Hedi Moani-Kafoa is a promising teenage footy player with one remarkable difference.
The south Auckland-raised Otahuhu College graduate has won a national secondary schools competition and this year caught the attention of plenty with some huge performances in Queensland state competitions, doing it all with only one hand, having been born without a right hand.
We caught up with ‘One-hand Superman’ to talk about the journey so far.
Let’s start with the nickname, where did it come from?
It was my mate who passed away that actually gave me that nickname, he was a good mate and passed away in 2014, but when I first met him he gave me that name. I like the nickname. A few of the Aussie boys call me it now too.
How long have you been playing league?
I started playing rugby union at first, playing for Manukau Rovers when I was 11 years old. I switched to league at U-15 level, so I have only been playing for four years now.
At which point did you decide you wanted to try and play footy at higher levels?
In 2015 at the end of the year two of my mates got offers with NRL clubs, one signed with the Warriors, and there were a few of them who were getting contracts, so I was the only one floating around without anything.
I took a lot of confidence from that and from seeing my friends do what they did, that was my biggest drive. They are all starting Holden Cup players right now.
That made me hungry. That’s when I started training hard and trying to get to where they were. I was talking to the Sydney Roosters for a bit, but they weren’t too serious.
Where do you draw inspiration from?
A big one was my mum, my dad too, but I also had a lot of people make the NRL from my community (Roger Tuivasa-Sheck and Jason Taumalolo to name a few), and that was inspirational to me.
And on the field? Who are the guys you look up to?
I try and pick out a few things off NRL guys and take what I like from them. Jason Taumalolo is a big one, just how he hits the advantage line every time, and he was an Otahuhu boy as well. He was around when I was growing up.
Roger Tuivasa-Sheck was finished school by the time I started at Otahuhu College, so I didn’t spend time with him, but he came to our awards and stuff like that.
Those guys have done amazing things since leaving school and it goes to show it doesn’t matter where you come from, as long as you have a dream and you keep chasing it.
You spent part of the pre-season with John Ackland and the Otahuhu premiers this year, what was that like?
I got a lot of value out of the time I spent with John. I only had him for something like a month, but he is the best.
John Ackland taught me a lot about having the desire to win and how much training and preparation will impact your game. He was big on fitness through the pre-season, he pushed us real hard, had us up and down the hills, doing sprints.
He is a really good coach, he takes his time to understand the player. That was big for him to learn about me, from that point on I was all ears and it just made me happy to play for him.
It made it a hard decision not to stay at Otahuhu and play for him this year. That was the best pre-season of my life and he taught me so much and helped me to believe in myself.
At times this year you have played 80 minutes in the front row in Queensland heat… how?
I have dropped about 30kgs since I played in the national tournament in 2015. That’s why I had never been an 80-minute player before. I dropped 22kgs last year, and I am trying to maintain a decent heavy weight now while also staying fit, but it’s pretty hard and I have dropped another 8kgs this year.
I need to keep a bit of size for the middle – 156kgs was my heaviest playing weight – I was 16. That was the heaviest I had ever been in my life. I am 117kgs now, I think probably about 115-120kgs is my ideal weight for playing.
What are some of the major differences in the way you train due to the hand?
There’s not a lot. If I do a shoulder press I just use one side, and if I do bench I do both sides and it’s pretty easy. Naturally I have a pretty good core, so I don’t do as much work on that as my upper body.
Do you ever get negative comments from opponents or the crowd?
Not really. In the games sometimes people will try and talk and sledge you, just the usual banter, nothing bad, I give them a ‘shut up’ and then I just play.
Rugby league I think is a game where you are respected regardless of where you come from or what you are all about.
What’s the goal from here then?
It was my goal to try and be an 80-minute prop… [and] to make a Queensland Cup team for next year, just try my best, and if NRL comes along great. That is the ultimate goal obviously, to play in the NRL.
This year I made the competition’s rep team, the Bundaberg Cup side, which was the best 17 players from the competition. We played at a tournament against some other big clubs, the Sunshine Coast Falcons were there were with a few Queensland Cup players in there, that was pretty hard.
Coaches have told me that I held my own against the Sunshine Coast side when we played them. I know I have a lot more to learn, and that will come in time, to be able to compete at that level. But once I have got a bit more experience it will all be a bit better for me.