Tue, Jan 23, 2024 9:18 AM

Super challenge awaits Li'i


Peter Jones

As if making your Super Rugby Aupiki debut as a 19-year-old wasn’t a big enough challenge - try stepping up to the big time playing in a totally new position.

That’s the task in front of Blenheim teen Fiaali’i Solomona, known in sporting circles as Li’i, who late last year was named in the Matatū squad for the third edition of women’s Super Rugby.

After a breakout 2023 season for the Tasman Mako women’s side in the Farah Palmer Cup, where the skilful, hard-running winger scored a record eight tries, she was surprised and ultimately thrilled to receive a phone call from incoming Matatū head coach Whitney Hansen.

“I was just at the gym in September working on my Mako off season high-performance programme, to keep up my fitness for the summer, because I was heading to Samoa for a holiday, when I started getting random phone calls from unknown numbers,” recalls Li’i.

“At one point I answered at the last ring with an awkward hello, because the number was not on my contact list. Little did I know that it was Whitney. I started to mumble and my heartbeat was high and scared. Whitney started a normal conversation but I responded with one-word answers. Long story short, Whitney said that they would love to have me as part of the Matatū Super Aupiki team in 2024 and that I would be contracted as a forward, mainly number eight,” she said.

“With honesty, I was expecting to be playing in the backs so was very surprised when they told me the news of moving to the loose forwards.

“The good thing is she took the time to explain it all to me and made me understand why they arrived at that decision. [Whitney] is a very good communicator and listener as well, so I am pretty excited for the challenge ahead… and for what this new platform will mean in my rugby career.”

Although Li’i was totally surprised to get the call-up, in retrospect she recalled Whitney visiting Mako training in Nelson where she spent time with Tasman coaches Mel Bosman and La Toya Mason, the trio showing an elevated interest in her efforts during trainings.

The Tasman management saw the potential and damage Li’i can make as a forward, giving her a chance to showcase her talent and involve her at number eight in the team’s attacking moves.

Helping her cause was a try she scored for Tasman, coming in off the wing to pack at No 8 for a five-metre scrum, then powering over the tryline from the ensuing set piece, “the try that influenced Whitney to give me a chance”.

Li’i reflects back to her first season with the Mako in 2021 when Mel and the late Billy Guyton both said she had potential in the forwards but held her back because she was only 16 at the time, had never played in the forwards and they did not want to pressure the young athlete.

Thus, the proud Samoan/Kiwi became the first Mako woman to receive a Matatū contract, a considerable effort for a youngster who only began playing the game seriously three seasons ago. Although she played rugby “with the boys” from the age of six in Samoa, she was discouraged from continuing by her parents who felt she may be injured.

Arriving in New Zealand in 2014 she took up netball and volleyball at Marlborough Girls’ College, excelling at both. However, the desire to pull on her rugby boots remained, a passion ignited by the memory of her maternal grandfather, Fa’apopo Maalo, who played international rugby as a loose forward and captain of the Manu Samoa team that travelled to NZ in 1976.

In 2021, her second-to-last year at MGC, Li’i scratched her rugby itch and got back into the game, making an immediate impact. That season she was named in the Mako women’s squad, tasting Farah Palmer Cup competition for the first time. In 2022, she was recalled, earning more game time, before starring from the wing last season. A willingness to make the three-and-a-half-hour round trip to Nelson for trainings underlined her commitment and drive to succeed.

Fuelling her desire to make a pathway into professional rugby was a willingness to illustrate to her parents that a career in sport could be possible, rather than following her siblings into study. “I wanted to prove to them that everyone had been given different talents from God and this was what I wanted to do.

“Now they are my biggest supporters,” she added, “they are totally behind me and the reason why I keep going.

“I always think of the sacrifices they made to bring us here from the Islands, when they had to start from scratch.”

Li'i on her way to another five-pointer for the Wairau Wahine side. Photo Peter Jones

Since late November, when she started her six-month full-time contract, Li’i has been on something of a crash course, working on a “next level” forward-based Matatū training programme, plus taking part in Zoom meetings on skill sets and watching position-specific videos.

The modest teen admits she is stepping into the unknown somewhat but is realistic about her place in the defending champions’ set-up.

“I can’t wait to get involved, learn from some of the legends of the game and make the most of this given opportunity with my Matatū aiga as I adjust from FPC level.”

Whatever happens, you can be sure the she will enjoy her experience, because, whichever sport she plays, a smile is never far from her face.

“When I was little my Nana Fiaali’i, who is my namesake, used to tell me that wherever I go, whatever I do, always put on a smile … whether you don’t want to smile, just smile because that is enough to explain who you are once you wear it wherever you go.”

She was quick to acknowledge the unwavering support and prayers of her family and friends, church communities EFKS Vaiala Samoa and EFKS Blenheim NZ, Tasman Rugby Union, Moutere Rugby Club, Auntie Lapu Oliver, especially parents Ieru and Viiai Solomona and siblings Rebecca and Lotu for the sacrifice they have made to shape who she is today.

“I am proudly community and village-made. My rugby journey into 2024 continues to be powered by God, leading at the forefront, and supported by the village,” she added.

Li’i heads south to begin her Aupiki adventure on January 28, alongside sister Rebecca Fa’apopo, who she describes as “her rock”.

“She does everything for me, she’s a driver, a manager … she sacrifices a lot to help me and I would be lost without her,” adds Li’i.

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