The baritone helping young Eagles soar
Taka Vuni has an array of talents, including singing the national anthem at sports tests, and guiding an enthusiastic band of young women league players.
By day, Taka Vuni is a youth worker who also volunteers for a string of community organisations. By night, the classically trained baritone sings his deep rich notes with the Pacific quartet, The Shades.
And he also coaches a female rugby league team.
When a good mate called to ask for help earlier this year, to coach a team at the Ellerslie Eagles club in Auckland, the league fanatic was keen to be involved in the sport he grew up around and still loves.
“I came down and saw it was a girls under 14 team and straight away I thought ‘Man, this is pretty buzzy’,” says Vuni. This is his first year coaching a female sports team, alongside friends Ambrose Timo and Moe Fatialofa.
“When I was playing, some of the girls dominated in my grade. And now they’re playing rep footy and I can see the same here. They’re so skilled, they pick things up a lot faster and they are faster,” laughs Vuni.
The 25-year-old Tongan has taught, coached and mentored boys in secondary schools and through his voluntary work, but Vuni says he enjoys coaching the U14 Ellerslie Eagles girls because they are genuine and keen to learn.
“I think at the moment because league is a developing game for females at the under 14s level, they’re eager and that’s cool to see,” he says.
“And now with footy being an actual pathway for females, if we can be a little bit of a help to get them where they need to get, then that’s why we are here.”
It's a Friday afternoon during the school holidays, and despite the rain, Vuni is putting the enthusiastic young players through their training drills at the Ellerslie Eagle's home ground.
Kathleen Togiaheulu, a winger for the team, says she likes Vuni’s coaching because he gets the team to train hard.
“He works on our fitness, which is what we need, and he basically just gives us different skill sets to work on,” she says. “He also brings comedy and makes us work on opening up to the other girls.”
Watching Vuni interact with the team at training, his entertaining side comes through - laughter erupts among the girls as they’re completing a drill. But when it’s time to get back on track again, a calm and purposeful Vuni guides them.
They’ve had a solid start to their season with a win and a loss; last week they came away with a 64-0 win against Papakura, with only one substitute for the game.
Vuni stays connected with sport through coaching, but his chosen career in youth work and community commitments all stem from the same place - the belief in giving to others beyond his own family.
He says the field is a common choice for Pacific people to get into, as they are mainly dealing with people of similar backgrounds.
“More of our people are coming through there so we have that sense of understanding. And so we hold that responsibility to look after each other because we have that sense that we all belong to each other,” says Vuni.
As a specialist youth worker in Manurewa, Vuni says he got into youth work partly because of his involvement in running Edmund Rice camps. The camps provide a week-long experience for “kids that deserve a break.” There are two camps held in the January and July school holidays and Vuni says their main objective is to give the kids the best week they can offer.
“We build that rapport and we build that relationship, because we understand that it's all about making a difference and understanding that no matter who you are, your age, or colour, we all belong to each other.” Vuni has been running the camps with his partner, Sonya Masoe, for five years.
During lockdown, Vuni’s voluntary work with the St Vincent De Paul Society included distributing food hampers for families who needed them.
And if that wasn’t enough, he also teamed up with his local Snap Fitness gym to run a six-week challenge after restrictions were lifted, out of his home in Hillsborough to encourage friends to keep active.
What motivates Vuni to volunteer to help young girls and boys?
“I think it just ties back to what I saw growing up. My grandad housed people, my mum worked two jobs. I just knew that was to provide for more than just my family, so for me growing up, it was normal,” he says.
“I also went to St Peter’s College and the motto there is ‘To love and to serve’. I just feel like I embodied that growing up and I got it again at high school so it was a constant reminder that that’s just how we live, it's always about giving back,” says Vuni.
When he finished Year 13, Vuni stayed on to teach music at St Peter’s and then St Paul’s College for nearly five years.
Vuni started singing at church at a young age, but he never thought it would open up opportunities to travel and perform in front of international audiences.
Armed with scholarships from school, he was accepted into the classical music degree at the University of Auckland, where he met the other three members of The Shades - Ipu Laga'aia (tenor), Manase Latu (tenor) and Samson Setu (bass).
“The intake for classical music in voice is only around 10 every year… there are people all over New Zealand trying to get in,” Vuni says.
You may have heard the Shades at a big sports event. They’ve sung the national anthems at rugby internationals like the 2017 British and Irish Lions tour and last year’s Ikale Tahi Tonga v Fiji match at Eden Park.
They’ve also sung at international netball tests and farewelled the Silver Ferns with song before they headed off to victory in last year’s World Cup in Liverpool.
Now they are opening and closing the new Pacific Brothers sport show on Sky Sport 1 with their mix of classical singing and contemporary sounds.
“I think our goal is to see how far we can go, we would really like to go all over the world,” says Vuni.
While travelling the globe is on the cards, Vuni will continue to make a world of difference to people at home. Like the U14 Ellerslie Eagles.