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Teen 'angel' Liana Mikaele-Tu'u about to don her Black Fern wings –

She’s already made rugby history, but teenager Liana Mikaele-Tu’u is just beginning her career with the Black Ferns, preparing for their 100th test match.
In her day job, Liana Mikaele-Tu’u is an ‘angel’, helping keep troubled teenagers coming to school.
In lockdown, she pushes her car down a suburban Auckland street to keep fit.
On the rugby field, she’s one half of the first sister-brother duo to play Super Rugby. And now, she’s on the Black Ferns tour to England and France, poised to pull on the black jersey for the first time.
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Yes, it’s been an extraordinary year for Mikaele-Tu’u. And what’s remarkable is that she only picked up the oval ball anywhere outside her Hawkes Bay backyard a few years ago.
And she’s still just 19 years old – with what looks like a huge rugby future ahead of her.
Mikaele-Tu’u is itching to get back out on the field. It’s been more than two months since the loose forward ran out with the Auckland Storm, their Farah Palmer Cup season abruptly terminated by another nationwide lockdown.
But she points out that’s not so bad. “For a lot of the Black Ferns girls, it’s been two years since they played a test match,” the teenager reminds me.
She hasn’t been able to work, either. Mikaele-Tu’u took a year off her studies in physiotherapy to work at Tamaki College. She took on the role of community angel – looking after the wellbeing of students – alongside her fellow Black Fern and best mate, Maia Roos.
“Tamaki College is so special. They’ve been focusing on getting kids to class, encouraging them to come to school. Some kids might find it hard to talk to teachers, so we walk around the school, chatting to the kids to see what’s going on. That’s been another highlight of my year,” says Mikaele Tu’u, who was also coaching Tamaki’s 1st XV girls.
So what kept Mikaele-Tu’u going through eight weeks in lockdown?
“The motivation was chasing that black jersey,” she says. “And I knew that when I one day got the call, whether it was yes or no, I had to be ready.”
So that meant hunkering down and carrying on training, under the guidance of Auckland Rugby’s high performance team.
Some weeks were harder than others, she says, but others were fun – like the week she had to push her car down the street.
Mikaele-Tu’u shares a house with four flatmates. One of them is Daynah Nankivell, an Auckland Storm midfielder, but she headed home to Northland before the lockdown kicked in.
“So I had to drag out my flatmates who don’t play rugby to help me,” she says. “They were rolling their eyes, but I was like, ‘Guys I’m the one pushing the car, you just have to sit in and steer’. They put the car in neutral and I got pushing. It was one of the highlights of lockdown.”
Mikaele-Tu’u has always been adept at getting others to help her hone her skills.
As a kid growing up in Hastings, she was “dragged” into playing backyard one-on-one rugby matches with her brothers, twins Marino and Antonio, who are four years older than her. Now the twins are both playing in the NPC.
“They taught me to appreciate how tough rugby actually was. At the time they were dragging me outside to play with them, I was a netballer, and that little push and shove would have been deemed contact in netball,” Mikaele-Tu’u laughs.
“Just having brothers made me tough. I grew up a bit of a tomboy, which helped me when I had to be aggressive, and as a loose forward, as well, having to be a bit mongrel.
“But they also taught me about having fun. I think sometimes playing sport you forget to just have fun and enjoy the game. Chasing my brothers in the backyard was always fun.”
Mikaele-Tu’u grew up wanting to be a Silver Fern, nothing else.
She first played rugby when she was in Year 11, the year her high school, Hastings Girls’, finally formed a 1st XV. In Year 12, she scored a hat-trick of tries in the 2018 Hawke’s Bay secondary schoolgirls final, but still declared netball was her No.1 sport.
It wasn’t until she made her debut in the Hawke’s Bay Tui women’s team, playing in the 2019 FPC championship in her last year of high school, that rugby became her priority.
“Having grown up around rugby, going to my brothers’ games, I’d always wanted to try it but never had the opportunity. And when I was given the opportunity, I went for it and never looked back,” she says.
