Kanyon Paul will wear the Warriors jersey in next month’s NRL women’s championship with the blessing of her late grandfather – who helped her make the decision to cross the Tasman to play.
Kanyon Paul wasn’t meant to play for the Warriors women’s team this season.
But her league-loving grandfather will be beaming in heaven, knowing the 22-year-old is lacing up her boots in the 13-women code for the NRLW competition in Australia.
A month ago, George Tahatuku King, a life member of the Hamilton City Tigers league club, was diagnosed with terminal cancer. He passed away on August 31.
Paul was meant to turn out for the Waikato rugby side in the Farah Palmer Cup this year. But a life-changing event shifted her line of play.
A week before her grandfather’s passing, Paul tried to show him some of her pre-season rugby games on Facebook.
“He was like ‘Oh, never mind about that, turn it off’,” she laughs. “But the day before [he passed] I talked about playing league in Australia and he was like ‘You go, don’t worry about me, just go’.”
“But I was really cut up because I couldn’t leave him. And then the next day he passed and that was the decider for me to come,” says Paul, over the phone from quarantine on Milson Island, near Sydney.
Last year was a decisive one for the young hooker, who switched from rugby to league just three years ago. She made the Warriors NRLW team and debuted for the Kiwi Ferns shortly after. She was also a member of the historical win over the Jillaroos for the inaugural World Cup Nines title.
With Covid-19 and the uncertainty around whether the Warriors would play at all this year, Paul committed to playing rugby in the FPC.
But once the Warriors season was confirmed, only two weeks ago, she made the decision to switch and had to let Waikato know the personal reasons behind her call.
Paul was able to stay on with wh
And by the end of that week she was on a flight to Sydney with four other teammates and support staff to begin the 10-week journey to playing in the NRLW, kicking off on the first weekend of October.
“All of my family were really supportive of that decision and now here I am,” Paul says. “I’ve had a lot of discussions about it. It still hurts a little bit, but I’m ok. I’ve got good support and it’s great having Aunty Carms here. All the girls are real easy to talk to and get along with so we’re pretty much a big family over here.”
Aunty Carms is Carmen Taplin, a well-known pillar in rugby league communities who helps athletes along their career pathways. The Warriors and Kiwi Fern Amber Hall, who is playing for the Brisbane Broncos, finished their two weeks in quarantine over the weekend and Paul says she can’t complain about the bubble experience.
“I’ve actually really enjoyed it. We have so much freedom on the island, it doesn’t even feel like we’re in lockdown,” she says.
No-one could blame Paul for saying that. The sport and recreation facility on Milson Island has a training field, indoor gym, basketball court, tennis courts and a swimming pool. All of their meals are provided too.
“The meals are great. I’m just grateful they even cook for us,” says Paul. “I did ask them about cleaning up, because you know back at home, we’re just so used to taking care of ourselves – doing our own dishes, wiping our own tables. But they said we can’t do that.”
When the five isolated Warriors women join the rest of the Australian-based team members at their hotel in Sydney, it will be the beginning of something most thought was not possible this season.
The last couple of months have been “really difficult” not knowing what was going to happen, says Paul.
“I was playing rugby union every weekend and then when we got our [Warriors] contracts, I guess I just had that feeling,” she says.
“I told all my friends and the [Waikato] team that I felt like this is probably what’s best for me. I wanted to accept the contract, come over and take up this opportunity.”
Although Covid-19 restrictions have disrupted this year’s season, Paul says she’s excited about this rare opportunity and meeting new people. They may not have met in person when we spoke, but the team have been communicating and welcoming new players in a Whatsapp group ahead of their camp this week.
The rest of the Warriors squad were pulled together from players based in Australia. New Warriors coach, Brad Donald, who is also the Australian women’s head coach, has a mix of Jillaroos players and rugby sevens superstars, including Ellia Green, to call upon.
“I’m thrilled about the talent we’ve been able to secure to build around our five core Warriors players, who have made such huge sacrifices to be involved in this year,” says Donald.
“It has been hectic pulling the squad together in such limited time, but we have a strong group we can build here to do the Warriors proud.”
Donald stressed that the New Zealand-based contingent of Madison Bartlett, Georgia Hale, Hilda Peters, Crystal Tamarua and Paul were critical to the culture he would be striving to create for the camp.
Getting back onto the field and playing is what Paul is most looking forward to, and by the end of their time together, building a solid team culture she says would be a sign of success.
“I think the culture and the foundation the five of us have started over here [is success]. We’ve been starting to do karakia every morning and then finishing off with a waiata,” says Paul, who did kapa haka growing up.
“I brought my guitar over so we’re learning some new Māori songs that we can sing and bring our culture from New Zealand here to introduce to the new players.”
Paul grew up and lives in Hamilton with her family. Her mum is from Taharoa and her dad is from Te Teko and Motiti on the East Coast.
“I love going diving with my dad on Motiti Island and hunting with my cousin Sam in Taharoa – that means a lot to me,” Paul says, who is of Ngāti Awa and Ngāti Maniapoto descent.
She played rugby right through her years at Hamilton Girls’ High School, but she also excelled at softball – representing New Zealand with the Junior White Sox.
“Once I started playing league, it opened a whole new world for me,” she says. “Even though my family has been immersed in league for a while, I only started playing for the Hamilton City Tigers last year when they had their first-ever women’s team,” says Paul. She played alongside cross-code legend Honey Hireme-Smiler.
Paul will celebrate her 23rd birthday in Sydney next month, only the second time she’s been away from home for the occasion.
The first birthday spent overseas was in 2017 when she was living in Japan for eight months.
“My first year out of high school, I played rugby sevens in Hokkaido. We were located in Sapporo and I loved it and the food. I miss it quite often and think about this ramen shop I used to go to all the time,” Paul says.
She’s now in her third year of study at the University of Waikato for a bachelor’s degree of health, sport and human performance.
My question: “Who is the most annoying person in isolation?” was met with laughter. “Myself,” was her response. “Everyone has their own uniqueness and I love the girls.”
How would they describe you?
“They’ve given me a nickname – I’m Bubba. I guess because I’m younger than all of them,” says Paul.
She may be the youngest, but the elusive pocket-rocket will have her grandfather to guide her through this season and whatever path she chooses to run down.