The mighty Hohepa sisters reunite
Black Ferns 'Sevens Sisters' by birth, Carla and Chyna Hohepa are back on the same side again, hoping to do their home province proud - in the same red, gold and black hoops their parents once wore.
It was in Dubai almost a decade ago that Carla and Chyna Hohepa first ran on to the rugby field together wearing the silver fern.
After just a handful of appearances side-by-side since that memorable moment in 2012, playing sevens for the Black Ferns, the sisters are back in the same team again for this season’s Farah Palmer Cup. And Chyna, the younger of the siblings, is leading from the front as Waikato’s vice-captain.
Chyna, who’s 30, has stamped her mark in the Waikato jersey, while Carla, 35, has played most of her rugby career in Otago. She made Dunedin her home while she studied for her conjoint degree in education and sport.
“I respect her hugely,” Carla says of Chyna. “I’d say she’s a way better rugby player than me so having her as vice-captain is pretty cool - even with me being the older sister. She definitely deserves the VC cap on her shoulders, and I can’t wait to be out on the field with her again.”
It means a lot to the Te Awamutu sisters, too, to be turning out for the province which both of their parents – Debbie and Selwyn – also played rugby for.
Waikato started the FPC season in the best way, notching up an 18-5 win over the Northland Kauri last weekend; Chyna playing at lock and Carla, who's usually on the wing, sitting it out. This weekend they take on Taranaki at home as part of a double-header with the Mitre 10 men.
My question of whether it’s a goal for the pair to make the Black Ferns for next year’s home Rugby World Cup is met with some sideways stares and smiles through our screens as we speak over Zoom.
“We’re real funny with goals; we’re more like just ‘get out there and do it and if it happens, it happens’. But I guess in the back of our mind you always want to hit the pinnacle of your sport,” says Carla, who’s already won world titles in both the sevens and 15s game.
The thought of playing together in the black jersey at a Rugby World Cup, though, is “unreal”.
“If I’m still lucky enough to be around in the Black Ferns jersey next year, I’ll be ecstatic to finish a career on home soil,” Carla says. “But to have my sister in the team with me, that would be the ultimate. So I hope she strives to make a spot in that team because it would be pretty epic. But for now, we’re just going to take one step at a time, one year at a time.”
With the eight Black Ferns tests that were planned for this year now cancelled, the sisters know a good step forward is performing well in the FPC. After Waikato’s lone win last season, focusing on rebuilding their provincial team is a priority.
“When we came together for the first time this year, we just wanted to talk about how culture and environment is really important. And we set our standards from day one,” says Chyna, who last year took out Waikato’s female club player of the year and the Manatiaki Award, presented to the player who best personifies the team’s values.
“Everyone is on board and it’s really created that whānau feel. We’re reigniting the flame and bringing back what we've always had. Everyone is supportive and we’re really happy with how things are moving forward.”
The team are focused on building an environment where the result is secondary to the aim of leaving your best performance on the field.
“As long as everyone is happy with striving for the best then whatever happens, happens,” says Carla. “Success is coming out the end of the season with great memories, great friendships and hopefully that number one title to top it all off. Because we’re definitely not here to participate. We’re here to win.”
Wearing the Waikato jersey holds great sentimental value for the Hohepa sisters; knowing they’re following in their parents’ footsteps is “pretty cool” they agree.
“Every time we walk into training at the Waikato gym at FMG [Stadium] and see our dad’s name up on the wall as an old player, it's pretty cool to think that now his daughters are playing here too,” says Carla. “To know Dad and Mum once ran out on that field and now we’re doing it is special.
“Our family is pretty hearty when it comes to rugby and the Waikato team, so I think having us both on the field this year will probably bring out all the aunties and uncles from all over the area.”
Chyna laughs and adds: “Yeah they’re always like ‘I remember back in our day, watching your parents on this field’.”
