Black Ferns captain Fiao’o Fa’amausili

There was a hiccup in France in 2014. The Black Ferns didn’t even make the World Cup final. But it was a different story in Barcelona in 2002, in Edmonton in 2006, in London in 2010 and in Belfast last year. A World Cup win for the New Zealand women’s team. And each time Fiao’o Fa’amausili was there, as she has been in a total of 52 test matches. Here the 37-year-old Black Ferns captain talks with Dale about rugby and saving money and things.

 

Talofa, Fi. You’re well known for your achievements with the Black Ferns. But what’s stuck in my mind are some spine-tingling minutes of footage I only recently saw. It was when your team and the Māori All Blacks squared off with their haka in Rotorua last year. What was the story there? That would’ve been the first time ever for such an occasion — our women facing our men.

That was just over a year ago when both our teams were staying in a Rotorua hotel. Our team was there to play the curtain-raiser to the Māori All Blacks versus the British and Irish Lions. We’d come together and we were talking and singing. They’d never seen our haka upfront before – and we’d never seen theirs upfront either. And this was an opportunity for that.

It was all low-key for a start. They did theirs. And we did ours. But then everyone was like: “Wow!” For some reason, it was magic. There was just so much emotion and excitement.

I still get goosebumps when I see that video. Or even when I just think about it. So I can imagine what sort of a high you all were on. And I suspect that those moments have stuck with you too. But perhaps your greatest satisfaction has come outside sport.

I guess, for me, the greatest satisfaction — outside of rugby and outside of work — was buying my first house last year. I’ve always wanted to be a homeowner. So that feels like my biggest achievement.

Let’s not underestimate the difficulty of buying a house in Auckland. That’s a real milestone. But why did it mean so much to you?

Well, it’s pretty hard to get a property in Auckland. And, for me, this was my life savings, going back to when I started working in the police in 2010. But, also, it’s not only for me. It’s something I can pass on to my family. And it may be that, eventually, I can purchase another property for the family so their lives can be a bit easier through paying a cheaper rent.

Congratulations. It must say something about your personality that you’re able to save money.

It’s something I was taught quite young. Working with my family with market stalls just to get by and to save. Dad always told me: “Don’t hire-purchase things. Always save up.” I’m old school. I like to save and then reap the rewards out of that. It’s definitely through my family and learning about money at the markets. Learning, as well, that nothing is just handed to you — you’ve gotta go out and work for it.

What were you selling at the markets?

We started out with food stalls, then Dad got into selling all sorts of little, secondhand stuff. Two-dollar stuff. Anything that he could get a little bit of profit from, just to get us by. And veges and fruit that we’d grown on our property.

These are worthwhile lessons, aren’t they? Because a lot of people are good at buying but not great at selling. It’s a handy skill to have.

Absolutely. A lot of my maths learning was dealing with money at the markets as well as learning about interacting with people.

We used to go to the markets in Avondale, Māngere, Ōtara — and even as far south as Frankton, in Hamilton.

Now let’s talk about your whānau, if you’d be so kind. And your beautiful name, Fiao’o Fa’amausili. Can you tell us how you came to wear that?

That came from my mother’s mother — from my grandmother who I never met. She passed away before I was born. So I took on her name. It’s definitely a hard name for some people to pronounce. But there was no way I was going to change it. I also have Maria as a middle name. Being born in the islands, I love having an Island name for both first and surname.

What about your whānau connections? Your mum and dad and their whakapapa lines and villages?

I was born in Sāmoa. Moved to New Zealand when I was five. My mum’s from Fogapoa in Savai’i. And my dad’s from the villages of Faleula and Aleisa in Apia. I still have a good connection with Sāmoa. We have a place in Faleula. I visit every year.

It’s always good to go back and visit our roots — and see how we were brought up and understand the lives our parents had. To acknowledge the hardship they had to go through to bring us to New Zealand. And to appreciate how we’ve been able to reap the rewards of their hard work.

My parents, like most of the parents who moved over, wanted a fresh start for their family and for their kids to have a better life. I’m from a family of eight. I have three brothers and four sisters. My older brothers and my dad came to New Zealand before us. They worked to save and then us young ones came later on with my mother at the end of 1985.

My mother was pregnant at the time with my sister Agnes who was the only one of us born in New Zealand. We stayed with my aunty and uncle, and then, a couple of months later, we got our own place. From then on, my brothers and sisters just kept working and helping Dad as well.

That’s when we purchased our first home in Māngere East. That’s where we grew up. All eight of us. My oldest brother Galumalemana, then Papali’i and after him was Tuileipa Tavita. My sisters are Lusia, Penina, and Memorita. Then myself. Then Agnes, who’s the only one with a Pālagi name.

Hats off to your parents and siblings for managing to buy that property and for working hard enough to turn dreams into reality. What can you tell us about your dad?

