Rookie Kiwi Fern Kararaina Wira-Kohu has made some serious commitments – to family, fitness and her lockdown followers – to get where she is today, Ashley Stanley discovers.
When Kararaina Wira-Kohu decided to get fit and get serious about rugby league during New Zealand’s level four lockdown, little did she know she would spark a whole tribe of followers to join her.
Family and friends, who got caught up in her enthusiasm and drive, trained with the powerful prop in her street in Whangārei, or in a nearby underground carpark.
Now, seven months after making that lockdown commitment, Wira-Kohu experienced just how far she could soar, debuting for the Kiwi Ferns over the weekend.
The New Zealand women’s team beat a Fetū Samoa Invitational side, 28-8, in the headline act of a two-game ‘Clash of the Pacific’ fixture (Tonga beat Niue beforehand, 66-8). Wira-Kohu was starting prop alongside Harata Butler, the MVP for the recent Sky Sports women’s premiership.
While Wira-Kohu had proud family in the crowd at Mt Smart Stadium, not everyone could be there. She has full-time care of her sister’s four children, but the younger kids had their own debut over the weekend, in kapa haka.
Just as Wira-Kohu began her international league journey, a legend of the game called time on her 18-year career. League and rugby legend Honey Hireme-Smiler announced her retirement after the Kiwi Ferns victory – following 32 tests and four World Cups for the national side.
Wira-Kohu, 28, has also split her career between rugby and league, taking up the latter sport just four years ago. Last year she played rugby for the Northland Kauri in the Farah Palmer Cup, and had a stint with the Counties-Manukau Heat in 2018.
“When we went into the first Covid lockdown, I decided it was the perfect time to start being serious [about league] and get into shape,” she says. “To give footy a real good crack because I’ve kind of just winged it every year. I was never fully committed and I didn’t eat well. But this year I thought ‘It’s all or nothing’.”
Now her mental fortitude has paid off, with a bit of help from her family. When Wira-Kohu started training everyday, she got her whānau involved in the daily sweat sessions.
“We trained the house down. We made it compulsory so all the kids and my partner trained too. Because we couldn’t go anywhere we mostly did morning and nights and sometimes during the day,” says Wira-Kohu.
“We played touch and ran on the roads. Because our street is exactly 100m long, we’d use it like a circuit.”
Wira-Kohu’s weight started to drop; she was eating better and had more time to focus.
“I think I dropped like three sizes but I didn’t realise until I came out of Covid [lockdown], and everyone was like, ‘Oh, you look really good’,” she says. “Then people started asking, ‘What are you up to? Can we join?’”
What started as a family lockdown push to get more active inspired other families to jump on the fitness train.
“I started posting and heaps of people started messaging me like, ‘Can we have your workout routine?’ So I’d just take photos and stuff and put it online. When we were allowed to extend our bubble more family members started coming,” Wira-Kohu says.
“There’s an underground carpark not far from our street, so when it would rain we’d go there at night time and train for like an hour and then people just started joining in. I wouldn’t say it’s a class, it’s more like ‘I’m doing this, if anyone wants to join’.”
And they still do. The numbers differ each time but there are always people who want to train together.
Before the game, LockerRoom asked how she felt about making her debut.
“All that hard work – I’m not talking about in the gym or training and stuff – I mean the travel and the time away from my family – I can show them, this is what happened when I just put my head down and tried to focus a bit more,” she says. “I’m just trying to give back to them and let them know that it wasn’t for nothing.”
Born and raised in Whangārei, Wira-Kohu has been travelling to Auckland every week for two training sessions and games on the weekends to play for Counties Manukau in the premier national women’s competition.
Depending on traffic, it would take between two and four hours to get to Auckland, but there was some relief heading back up north, with less cars on the road afterwards. She’d get home around midnight.
She’s assumed running onto the field in her test debut would be a similar feeling to when she played for the Māori team in the NRL All Stars game before Covid-19 crusher tackled the world earlier this year.
“That was a pretty proud moment. It was a little bit different because I was representing my culture and my iwi,” says Wira-Kohu.
The All Stars game also holds an emotional reminder as it was the second time she’d played in the Indigenous clash since her dad’s passing two years ago. In 2018, she made the team but left in the middle of camp when her father died. “My dad was a big leaguie, he wasn’t much of a union man,” laughs Wira-Kohu.
After his passing, she also got full care of her sister’s four children.
“Plus I’ve had my little sister since she was eight and she’s 17 now. I used to work prior to that but once I got all the kids, I’m pretty much aunty, mum,” she says. “I take care of them and when I’m away, my partner organises them, and my younger sister is a big help too. It’s really busy at our house – it’s hectic but we love it.”
The younger kids were not there to watch her on Saturday, as they prepared for their first kapa haka regionals.
“My mum’s always wanted to watch me in the black jersey but we had to pick and choose. So I told them to stay home with our kids and prepare them for regionals. I know they’ll be so nervous so I wanted their preparation to be real smooth with heaps of family around,” she says.
It’s been an action-packed league season for Wira-Kohu. She just picked up MVP of the premiership grand final after her Counties Manukau team convincingly won their 11th consecutive title, against the Akarana Falcons, 34-4.
Wira-Kohu puts the club’s success down to team culture, and who leads the team.
“Krystal Rota is our captain and she’s been a leader the whole time I’ve been with Counties. She’s absolutely great, away from the field as well. Then the culture within the group, we come from a lot of different cultures – there’s Samoan, Tongan, Māori in the team – but everyone is real close and most of us are related,” Wira-Kohu says.
“And I think that’s the advantage we have. It’s more than just footy; we stay connected off the field too. That’s probably more important than what we have on the field.”
She’s not sure what’s in store for her in the sport long-term but this year she just wanted to see how far she could go.
“I thought if I could get my foot in the door and not muck around, and my kids would see it doesn’t matter how hard it is in life, if you’re persistent and persevere – if you do the mahi – then you’ll get the treats,” smiles Wira-Kohu.
“I just want them to know there is more to life than where we come from. It doesn’t define the type of people we are, we make our own destiny.”
And she certainly exemplifies her thinking and actions with the first Kiwi Ferns test cap to her name.