Saving Grace: netballer finds joy in rugby sevens

Too fixated on wanting to be a Silver Fern, Mystics netballer Grace Kukutai has now found a new happiness playing rugby sevens. She speaks to Ashley Stanley from lockdown in Japan. 

Sitting in her tiny apartment in the Japanese city of Yokkaichi, Grace Kukutai saw a highlight from a year ago pop up on her Facebook page.

It was a #NEXTGEN video of the then 22-year-old talking about living her dream - playing netball for the Northern Mystics in the 2019 ANZ Premiership.

When Kukutai featured in that series showcasing promising netball talent, she was doing what she loved. But a lot can change in 12 months.

The midcourter who’d reached New Zealand U21 status had experienced a rough couple of years emotionally and mentally, and was starting to lose her passion for playing the game she grew up with.

So, she made a bold move and pivoted into a new sport with an oval ball - rugby sevens.

“I lost perspective and the love of netball because I was too busy chasing goals,” she says. “And because I’ve struggled with depression and anorexia in the past, for me now it’s just about being happy.

“And sevens is making me happy.”

Up until now, Kukutai’s main reasons for crossing codes have not been shared. Her transition certainly turned heads after she won the MVP at the Red Bull Ignite7 tournament in January, but she’s found a new sense of self during isolation - 9000km away from the comfort of her west Auckland home.

“I feel like I'm in a really good place to talk about why I made the switch. If someone reads my story and realises they’re not the only one struggling mentally, then I’m all for that,” says Kukutai, who describes herself as a perfectionist.

“Always striving for perfection can be really stressful. You pick everything apart and think about what you could do better.

“For me, the thoughts in my head are more negative than positive, so this time in Japan has been good for training my mind to have a positive outlook on life.”

Overcoming obstacles and getting into a bright state of mind has come with maturity, time and people.

People like Kukutai’s Auckland Rugby sevens coaches, Crystal and Brent Kaua. The couple also coach the Mie Pearls in Japan’s Women's Sevens Series.

After her first season playing sevens for Auckland late last year, the pair asked Kukutai to join them in Japan. Wanting to absorb as much knowledge in her new sport, Kukutai took a punt and moved to train full-time in a professional environment.

“They’re great coaches but they actually care about you as a person first. They're willing to have tough conversations which helps with my mental state,” she says. “And that means I can play better and just be a better human overall.”

The Mie Pearls’ schedule included a 12-week pre-season followed by four major tournaments. But as the Covid-19 cases ramped up in Japan last month, Kukutai and her teammates were told their 2020 season was cancelled.

Even before the official announcement, the team had already been self-isolating and Kukutai - who's completing a Bachelor of Arts majoring in criminology, with a minor in Māori development while in Japan - was well underway with her mental training.

The Kauas suggested she join a Facebook group called TalkingPerformance. It’s run by David Galbraith - a renowned clinical psychologist who works with high performing sports teams’ including New Zealand men’s and women’s sevens teams - and New Zealand Golf head coach, Jay Carter.

“He [Galbraith] talks about everyone having to enjoy the cake before they can enjoy the icing - you have to be happy with the process before you get the outcome,” says Kukutai. 

“A lot of people are outcome driven, like I am. I want to be the best and I love to win, but I often forget to enjoy the cake by itself.”

Putting that into practice looks like working on her daily routine to create habits that will help in the long run.

“I get up at 6:30am and go for a walk and listen to music. It helps clear my head and straight away, my day starts off positively,” says Kukutai, who's of Tainui and Ngāpuhi descent.

She also left behind a lawnmowing business in Auckland she set up with her partner, North Harbour rugby winger Tomas Aoake.

“He's been through it all with me. We've been together for six years and I’m lucky to have him,” she says.

While there is no rugby being played, Aoake continues mowing lawns back at home, but jokingly reminds Kukutai, who looks after the books from Japan, that it’s not his full-time job.  Kukutai will head home in the next couple of weeks.

Asked if she’ll ever make a comeback to netball, Kukutai says she’s not sure. All she knows is that she’s a different person, and player, and loving the challenge of sevens right now.

Kukutai admits she never really enjoyed the “little moments” along the way in netball because she was fixated on her ultimate goal of becoming a Silver Fern.

She’d played for the national secondary schools and U21 sides, made her ANZ Premiership debut in 2017 with the Magic, and joined the Mystics as a training partner in 2018.

“I definitely took my years playing netball for granted. I wouldn't practise the small skills, like passing, that much. I would do it at training, but I would never do it in my own time,” she says.

“I wasn't perfect at netball but I thought I was good enough. Whereas in sevens, I'm starting from the bottom and I want to be one of the best, so I’ve had to put in the extra work.”

So, is the Tokyo 2021 Olympics a goal?

“Yeah, it’s funny because I never thought about it before - 2024 was my goal. But now that it’s been pushed back, you never know. Anything can happen, good or bad,” she admits.

“Even if I don't make it, I'll still be happy because I now know the journey is the best part.”

Kukutai has gone further in sevens in the short amount of time she’s been in the sport than she did in netball, says Kukutai. As the Ignite7 MVP, she won a spot at the national sevens development camp, before she headed offshore.

“I remember taking a photo at the trial camp when we got our kit for the game, sending it to my parents and just being like ‘This is crazy’.”

“It felt so surreal, but it was the coolest feeling. It makes me emotional just thinking about it.  At that point it definitely made me think ‘This is what I want, I want to go all in’.”

Representing New Zealand has been a dream for Kukutai since she was a child. She always thought it would be as a Silver Fern, but a Black Fern sevens jersey is just as appealing.

“I just visualise myself singing the national anthem with my parents in the crowd,” she says. “I’m not sure what it looks like in New Zealand with the coronavirus, but if any opportunity does come up, then I’ll be ready because I’m in the best shape of my life.”

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