The Black Ferns’ newest star can feel her late mother running with her every time she heads for the try-line. Steve Deane reports.
Arriving, as it has, at the tender age of just 19, it’s tempting to assume that Ayesha Leti-I’iga’s sporting dream of becoming a Black Fern has come around quickly.
But, for a player who burst onto the first class rugby scene as a 16-year-old school girl with Wellington Pride in 2015, and immediately signalled her intentions to crack the national team, her elevation has taken its time.
“Three years sounds like a pretty short time but for me it has seemed a long time,” the prolific try-scoring winger says from Chicago, where the blustery weather is a comforting reminder of home.
Then again, Leti-I’iga’s perception of time is likely a little different than other folks. For starters, the former sprint star at Porirua College moves quicker than most. She scored a try with her very first touch in her first rugby match, breaking the line and racing clear of the hapless would-be defenders. Her speed is her trademark – and it’s perhaps the one thing she’s not just a little shy of talking about.
Asked if she has yet matched up against her new Black Ferns team-mates in sprinting drills, she laughs: “No we haven’t, but if we did I would win!”
She’s almost certainly right. Most rugby players in Wellington’s club competition – where she plays for Ories – and in the Farah Palmer Cup (in which she was top try-scorer this year) have had a pretty decent look at Leti-I’iga’s heels at some point.
Her try tally from club and FPC matches stands at 52 this season – and that could well climb against the USA in Chicago this week when she will likely debut in place of the redoubtable Portia Woodman.
“Every time I run, my granddad says it is like my Mum is running with me. She passed away but I feel like she is always there with me.”
Try-scoring supremo Woodman and fleet-footed fullback Selica Winiata are her two rugby heroes – but it is from her late mother that she gets her true inspiration.
“Every time I run, my granddad says it is like my Mum is running with me,” says Leti-I’iga. “She passed away but I feel like she is always there with me.”
Mary Asolupe Leti-I’iga died in 2009 at just 35 when she was struck by a vehicle, leaving 11-year-old Ayesha to be raised largely by her grandparents Faaui and Salafa.
If the loss of her mother was a pivotal point in Ayesha’s life, those around her helped ensure that triumph would emerge from the tragedy. Sport became a major focus, although Faaui and Salafa weren’t initially keen on her playing rugby due to her diminutive stature. However, her aunt, Oriental Rongotai prop and Porirua College girls’ rugby coach Fuamai Taumoli, would eventually introduce her to the game in which she became an instant star.
“Rugby is now what me and my granddad bond over,” Leti-I’iga says. “He acts like my own personal coach.”
In that case, Faaui is definitely doing something right. Leti-I’iga’s aggressive, fearless gap running and strong defence are her trademarks and, of course, that blinding speed.
Just as she was when she first made the Pride squad and was nicknamed ‘Baby’, Leti-I’iga has been adopted by the Black Ferns as the baby of a team that instantly feels like family – “sometimes not in a good way”, she chuckles.
Fetching the tackle bags has become a staple chore among the duties allocated to a newbie who has yet to earn her stripes.
“It has always been a goal for me, so to be named in the squad has been a huge achievement for me,” she says.
“The people that are in this team are like family. They are all real welcoming. I am usually homesick the second day I am away, but I haven’t been homesick at all.”
The Black Ferns side for the test match against USA at Soldier Field in Chicago on Sunday morning (6.00am NZT) will be named Friday afternoon.
The match is part of a triple-header that also features Māori All Blacks v USA, and Ireland taking on Italy.