The Black Fern received the 2011 award and this year, as captain of the team, she accepted the 2016 award from Association President Chris Cahill at a ceremony in Auckland on July 3. Fiao’o, 36, has also announced her retirement from rugby at the end of this season.
Detective Constable Fiao’o Fa’amausili remembers the first trophy she ever won.
It was for athletics, at Kingston Primary School in South Auckland, and she’s never forgotten the feeling of excitement when she took the trophy home and how pleased her parents were. “I wanted to keep bringing home the awards!”
Now, aged 36, with a successful rugby career behind her, there’s no doubt she continued to make her mum and dad proud.
Born in Samoa, Fiao’o moved to New Zealand at the age of five with her parents. They were a big, boisterous family – three brothers and four sisters – who all had to help out when their father became unwell and was unable to work.
Fiao’o started doing her bit while still at high school, taking on a part-time job in the produce department at the local supermarket when she was 15.
At that time, she was at Aorere College and a keen netball player, but after taking part in a one-off rugby game against Otahuhu College, she was torn. “I loved it, and I was asked to join Auckland Marist, but I was committed to netball and, because they were both winter sports, I had to say no until I turned 17.”
When she did join Marist (which is still her club), she made the Auckland Storm team, but was also picked for the under-19 netball squad.
It was a critical decision for Fiao’o and, as usual, her thoughts turned to family. The deciding factor, she says, was that she thought her dad would rather be on the sideline at a rugby match than at the netball courts.
It was a big blow when her father died in 2001. “He was the one who’d always pushed me and supported me. Now I had to support myself.” And it was another turning point for the young athlete. “I thought, I’ll either have to stop, or push higher.”
Thankfully, for women’s rugby, she pushed on.
After leaving school at the end of the 7th form, Fiao’o had gone to work at the supermarket fulltime, but she ditched that after two years to become a postie, partly because of the extra fitness to be gained by cycling every day.
She was still training regularly and playing in her hooker position for her club in the winter. It was full-on, she recalls. “Working Monday to Saturday; on Saturdays, I would do the early 5.30am shift so I could get to the games on time in the afternoon.”
The hard work paid off when she made her test debut for the Black Ferns in 2002, aged 20, representing New Zealand at the World Cup in Barcelona, Spain, and then in Edmonton, Canada, in 2006.
She had a brief break from the team in 2004 when she spent some time in Australia with her then partner.
Back in New Zealand, and with her reputation as a first-class hooker growing, she accepted a contract in Newcastle, England, for the 2007-2008 season – “A bit of culture shock, but a good OE experience for a Samoan girl.”
Running parallel with her sporting interest was a long-held ambition to join Police, sparked, she chuckles, by watching the Police Academy movies when she was a kid. Also, she says, there’s an enormous amount of respect in Polynesian culture for policing.
“Police are seen as high achievers, protecting and serving the community.”
So, before heading to England, she went to a Police seminar and filled out the forms. When she got back to New Zealand, she got a call from Police to see if she was still interested. “I was, but I needed to do some prep. I went to night classes to get familiar again with studying and sitting exams.”
Fiao’o also knew that the swimming requirement would be a challenge because she’d never learnt to swim properly. “I went to the local pool, where I knew the kids had swimming lessons, and I sort of eavesdropped on what they were learning in the next lane and I taught myself, going for early morning swims until I could do lengths. It took me months.”
Her willingness to take on challenges is an attribute that has always helped Fiao’o achieve her goals, and in 2010 she graduated from Police College at the same time as she was training for the 2010 World Cup in London, which the team won.
Two years later she was captain.
Now regarded as one of the world’s leading hookers, Fiao’o is third on the Black Ferns’ all-time appearances list (44), behind Anna Richards and Emma Jensen. She has also made more than 97 appearances for her Storm provincial team.
What is it she loves so much about the game?
“I love the physical side of it, it’s a good stress release and the mental preparation is really good. You’ve got to go in hard and tough it out – much like the situations we come up against in policing.”
When Fiao’o spoke to Police News last month, she had just been working on a major homicide inquiry in South Auckland. She was on secondment from the adult sexual assault team, and work had been busy, but being busy is normal for her. When she’s not in the middle of a scrum, she’s always turning her mind to her work.
In 2015, she completed the CIB induction course at the Police College – one of the toughest exams in policing.
If there’s a challenge involved, she’s up for it. Preparation is the key and, in sport, so is training and playing every game like it’s your last. Train hard or go home is one of her mottos.
Policing is definitely not Police Academy, she says, but “we do have a few laughs”.
“The banter is awesome, never a dull moment, and always meeting great people at work and in the community. It has exceeded my expectations as a job. Everyone thinks policing is all about arresting people, but to me it’s more about education and helping those in need.”
Now that Fiao’o has decided it’s time to hang up her boots, she’s contemplating the future. There’s a possibility of coaching and CIB is presenting massive challenges, she says, but she also wants some “me” time and would like to start a family.
Her personal achievements include taking part in five World Cups (the last will be next month in Ireland), but her wider legacy as a Black Fern has been the rise in the number of women playing rugby. “More girls are playing rugby than when I started. It’s awesome to see and for them to know that it’s not just a game for boys.” – ELLEN BROOK
Highlights of 2016
Service to the community
Work with Cure Kids NZ and other activities involving young children
Attending rugby tournaments and school tournaments to encourage youth and to grow the game and promote fair play
A member of the Marist Rugby Board
Motivational talks at schools and clubs
Image: NZ RUGBY;