With the help of local players and supporters, the Hohepa sisters also managed to form a women’s team at Kihikihi Rugby Club last year - the first time the club has fielded a women’s side since their mother played there.
Chyna began playing for Waikato in 2012 - that same year she made her New Zealand sevens debut alongside Carla in the world series event in Dubai. When she isn’t playing rugby, Chyna works as a dental assistant in Te Awamutu and raises her seven-year-old daughter, Aria.
She also captained the Waikato women's sevens squad last year and has represented New Zealand in touch - also with Carla.
Carla splits her time between Fukuoka, Japan, and Te Awamutu every year with her two sons and husband, Karne Hesketh, who plays professional rugby for Japan and the Fukuoka Sanix Blues.
She has an impressive rugby resumé, having been in two winning World Cup sides - in 2010 and 2017 - and world series sevens champion teams from 2013 to 2015. Carla was also named New Zealand's women's player of the year and IRB women's personality of the year in 2010, after scoring the only try in a tight World Cup final, beating England 13-10 at Twickenham.
The love of rugby and the need to bring young players through motivates the Hohepas to keep playing.
“We love the friendships, the camaraderie and the challenges,” says Carla. “Putting your body through some pretty intense things and at the end of it having success with teammates is probably what keeps me going. I just love it.”
Chyna adds: “And I've loved to inspire others. I love having new players come in and making sure they feel comfortable. And by the end of the season, if they don’t want to leave and they’ve loved their experience, that’s what gets me going.
“Once I've done my job there, I get to move on and push myself further. And striving for my daughter who is constantly with me at training and games. We just love the game.”
Weaving the experienced players with newcomers is about treating everyone the same, Chyna explains.
“We have those who have been up there [in Black Ferns] and are still up there and we use that to our advantage to teach the new coming in,” she says. “Getting our representative players to share their experiences to guide us and take us with them, brings it together.
“I think the most important thing is that we are all there together, on the same level and we’re taking that step up the ladder together and performing as a whānau.”
Carla says the young girls are confident and are also a source of inspiration. It works both ways.
“It’s quite inspiring to see their enthusiasm and the want to learn. I think all over the nation, it's not just the Black Ferns coming in and making their mark, it's also these young girls - they're all fighting and wanting to wear that black jersey one day. So it's quite a cool dynamic to have in our team this year.”
So, how would the sisters describe each other’s playing style and personality?
With no hesitation, Chyna laughs and says: “Carla is the serious one. She can’t play for ‘funsies’. It’s always competitive.
“But her skill is a whole new level compared to me. She can anticipate anything that is going to happen and read the play under so much pressure. What she can create on the field after coming back from some pretty big injuries is just outstanding."
Carla's injury list is impressive: she's come back from two ACL tears and an Achilles rupture, a broken wrist, and she's now returning from a torn meniscus.
“She works really hard and I think she's just someone who inspires me to push even harder because the commitment she puts in with having two boys and her husband overseas sometimes, is just really inspiring. She's an amazing athlete on and off the field.”
Carla admits she is very competitive and says Chyna is like a “brick wall.”
“I don’t know if you can say ‘mongrel’, but she is strong and fierce. She's competitive in her own way and has a great presence for the size that she is. She's probably one of the biggest hitters,” Carla says.
“She's not shy, she doesn't run away from anything. She's straight up front on the field. She’s an amazing rugby player and she does it for everyone else around her - making sure everyone on the field is taken care of first.”
These small-town sisters will be able to support each other – and their region – this season. And if they concentrate on making the small steps, they may suit up together in the black jerseys with the silver fern next year, when – hopefully – the rest of the rugby world makes its way to New Zealand for the World Cup.
* The Waikato v Taranaki game at 11.30am on Saturday will be shown live on Sky Sport 1. Two other FPC games will be live in Round 2: North Harbour v Bay of Plenty, today 4.30pm, and Northland v Auckland, Sunday 11.30am.