The honour of playing her part in the first Moana Pasifika rugby team was not lost on their physio, Ala Bakulich-Leavasa – the Manusina rugby trailblazer trying to draw more Pasifika women to the game
Sitting in a cosy hotel boardroom in south Auckland, adorned with taonga – treasures – from around the Pacific, the first-ever Moana Pasifika team wait patiently for their ava ceremony.
Among those sitting knee-to-knee is Muliagatele Niuafolau Alaisalatemaota Bakulich-Leavasa – best known as Ala, who’s one of the team’s physiotherapists. She’s also Samoa’s most-capped women’s rugby player.
The Manusina icon – who moved from the midfield to the side of the scrum then the front row – has her eyes fixed on the other side of the room, where elders and supporters from respective communities across the motu [islands] and ocean are gathered.
The ava – or kava – ceremony is an important and intricate tradition shared among Pacific cultures for special occasions. The ceremonies vary between cultures, but the shared meaning usually marks welcoming people into the host village and paying tribute to both parties through sharing of ava – to nurture reciprocal relationships.
In this case, it was the joining of different Pacific cultures to create Moana Pasifika – the combined Pacific team aiming to be included in Super Rugby from 2022 – and for elders to give blessings to the team venturing out to represent their families and the heritage of Fiji, Samoa and Tonga.
Bakulich-Leavasa has been part of ava ceremonies before – but this one is different. This time, she’s one of only three women in Moana Pasifika’s management team. And as she holds the highest Samoan matai [chief] title (for service), she is the first female to receive ava (and third person overall). That’s a sign of her ranking and status in Samoan society and communities.
“When I was able to receive my ava and be able to respond in my language, it was such a special moment that I’ll hold in my heart,” says Bakulich-Leavasa afterwards.
“Even having my best friend there as Taupou [chief’s daughter], just seeing her and thinking about my parents, my family, and how I carry myself in everything that I do because of them.”
Not one to make a fuss, Bakulich-Leavasa admits she usually prefers to work in the background, focusing on the players’ wellbeing. But on this momentous occasion she found herself encouraged by others to stay up front.
“It was actually quite humbling that Fa’alogo [Tana Umaga, Moana Pasifika coach] and them were like ‘No, no, no, you come to the front; not the back’,” she says.
Sitting among people who she’s also looked up to – like Sir Tuifa’asisina Bryan Williams, Sir La’auli Michael Jones and Saveatama Eroni Clarke – was “uplifting”.
“I was just really proud of what they have achieved,” she says. “They have paved the way in rugby to make opportunities for our young ones to come, girls and boys.”
Always tirelessly dedicated to her roles, Bakulich-Leavasa only realised at the beginning of that evening the magnitude of what Moana Pasifika represents.
“When I get to work with teams, I’m there to make sure the boys are ready and injury-free. And with my [physio] colleague Nathen Foulagi, we think about our job first,” she says. “It wasn’t until the ava ceremony, that it was like ‘OMG, I am actually part of a historic moment, a historic team’.
“And then it was a special moment throughout the whole week – just knowing that this is for our communities.”
Bakulich-Leavasa says she was privileged to hear similar migration stories to her own from the players during camp.
“Everyone’s stories are around the migration of our people searching for better opportunities. Just hearing that from the boys resonated with me, knowing we’re all here for a common purpose – which is to serve,” she says.
“Giving back to our communities, giving back to our parents, giving back to our grandparents. Because if they didn’t make the first step, then we wouldn’t be here.”
Her parents, the late Faleafa Pita Leavasa, Tautiaga Senara and Olita Senara, moved to Auckland from Samoa in the early eighties and like most families from the islands stayed in the Grey Lynn-Ponsonby area.
“They worked multiple jobs to try and save to have a roof over our heads and food on the table, so we finally settled in Mangere in south Auckland,” Bakulich-Leavasa says.
She was the only girl in the family with four brothers – who she joined playing all kinds of sports, like backyard footy: “I was maybe a tomboy when I was young.”
She started playing rugby at Marcellin College from Year 10 and finished her final year at high school at Epsom Girls’ Grammar – the first year a rugby team was formed at the school. She would go on to play over 50 games for three different teams in the New Zealand women’s rugby competition from the early 2000s.
The proudest moment of her playing career is taking the field at three World Cups for Manusina, in 2002, 2006 and 2014.
She has 14 test caps for Manusina. To put that into perspective, that’s 14 games over 15 years (from 2001 to 2016). That’s an indication of where the women’s game has been.
“The girls who play for Manusina now, they’ve got games every year with Oceania Rugby, which is awesome because you’re getting to represent your country,” she says.
Equally satisfying for her was getting into team management in 2018, alongside her husband Tauanu’u Nick Bakulich, who has been a staunch supporter of women’s rugby for as long as Bakulich-Leavasa has been playing.
Staying in roles within the sport she loves is what she wants to continue to do.
“For me, it’s about serving our Pacific teams,” Bakulich-Leavasa says. “And in the future, just being able to work my way through the different levels of sport.” She’s working with the game in the community, the Auckland Marist club and the Counties-Manukau province.
Knowing there aren’t many Pacific physiotherapists is one of the reasons Bakulich-Leavasa eventually got into the field after playing. She started studying while she was still playing in 2013, and after a gap year for the 2014 Rugby World Cup, she graduated in 2017.
“I think it’s really important that we enter these spaces,” she says. “We always relay that to the girls, as well as to our young ones. ‘Your rugby will finish but if you have aspirations to carry on, be part of the sport that you enjoy, then there are so many ways that you can do that’,” she says.
“It’s important we instill in our young ones that there are pathways after playing rugby, because we didn’t have the opportunities the girls have now.
“And it’s good for our young girls to see their own faces in those roles. So they can aspire to go, ‘oh yeah I can be a coach’, ‘I can manage’, or ‘I can try and get into a governance role’.”
One group of young women seeing that reality is the Maui Tamaki Makaurau U21 team – created by Bakulich-Leavasa, close friends and family, who’ve stayed on after hanging up their boots to give back to rugby and to those female rugby players coming through.
The U21 game with Maui Waikato was the curtainraiser for the Moana Pasifika versus Maori All Blacks match last weekend.
Before she went into camp with the men’s side, Bakulich-Leavasa was the physio in the lead-up to the U21 game.
“They [U21 team] got to actually see their own people in the management roles and they were all women. That’s an awesome visual. And it was really exciting being the first [U21] team too,” she says.
What started as ripples in previous generations is turning into waves now. And hopefully soon, that will lead to the tides changing completely for Pasifika rugby.
And there is no doubt Bakulich-Leavasa will still be there serving and exploring how far they can go.