To see Ayesha Leti-I’iga crashing through tackle after tackle, or her scorching pace kicking in and leaving defenders flailing, or laughing with her new buddy, Ruby Tui, as they practise their chip kicks, you’d have no idea of the pain and torment she’s been through.
The Black Ferns’ weapon on the left wing, Leti-I’iga scored twice in the opening match of their Pacific Four campaign, a win against Australia, a fortnight ago, and was player of the match in last weekend’s victory over Canada. She’s never been as fit or enjoyed her rugby so much, she admits, before the Black Ferns’ final game against the United States on Saturday.
Yet it wasn’t that long ago, Leti-I’iga believed she’d never get to pull on the black jersey again.
And she’s forever grateful to the grandmother who raised her for helping to pull her out of a downward spiral.
A Black Fern since she was 19 back in 2018, Leti-I’iga quickly stamped her mark on the Black Ferns as an exciting try scorer and a powerful and deceptive runner with the ball. Standing at just 1.65m, she was proud to be “different to other wingers” and stuck to her grandfather’s advice to always be fearless in a game.
But then the Porirua-born Samoan’s progression came to a sudden halt – when her head hit another player in a club match in 2020.
Playing for her Ories (Oriental Rongotai) club side – where she’s famous for repeatedly scoring five or more tries in a game – Leti-I’iga made a tackle but went in headfirst.
“I had a headache after the game and thought nothing of it,” the 23-year-old says.
But it turned out she had delayed concussion, and a major one at that.
“As the days went by, I started getting sensitivity to light and I was really tired throughout the day. I slept most of the day, and I was barely eating,” she says.
“I had sharp headaches which made me sleep more, because I couldn’t bare the pain when I was awake.”
What made it tougher for Leti-I’iga to cope was that she was already grieving the death of her beloved grandad, Faaui.
Leti-I’iga was raised by her grandparents after her mum, Mary Asolupe Leti-I’iga was tragically struck by a car in 2009. Ayesha was just 11 years old.
She had a special bond with her grandparents, who are from the Samoan village of Lalomauga on Upolu. But especially her grandad, who she’s always called her “coach off the field”.
She was devastated by his passing. “It was really hard for me because rugby was our thing. With him not being here, it was hard to find my love for rugby again,” she says. “So I didn’t cope as well as I thought I would.
“After that all happened, I spiralled. And I turned to alcohol to try to solve my problems. I really thought I wouldn’t be able to put the black jersey on again.”
But then a “good chat” with her grandmother, Salafa, turned her around.
“Nana just told me straight: ‘Where do you want to go in life? You’re not going down the right path. Is this what your grandad would have wanted for you?’,” Leti-I’iga recalls.
“That was a real eye-opener because I didn’t want to take his name in vain.
“I knew I could either keep going downhill or go back up from this. And so I just knuckled down and did the hard work to get back here.”
Concussion remains a serious issue in sport in New Zealand, and rugby tops the list in ACC claims for concussion. Research undertaken by the University of Otago of Kiwi rugby players, on top of international research, shows female rugby players tend to be at a higher risk of concussion than male. Rugby concussion for men sits around 13.8 suspected concussions per thousand playing hours, and in the women’s game it’s about 20.8.
The Black Ferns have been involved in helping World Rugby to better understand head injuries in the game, wearing hi-tech mouthguards in a test against England late last year.
Leti-I’iga saw a specialist in head injuries, and spent three months away from the field. Her aiga were her biggest support, she says. And they also became her driving force to get back into black, and earn a fully-professional contract with the Black Ferns. A goal she achieved in February.
“We didn’t have the most privileged upbringing and I wanted to give back to my grandparents, for the sacrifices they made for me,” says Leti-I’iga, who’d worked for the Ministry of Social Development. “Knowing I could make money just playing the sport I love, so I could give back to them, that’s driven me.”
When she suffered her concussion, she’d just been selected for the Possibles v Probables trial looking towards the 2021 Rugby World Cup to be played in New Zealand. But of course, Covid struck, and the tournament was postponed 12 months. Leti-I’iga could finally thank her lucky stars.
