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How Kiwi Ferns ‘sisterhood’ won a World Cup

WATCH:  Luisa Avaiki, one of the jewels in New Zealand's rugby league crown, reveals why winning the 2008 World Cup meant so much to her, and how she's now giving back to the game. 

Luisa Avaiki Tavesivesi cherishes the 2008 Rugby League World Cup for many special moments.

From wiping away tears - after her last address as captain to her Kiwi Ferns teammates - minutes before walking onto Suncorp Stadium to take on the Australian Jillaroos in the final.

To being victors and lifting the World Cup trophy before retiring from the international scene.

And achieving the emphatic win, alongside her front row partner and good friend, Vicki Letele, who has since passed away from cancer.

“I was fired up and did this real emotional speech and all the girls were hugging each other and crying,” recalls Avaiki Tavesivesi, in the Sky Sports Pod interview with Ravinder Hunia.

“We all came out of the changing room and the Australians were in the tunnel waiting for us. They looked confident and our girls were wiping their eyes.”

The speech and solid preparation obviously worked as the Kiwi Ferns kept the Jillaroos scoreless, winning 34-0.

“We were ruthless and relentless. We didn’t give them an inch and ended up having a really awesome result,” says Avaiki Tavesivesi, who also scored a try to top off the dominant performance.

“I got a little emotional on stage because I knew that was the last time I would be doing that. I was all good and happy about it. And I was proud of the girls, they did a haka for me too and that made me even more emotional.

“But when I think back at it, a really good friend of mine, who made the team for the first time, she’s no longer with us so that game means a lot more having Vicki Letele alongside me.”

 
 

That is the last time the New Zealand women’s team have tasted World Cup victory. Leading up to that moment, the Kiwi Ferns ruled the league world and Avaiki Tavesivesi had been in the thick of it since being named in the first national side in 1995. During her time, she experienced three World Cups, captained two, and played at the top level for over 10 years.

The general public would be forgiven for thinking the trans-Tasman rivalry with the Jillaroos was one-sided in favour of our neighbours, based on recent years. But that hasn’t always been the case - out of the 48 games the Kiwi Ferns have played, they’ve won 41 and their seven losses have been to Australia.

At the end of this year, Avaiki Tavesivesi will be acknowledged, along with all the women who have represented New Zealand during their 25-year history, with official ‘numbers’ on an honour roll.

“We will celebrate everyone in the women’s game. I think that’s a good way to finish off such a tough year,” says Avaiki Tavesivesi, who is also the head of the women’s portfolio at New Zealand Rugby League and is now assistant coach for the Kiwi Ferns.

Avaiki Tavesivesi is wanting to improve areas and grow the women’s game right across the board, not just at the high performance level.

“It’s not an easy job and it’s not an individual responsibility either. But it's something I know I can contribute to and I have to contribute to,” she says.

Capturing and sharing history is also important to the league legend.

“It's important for the future of our game because with the young players coming through, they need to understand and know the legacy of where they’ve come from,” Avaiki Tavesivesi says.

“And it's not for the fact that they just have to remember. It’s so they know there's a whole lot of support, there's a big group of women who have got their backs 100 percent even though they may have played 20 odd years ago.”

While Avaiki Tavesivesi was playing, the “sisterhood” was the Kiwi Ferns’ ingredient to success.

“That sisterhood, that unity, we had something beautiful and unique about our team. Because as a multicultural country, our team reflected that,”she says.

“We had a lot of differences, even putting aside personality differences, we had cultural differences as well. But when we came together, we loved that about each other… We had that mutual respect, and I think that was a really healthy environment for us to thrive in and move forward to play the best football we could for the team.”

Avaiki Tavesivesi didn’t waste any time in giving back to the game after retiring from the Kiwi Ferns in 2008. She continued to play for her club, Richmond in central Auckland, and transitioned into coaching.

“I coached age group boys and enjoyed my contribution to the game and club that way,” she says. She became a member of the New Zealand Order of Merit in 2019 for her services to rugby league.

Ten years after retiring from international grade, Avaiki Tavesivesi became the inaugural head coach of the Warriors women’s team in the NRLW for two seasons.

In the Sky Sports Pod interview, she also shares how she got into rugby league, the changes she’s seen over time, both as a player and coach, and NZRL’s recent announcement of a premier national competition and championship tournament, kicking off in October.

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