His matai name is Galumalemana. His first name is Tavita. When we came over, he’d been working hard out. But a couple of years later, in 1987, he had a heart valve replacement, which meant he couldn’t do heavy work anymore. That’s why we started the markets because he still wanted to do something to help out.

He was on the sickness benefit. And Mum ended up looking after the kids and grandkids that were coming through — and looking after Dad as well. We had to pull our weight because we could see that Dad wasn’t well but he was still trying to provide for us. He was definitely a man I looked up to. And I still abide by the teachings and lessons from him when I was a child.

And what about the Sāmoan language? How did that feature in your whare?

I didn’t know a word of English when I came to New Zealand. In respect of our grandparents, and our parents, we always spoke Sāmoan at home. But when you go to school, you speak English. When you come home, you speak Sāmoan.

It’s good that we had that or else I wouldn’t be speaking Sāmoan these days. It’s been very important, not just within my family, but also within my police job. Being able to interact and talk with our Pacific people.

Were you aware of any tensions between Māori and Pasifika people in those early days — perhaps 30 years ago? Was that an issue at all?

No. We all got on really well. I was brought up in an area that was predominantly Pacific, with other Sāmoans and Tongans, Niueans, Fijians and so on. We had all sorts of cultures in my upbringing. But I didn’t see any conflict or tension at all.

We were just happy people. I think the only tension that we had was when we mocked each other. That’s what we used to do. Anything for a good laugh.

And your schooldays?

That was Kingsford Primary. Then I went to Kedgley Intermediate and finished off at Aorere College. All within walking distance of home.

What about your first taste of rugby?

That was at Aorere when I was 15. We never had a school team at that time, so this was just a one-off game. It wasn’t until I was 17 and I’d left school that I took it seriously. I had a season with Ōtāhuhu and then I joined Auckland Marist and played alongside Davida White.

What was it about the game that had you thinking: “Hey, this is for me”?

I just loved the contact. I’ve always been quite physical. Like in netball I was fairly rough. I loved that game, but there was something special about rugby. I used to go along with Dad to watch my brother Tavita play for Ōtāhuhu. He was an awesome player, and I could see the excitement on my Dad’s face as he watched.

And when I played, Dad came along too. He’d get very excited — and when you see your parents on the sideline, smiling and responding like that, you enjoy playing even more.

Did any of your whānau have reservations about you playing, or were they wholeheartedly supportive?

Wholeheartedly supportive. And to this day, they’re still supportive. What I love is seeing our young ones, my nephews and nieces, enjoying sport — and their parents and families getting behind their kids out there. There’s so much we can all get out of sport that benefits your whole life. And, if we keep active and enjoy sport, our kids will aspire to do the same.

Fiao’o leading her team on to Eden Park to play Australia in October 2016. The Black Ferns won 67-3. (Photo: Marc Weakley/NZ Rugby)

I used to think maybe Māori and Pasifika people like the physical contact of sport. You pit yourself against people who want to challenge you. Hit you hard in the tackle. Or try to break your tackle. But, when we see the popularity of women’s rugby, we’re reminded that it’s not just Māori and Pasifika wāhine who’re warming to the game. Can you recall a tackle or a pass or something you did where you really thought: “Yeah, this is why I play footy.”

That was when I was playing for Ōtāhuhu and had my first contact with Davida White. She was the pinnacle of women’s rugby. A big name for the Black Ferns. She had the stature, the build, and the attitude — and seemed to be just what a Black Fern should look like.

And when she ran the ball up, the first time, I was quite nervous. But when I tackled her, I thought: “This is exciting. Look. I can tackle a Black Fern.” That was the day I figured this is what I want to do.

Good on you. And before long, there you were, settling into the Auckland Marist team along with Davida as a teammate and with Monique Hirovanaa and Anna Richards and other stars — and then, in 2002, being selected for the Black Ferns yourself. I imagine that making that team for the World Cup in Baracelona was a thrill.

Yeah. There were tears. Tears of joy. I couldn’t stop crying. The biggest reason was that my dad wasn’t around anymore. He’d passed away five months before I was named in the team. He’d been around when I made the development squad for the Ferns but, sadly, after all his support, he wasn’t able to share my big step into the Black Ferns.

Moe mai to your dad. Moe mai.

Once you made the Ferns, I assume that learning the team’s haka became a priority. There was a time when the assumption was that the haka was just for Māori, not for others. But now everyone, whatever your whakapapa, does the haka. What were your thoughts when you were first asked to learn it?

I love the haka. It’s part of our culture. It doesn’t matter whether our tūpuna are from the Pacific or Europe or anywhere else, we’re all New Zealanders. As New Zealanders, we respect our ancestors of this land, and therefore, when you perform the haka, it’s all one. We’re all New Zealanders. And the haka is something you live and breathe when you’re in the black jersey.

It hasn’t been too surprising, I suppose, but it’s still remarkable how quickly women’s rugby, sevens as well as 15-a-side, has become so prominent internationally.

