Commitment and sacrifice are basically pre-requisites to being an elite athlete in any sport.
It’s tough for anyone to fully buy into those ideas, but is surely a little easier to stomach when you have the golden carrot of potential fame and fortune dangling at the end of the tunnel.
Females who choose to play rugby league have never had that, and don’t look like getting it in the foreseeable future, which is what makes Teuila Fotu-Moala’s story all the more impressive.
“Even though there is no money behind what I do, I like the experience, but what keeps me motivated is just getting better,” Fotu-Moala says.
“I love playing league and I don’t like staying where I am.”
The 22-year-old Kiwi Fern has rearranged her life over the past two years in the name of achieving her goals on the rugby league field, doing so always in the knowledge that the rewards will only ever extend as far as her sport allows.
“Everything I do is based around what is best for my footy now,” she says.
“I left my previous job so I could get a job that is more suitable to my footy trainings, I get involved more with the community now and even my circle of friends are more based around what is best for me and my footy.
“And this has all happened in a space of a year and a half or so.
“My life now is pretty much to set up to cater for my footy, and I love it. I wouldn’t have it any other way.”
Cultural barriers have been another hurdle along the way.
“Before I made the Kiwi Ferns, when I would get home at about 9pm after trainings, my dad would be at home waiting to ask ‘where I had been? And what could I possibly be doing out at that time?'”
“In Tongan tradition it’s not feminine to be out of the house at night. You could pretty much say I’ve broken the rules of a traditional Tongan girl.
“It’s a bit cliché when I say this, but it’s been life changing since I’ve cracked the Ferns.”
“We had to make our own lunch to take to the Test match, we stayed in places where everyone was our roommate…because we all slept in a room where there were heaps of bunks.”
The women’s game is currently experiencing an aggressive period of growth, thanks largely to a big push from the NRL and inclusion as part of the NRL Auckland Nines.
Even in the two years since Fotu-Moala debuted things have changed drastically.
“When I was selected for my first game for the Kiwi Ferns in Wollongong in 2014, we had to dish out money from our own pockets to help pay for all our expenses,” she recalls.
“We had to make our own lunch to take to the Test match, we stayed in places where everyone was our roommate…because we all slept in a room where there were heaps of bunks.
“That’s team bonding on another level!”
More often than not fans can now catch Tests between the Kiwi Ferns and Jillaroos on live television or via a live stream online.
There is a greater awareness of what they are doing, and an increased appreciation for the product they deliver on the field.
As a result Fotu-Moala is slowly becoming a known sporting figure. She has made appearances on TVNZ’s The 4.30 Show, and now finds she is regularly recognised in the street by total strangers.
“I’ve been involved in events and opportunities I didn’t think I’d ever get involved with. Because of the exposure the Nines has given us, we’ve gained a lot of followers, fans, supporters, and love,” Fotu-Moala says.
“I definitely buzz out for a bit at how people react when they see me now, when they are wanting photos or autographs, I tell them it won’t be worth much [laughs].
“I get the stares in supermarkets too, like they don’t believe that I shop there…there was a time when I went to the Countdown in Mangere and I had this middle-aged couple just stand in the food aisle staring at me and watching me shop.
“I could hear them whispering and arguing about whether I’m the girl who plays for the Kiwi Ferns or not. I just carried on until I walked by again and they stopped, greeted me and wished me well on my day, which was uplifting.
“Things like that make me happy that I do what I do.
“When I’m at home too, if I’m just outside either doing my mum’s gardening or doing the BBQ and I have kids walk past and be like, ‘hey that’s the girl that plays rugby league!’.
“One day you’re doing your mum’s weeding, next day you’re in a packed out stadium playing in front of thousands of people…But even though your profile changes, it doesn’t necessarily mean you have to.”
“I guess now the title of the best female player in NZ is hanging over my head I’m reminded that I can’t stay complacent, I’ve got something to prove.”
In the last two years Fotu-Moala has claimed New Zealand’s two biggest individual awards for women’s rugby league – being named Auckland Rugby League Women’s Player of the Year in 2014, before winning the national equivalent for her achievements last year.
She wasn’t just firing off clichés earlier when she said she doesn’t like becoming content with previous achievements, and has set the ambitious goal of one day winning the NRL’s newly introduced Female Player of the Year, which is given out at the annual Dally M Awards night.
“I guess now the title of the best female player in NZ is hanging over my head I’m reminded that I can’t stay complacent, I’ve got something to prove,” she says.
“I need to show the panel as well as NZ that I got picked for a reason.”
— NZ Rugby League (@NZRL_Kiwis) February 3, 2016
Physically Fotu-Moala has never struggled to make her impact on the field, and through high school it often allowed her to dominate contests without having to fully commit.
“My mental strength has been the biggest thing I have improved in the last couples of year. When I first started I was completely unfit and it was all because of my mental game,” Fotu-Moala says.
“At high school I was good and I was never uncomfortable, I was always getting accolades and it came easy.
“But when I came to the Kiwi Ferns it was nothing but challenges, their fitness was better than mine and they were further developed.”
Her national coach Alan Jackson says the environment has also been the catalyst for her to develop into a leader, despite being one of the youngest members of the squad.
“She is turning into a leader now, and she is a leader by actions more than her words,” Jackson says.
“I don’t think she thinks of herself as a leader, but sometimes actions are louder than words and I guess that’s how she leads, with the efforts she puts in at training and in the games.
“That’s helped by the fact that she is a nice kid who people like to be around.
“She set her goal of making the Kiwi Ferns and had to change a few things around in her life to achieve it.
“It’s a huge commitment and that’s what I mean by her leadership; the girls know she has done that and made that sacrifice, and they respond to that.
“We rely on the girls being motivated and doing a lot of the work on their own. Teuila is very good with that and makes sure she keeps herself in pretty good shape.”
“To be very honest, growing up I didn’t have a female sporting idol; sport was all male dominated for me.”
The quest is about more than just personal goals for Fotu-Moala.
Through women’s league there is an opportunity not only to set a positive example for young girls playing the 13-aside game, but also female athletes in other sports.
“To be very honest, growing up I didn’t have a female sporting idol; sport was all male dominated for me,” Fotu-Moala says.
“I was only idolising men in sport growing up. But that’s different now that more and more female athletes are being exposed and supported.
“I’m pretty young so I can say I’m still growing up and now I have a whole heap of female sporting Idols.
“I don’t have to look too far to pick them – I play alongside a lot of them – but my favourite female athlete would have to be Linda Itunu, an ex NZ 7s player and a current Black Fern.
“We are good mates off the field, but as soon as it is time to train and play, she’s a completely different person.
“The values she upholds as an athlete are inspiring to many and reach beyond the borders of NZ.
“I hope to project the same kind of influence to the younger generation when I’m out and about the community.”
The extra efforts to make a difference in that area have included attending Auckland Rugby League school tournaments to present players with awards and share stories of rugby league.
Fotu-Moala is also giving back to the Auckland high school competition, on the same fields where her love for the game was confirmed just a few years ago.
“I enjoy helping the next generation of girls to enjoy league. Last year was my first year involved with coaching schoolgirls, and I love it,” she says.
“I have so much passion towards the game and there’s always going to be that fire in me to help others enjoy the game too.
“I’ve jumped on board to coach McAuley High School’s girl’s league team this year. I attended McAuley myself and that’s pretty much where my love of the game took off.
“League is more than a sport for me. It’s an avenue where you can develop life skills.
“I want to see them grow not only to be good women, but great women.”
(Main photo: photosport.nz)