The rugby Princess kicking up a storm

Princess Elliot's family moved from small-town Kawerau to the big smoke, so the young teen could make her name in netball. But now she's bewitched by rugby, with the very real dream of becoming a Black Fern Sevens star.

Remember this name: Angel Praise Princess Elliot. Or simply, Princess.

Given her name by parents who saw her as a gift from heaven, Princess Elliot looks to also have been blessed with celestial talents on the sports field.

The 18-year-old, whose family moved from Kawerau so she could play elite school netball in Auckland, has now changed direction to become one of the most promising young rugby players in the country.

Her childhood dream to become “a Silver Fern, a doctor and a singer” has changed to becoming a Black Ferns Sevens star.

It’s all happened in a flash for the young speedster – who played her first game of sevens last year, and her first rugby 15s match this year. 

And she didn’t debut with just any team – the Mt Albert Grammar School student has become a regular on the wing for the Auckland Storm in the Farah Palmer Cup premiership, and this weekend will play in the final against defending champs Canterbury.

She scored two tries for the Storm in last weekend’s 43-24 semi-final victory over the Wellington Pride, “but that was to make up for the balls I dropped”, she laughs.

Initially, Elliot didn’t want to play 15s rugby, “because there’s not enough space on the field,” she says. “But Mum said ‘just give it a shot, see what happens’.”

She’s glad she listened.

It has meant devoting almost all of her time out of school to rugby; some days rising at 4.30am to get to strength and conditioning training at Eden Park. But she knows it’s been worth it.

One of her coaches, Black Ferns great Anna Richards, says Elliot is still learning - and “improving out of sight” - but she can see her playing in a black jersey in the future.

Elliot has been dubbed the next Portia Woodman, for her scorching pace and strength, and the ability to scythe through any gap, accelerate and score.  

Woodman, who holds the record for world series sevens tries, was also a rising netball star with her sights set on the Silver Ferns, before switching to rugby. As a girl, she too left behind a small-town community, in Kaikohe, to come to Auckland.

Elliot sees Woodman as her role model: “I really like her determination to cross the tryline.”

But the teenager admits she struggled with her move to the city.

Elliot loved growing up in the Bay of Plenty town of Kawerau, where her parents ran an after-school care programme. She played touch in the backyard with her friends, but netball was her first love.

“My mum never wanted me to play rugby, she doesn’t like me playing contact sport,” Elliot says.

Watching the Mt Albert Grammar premier netball team on TV during their four-year run as national schools champions, she told her mum: “I want to be in that team one day”.

So she played her way into the school’s netball academy in Year 9, and she, her parents and younger sister Lavina packed up and moved to Auckland.

“It wasn’t an easy transition. Going from a school of 200 kids to a huge school like MAGS was so hard. On my first day I cried because there were so many people, so many buildings,” the now Year 13 student says.

“It took me three years to settle.”

She realises now how much it’s meant to her family that she stuck with it. “My parents sacrificed everything to move to Auckland so I could have this chance.”

Her father still drives down to Kawerau each week to run their after-school care business, and returns to Auckland on the weekends to watch his daughter play.

Elliot picked up touch at school “as a hobby” and in her first year made the New Zealand U16 development team. “I wasn’t even trying to,” she laughs. “Then one of my coaches said he could see me in the Touch Blacks one day, so I just carried on for fun. And it happened - quicker than I thought, too.”

Earlier this year, Elliot played in the New Zealand open women’s team at the world touch championships in Kuala Lumpur. The Touch Blacks won the silver medal, losing to Australia in the final. She was the youngest player in the side and the top scorer – with 20 touchdowns.

She also played in the inaugural Warriors NRL women's touch team in May.

Princess Elliot has scored six tries in this year's Farah Palmer Cup in her rugby 15s debut. Photo: Getty Images. 

Recognising that her speed and strength could be transferred to the sevens game, Elliot was chosen for last year’s Red Bull Ignite7 tournament – the hunt for the next generation of Black Ferns and All Blacks sevens superstars.

Elliot was the highest try-scorer of the tournament. And she knew straight away this was the sport she really wanted to stamp her mark on.  

“When I first played sevens, I just felt free,” she says. “Usually on a netball court, I felt stressed or frustrated. But this time I felt different, and I just knew.”

It was at the Ignite7s that Elliot first met Richards, who was coaching her Bolt team.  

“I remember seeing her and thinking, OMG she’s going to be amazing,” says Richards, the winner of four World Cup titles, and the assistant coach of the Auckland Storm.

“She’s a very talented girl. She came back on my radar when I got the job with Auckland Rugby. I told her there weren’t enough sevens games and she needed to play 15s. She’s done amazingly well with us – she improves with every game.

“Princess really wants to succeed - she asks a lot of questions and she works hard on the little things. But sometimes she works too hard, and I have to rein her back in.

“I think she has all the attributes to play for the Black Ferns – she’s definitely on the radar of the sevens and 15s coaches. But she needs to be patient and learn a little bit more.”

Richards believes the group of young players brought into the Storm this season has helped their incredible turnaround – from finishing last in 2018 to this season’s finalists. Players like Elliot, opposite wing Isla Norman-Bell, and 16-year-old first five Patricia Maliepo.

“After the train-wreck of last year, it’s cool,” Richards says. “Their season has really been about restoring the mana and playing positive rugby. I’m really proud of what we have achieved, but it’s not over yet.”

Elliot says Richards has become “like a best friend” - who’s taught her how to tackle this season - and says she’s thrived in the Storm environment. “I like working with adults rather than girls my age, because my expectations are real high,” she says.

“Everyone’s attitudes and standards are so different. Everyone turns up to training 20 minutes early. And now I’m able to see the bigger picture. It’s more about team than me.”

Elliot has just been named again in this year’s Ignite7s, to be played next month, where she will be vying for a place in the NZ sevens development camps in 2020.

“My main goal is to get a contract for the Black Ferns Sevens. Then everything else is a bonus,” she says.

Princess Elliot is one of 12 recipients of the 2019 Tania Dalton Foundation scholarships. Photo: Tania Dalton Foundation.

With the name Princess, Elliot will be hard to forget. She explains the special meaning behind her given name.  

“My mum had a son, who passed away when he was five with asthma. She never thought she would have another baby. So they called me ‘Angel’, because they thought I was an angel from God. Then ‘Praise’ because we are strong in the church. And then ‘Princess’ because I was my dad’s little princess,” she says.

“They call me Angel, sometimes - when I’m in trouble.”

Like her Storm team-mate Norman-Bell, Elliot is one of this year’s scholarship recipients from the Tania Dalton Foundation, which helps support promising young sportswomen.

“I was real nervous at first because I didn’t know what I was getting myself into. But then I knew what they had to offer, and what I had to give back,” she says.  

“I wouldn’t be able to play in the Farah Palmer Cup, or go to Kuala Lumpur, or fulfill my childhood dreams without them,” she says. “It’s like having another family who are there to help me.”

And, as for giving back, Elliot has one goal: to be a role model to the kids back at home in Kawerau.

“Someone who they can look up to and say, ‘If she can do it, I can do it too’. That’s all I want.”

* The Farah Palmer Cup final between Auckland and Canterbury will screen live on Sky Sport 1 on Saturday at midday.

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