Yes. We’re only a dot on the map, but we do excel in rugby. Other countries all know that New Zealand is great at the game. Not just good at rugby. Great at rugby. Women as well as men. That’s something that I’m really proud of. And I’ve been able to wear the black jersey in one of New Zealand’s highest achieving sports.

One aspect of our success in a number of sports is something that I guess we often take for granted. That’s the cultural side. Learning and performing the haka is part of that. But it’s also the waiata, the tikanga, visiting marae and hospitals and schools. Perhaps that makes a bigger contribution to a team’s pride and unity than we realise.

We talk about culture playing an important part in the team. I live by that. It’s what bonds the girls, on and off the field. It’s a matter of acknowledging our past. And a matter of respect. So we put a lot of time in our camps into learning the haka and waiata.

When someone talks at a gathering, we do a song. Everyone here and overseas looks forward to us performing after a talk. That’s just how we are as a team. That’s our culture. That’s the standard and the tikanga we’ve been taught at home.

And if there are girls new to the team who don’t have that background — or, for instance, don’t know how to pukana — they soon become pros. Culture is something that makes a team. And, if you don’t have it, it can break a team.

Black Ferns in October 2016 at Eden Park, Auckland, before beating Australia. (Photo: Marc Weakley/NZ Rugby)

You’ve had the pride of wearing the black jersey for five World Cups. And although you’ve had a good share of highs in that time, there must’ve been some lows too.

Definitely in 2014 when we didn’t come home from France with the cup. It was the first time the Black Ferns had never made it through to semi-finals as well. That was quite hard. And I think it was harder on me, not because I was captain, but because I was so disappointed for the girls who missed out on World Cup glory that year. I’d wanted them to have the taste of the glory that we’d already had in the three previous cups. That’s what hit me the most. They didn’t get to experience that high. That’s when I was pretty much at my lowest.

But there’s a saying that may apply here. It’s one I keep in mind. “You never lose. Either you win, or you learn.” So I’m not necessarily down when we’re beaten. It’s a learning point for us to go again — and come back stronger the following year.

That brings us to the highlights for you. Perhaps a couple of them anyway.

My first highlight would be wearing the black jersey and lining up for the national anthem at my first World Cup in 2002. I was so emotional. In tears. But just so excited.

Then it came to 2010. It would’ve been my first ever start at a World Cup final. First ever getting on the field at a World Cup final. It took me eight years to achieve that. Then the feeling of winning a World Cup in England was another big high. And winning the 2017 World Cup last year was another great experience.

That was supposed to be my last time in the black jersey. But our circumstances have changed, and here I am back in the game again.

We don’t play footy, or do community things for pats on the back. But it’d be only human to feel pleased about being awarded the New Zealand Order of Merit for your services to rugby. How have you felt about that sort of recognition?

I honestly didn’t know how to take it. Because, in a way, it’s not me. I was humbled to receive it, but I was also excited because I felt it was honouring my family name. It’s for them. It’s for all their hard work. So many people have done so much to get me to where I’m at today.

Well, long may the Fa’amausili name ring out and be celebrated. And not just for you being a fabulous footy player. You’ve been a police officer for a few years now, haven’t you? How did that come about?

Growing up, I used to watch a lot of Police Academy. I’d sit also watch Crimewatch, back in the day, with my dad. And what appealed to me was the way police officers were putting other people before themselves. Helping a community. Trying to create change in someone’s life, for the best.

And that is pretty much what I love to do. I like waking up knowing that I can put a smile on someone’s face by helping them. I can’t think of a better way to serve your country than to be a police officer.

What sort of work are you doing?

I’m a detective constable, working out of Counties Manukau in the area where I grew up. I’m at Crime Squad and doing shift work. Early shifts, late shifts and night shifts. I’ve been in the police for eight years now. I’ve completed my detective studies and, once I’ve passed a qualifying course, I’ll receive my gold badge as a detective.

We know we have communities that are socially and economically challenged, particularly in the south side where you and I work. And we know a lot of our rangatahi are going off the rails. Possibly didn’t have the whānau support that you and I have enjoyed. But sport has a role, doesn’t it, in getting them on to a more positive pathway.

When I’m out there in our community, I’m always checking to see what the young ones are interested in. And, if they’re keen on sport, I’ll send them along to a local club or to someone who might get them into training.

Often, all they’re wanting is to be a part of a family which they’re not feeling back at home. And if that’s the case, a sports team or a sports community is probably the best family they can have.

I encourage kids to get into sports or stay in school. One advantage of school is that you get free sports there. And the standards you learn in sport can take you a long way in life.

 

This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.

 

© E-Tangata, 2018

Thank you for reading E-Tangata. If you like our focus on Māori and Pasifika stories, interviews, and commentary, we need your help. Our content takes skill, long hours and hard work. But we're a small team and non-profit, so we need the support of our readers to keep going. If you support our kaupapa and want to see us continue, please consider contributing $5 or $10 a month.