where it all started for her - at home in Whanganui.