“I’m pretty lucky the World Cup got pushed another year. If it was still last year, I don’t think I would have made the team,” she says. “But I have faith now that I can still make that team, so I’m trying to push for it.”
‘I may not be everyone’s cup of tea, but I may be someone’s shot of vodka’ – Ayesha Leti-I’iga
If the Black Ferns selectors had to choose their team today for the World Cup, kicking off at Eden Park on October 8, Leti-I’iga would be a sure bet to be there.
“Man, our wingers are world-class aren’t they?” the Black Ferns new director of coaching, Wayne Smith, said after Sunday’s win over Canada (when right wing Ruby Tui scored two spectacular tries).
“Ayesh isn’t bad either,” Smith said with a grin. “They’re phenomenal, so you can see why we want to play some rugby because you’ve got to use your great players. They’re pretty special.”
Leti-I’iga found her love of rugby again playing in this year’s Super Rugby Aupiki for Hurricanes Poua. And on this Pacific Four series tour, she says she’s enjoying her rugby even more and is the fittest she’s been, too.
She credits a new “family environment” in the Black Ferns, under a new coaching team led by Smith, and being given the licence to run the ball from anywhere on the field.
And then there’s been the arrival of Tui.
Practice makes perfect for Ruby Tui with the chip and chase she’s been practising for a month.
This series has been Olympic gold medallist Tui’s international debut in rugby 15s. And she’s immediately made an impression on the coaches, fans and her team-mates. None more so than Leti-I’iga.
After Tui, 30, scored the Black Ferns first try in the test against Canada – a smartly executed chip and chase in the right-hand corner – she gave kudos to Leti-I’iga.
“Ayesha has been my coach on the chip and chase, and she’s been really hard and critical every day,” Tui said. “And when I did it on the field, she even said it wasn’t good enough; it wasn’t high enough… so I’ll try and work on it more.”
“Nice,” Leti-I’iga chipped back. “I’m glad you acknowledge your mistakes.”
Tui has now set a challenge for Leti-I’iga. “We’re both competitive people, so Ruby has got one up on me. So if there’s an opportunity in this game [tomorrow] I’m going to give it a crack,” she laughs.
“Having Ruby in this space has made this tour even more fun for me. We play the same position, but I never feel like I’m in competition with Ruby – we’re just helping each other get better.
“We’re similar people, we’ve naturally gravitated to each other, and we’ve become real close super-fast.”
Leti-I’iga has also learned from Tui, a veteran of more than 150 games in the black jersey, and the 2019 World Sevens player of the year.
“Rugby aside, the first thing I picked up from Ruby is she’s a human first. She’s a people person, and that really shone throughout this tour. She took that on the field, and there was so much trust in our team,” Leti-I’iga says.
She makes them laugh, too: “We’re doing drills and she’s groaning and scaring people. I ask her ‘Why do you make those noises?’ and she says she can’t keep her excitement in.
“We’ve been real big on culture and she’s helped implement that in our team. It’s really cool to see how much our team has grown. We’re still building and I can’t wait to see where we go.”
Tui will be missing from New Zealand’s backline against the United States in Whangārei on Saturday, having returned to the Black Ferns Sevens fold.
“I’m already missing my buddy,” Leti-I’iga says. “I sent her a long text today saying how much love I have for her, and how grateful I am to have her in this team.”
Leti-I’iga is looking forward to taking the field against the US, the nation she made her debut against at Chicago’s famous Soldier Field in 2018 – scoring the final try in the Black Ferns’ 67-6 victory. She’s excited, too, her family have travelled north to watch her play.
She’ll have the names of her mum and grandad written on tape around her wrist when she plays.
“I’ve never gone into a game scared because my grandad always told me to be fearless,” she says.
“I know I’m different to other wingers because of my size and I want to bring something different. So I use my size to my advantage.
“There’s a netballer, Cathrine Latu [now Tuivaiti], she’s different. And there’s a quote that sticks with me: ‘I may not be everyone’s cup of tea, but I may be someone’s shot of vodka’. So that’s me.”