Mikaele-Tu’u acknowledges she was fortunate to come under the mentorship of a Black Ferns halfback, and three-time Rugby World Cup winner, Emma Jensen.
“EJ was one of my first rugby coaches and in my last year of high school I finally got to play in the same team with her in the Hawkes Bay Tuis,” Mikaele-Tu’u says. “Coming from Hastings, a small town compared to Auckland, EJ drove us girls to want more for ourselves. The impact she had telling me she believed in me was huge; it’s something I’ll never forget.
“When I made the Black Ferns, she was one of the first people I called.”
Jensen, now the deputy principal at Hastings Girls’ and on the board of Hawke’s Bay Rugby, had made it her mission to help girls make the leap from junior to senior rugby.
When Mikaele-Tu’u moved to Auckland last year to study physiotherapy, Jensen helped her to find a club, settling in with College Rifles. She also made it into the Storm squad.
“It’s been a bit tough being young and away from home,” Mikaele-Tu’s admits. “But my brothers and my parents have always been my close support network. They know me better than anyone and I can fall back on them if anything goes wrong up here in Auckland,” she says.
And something did go wrong for Mikaele-Tu’u. In the Storm’s last game before the 2020 FPC semifinals – exactly one year ago yesterday – she suffered a horrible injury.
“We were playing Waikato, and it was 41 minutes into the game,” she recalls clearly. “If the ref had just called time [at 40 minutes] I would have been in the changing rooms ready to go for the second half.”
Instead, Mikaele-Tu’u was caught in a tackle and ended up beneath one of her opponents. “Her whole weight was on my ankle, and my leg gave way,” she says.
She broke both her tibia and fibula. She was devastated, she says. Although she needed surgery on her tibia, her recovery was swift and she was back playing rugby in April this year.
Her timing was impeccable. Her first game back happened to be the biggest game she’d ever played in – the first women’s Super Rugby match, between the Blues and the Chiefs at Eden Park. And she was part of another historic rugby moment – one she didn’t realise until two days later.
When Mikaele-Tu’u took the field as a substitute in that game, she became part of the first sister and brother combination to play Super Rugby. Marino, a loose forward in the NZ U20 team who won the 2017 world championship, has been with the Highlanders since 2018.
“It was a really special game – the first of many to come,” says Mikaele-Tu’u, who’s understandably excited about next year’s Super Rugby Aupiki.
“And to have this achievement with my sibling is one for the books. Growing up and seeing my two brothers going through the ranks, I knew I wanted to be great like them. But I knew I wanted to be better.”
She sometimes taps into Marino’s loose forward knowledge. “He broke his tibia this year, the copycat. So he’s following me now,” she laughs. Marino is back playing for Hawke’s Bay, while Antonio is a fullback for North Harbour.
“It’s been crazy this year, given the circumstances we’re living with, I think I’m really lucky. I’ve been blessed to have a lot of awesome experiences. So to finish the year with the Black Ferns just tops it all off,” she says.
After a lot of packing instructions from her mum, Mikaele-Tu’u arrived safely in England at the weekend. The team have been trying to shrug off jetlag, with some light training, and they’ll play warm-up games against English and Welsh age group sides this weekend.
They will play their first of four tests – two each against England and France – on November 1 (NZ time). It will be another historic moment in New Zealand rugby history – the Black Ferns’ 100th test match.
“If I could make a goal for this tour, it would be to come out being a better player,” Mikaele-Tu’u says. “Obviously, I’d like to play, but I’m all about timing. The most important thing to me is letting people see my potential and why I was chosen.”
In the far reaches of her mind is next year’s Rugby World Cup in New Zealand.
“There’s a big legacy behind that black jersey. If I was ever to be given the opportunity to pull it on in a World Cup in front of my family, it would be really cool," she says. "I can’t think of anything better than that.”
* The Black Ferns tests against England (November 1 and 8) and France (November 14 and 21) will be shown live on Sky Sport 1.
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