Angel Mulu has a small tattoo behind her left elbow which represents a heartbeat transforming into rugby goal posts.
She had the image inscribed to represent the importance of rugby in her life. It was her pathway out of trouble.
“I was a troublesome kid, not very good in school except for sports. I played hockey and threw shot put until I first played rugby at Bishop Viard College in Porirua,” 22-year-old Mulu recalls.
“When I was a teenager, my parents split. I went to Tauranga with Mum, and my two brothers stayed in Wellington. It was tough – violence, alcohol, truancy, bad attitude. I wanted to be myself but I didn’t know how to be myself.”
Tauranga Girls’ College helped Mulu find her feet, with rugby a key part of her identity.
“I really struggled when I first arrived in Tauranga. I was used to being around Porirua people; they’re a bit different in Tauranga,” Mulu says. “I had a real rebellious attitude. I didn’t fit in. I didn’t want to be there, most of the teachers didn’t want me there either.
“I was lucky a couple of PE teachers took sympathy. Sometimes we’d just go to the gym and hang out. We didn’t learn anything, but at least we were being physical.
“When they introduced attendance compliance to play rugby I struggled, but it was the start of my turnaround. That little carrot. I had an inner desire to succeed in rugby. Getting things right off the field is harder than getting things right on the field.”
She’s grateful to PE teachers Jeff Robb and Leo Scott, and her Māori teacher ‘Whaea T’ for getting her through high school.
Mulu started her rugby career playing at hooker, where she was good enough to be selected in the Bay of Plenty U18 team, and then in the short-lived Bay of Plenty women’s rugby academy. Between 2018 and 2021, she played 19 games for the Volcanix, forging a strong relationship with fellow Black Fern Luka Connor.
“Luka was the best thing for me at Bay of Plenty. She was a hooker and taught me how to play prop. I play on the loosehead side which is about trying to outmuscle or trick your opponent,” Mulu says.
Her international potential was first hinted at when she played for the New Zealand Development XV who won all three matches in the Oceania women’s rugby championships in Fiji in 2019.
In May 2021, she was part of history playing in the first women’s Super Rugby match for Chiefs Manawa, who trounced the Blues, 39-12, at Eden Park.
She entered the history books again in March this year, when she scored the first try in Super Rugby Aupiki, driving the ball across the line for Chiefs Manawa seven minutes into the first game against Matatū. Chiefs Manawa went on to win the inaugural Super Rugby Aupiki title.
It was a special honour she says “to represent my family and my surname”.
Angel Mulu (right, with Santo Taumata) scored the first try in Super Rugby Aupiki history for Chiefs Manawa.
In late May, the Black Ferns were selected for the Pacific Four series. Mulu was out kayaking when she missed an important phone call, and almost bungled a family barbecue.
“It’s not often my family gets together but time heals. Everyone knew what day the [rugby selection] calls were and planned accordingly, accept me. I went kayaking with my brother to pretend to switch off from the pressure,” Mulu says.
“At the family barbecue I kept checking my phone, fidgeting under the table. When the food was served, I didn’t eat, just poked the fork at the steak and sat at the bench by myself, all lonely.”
Texts and calls flooded into her phone, but the only call she answered was from Luka Connor, who asked if she’d got a call from an unfamiliar number.
Mulu texted the number back. “Within 10 seconds the phone rang. I went to a room away from the barbecue,” she recalls. On the other end of the line was Black Ferns assistant coach Whitney Hansen telling her she’d made the team.
“I was overwhelmed. I had a huge smile,” Mulu says.
“I started eating at the barbecue and Dad was like ‘have you got something to say?’ I wasn’t allowed to tell anyone, but I let it slip that I’d made the Black Ferns. We had a huge celebration.”
Mulu debuted off the bench in the Black Ferns’ 23-10 win against Australia in the opening game of the Pacific Four series on a rainy, cold day in Tauranga. It was the Black Ferns’ 20th win on the trot against Australia.
In a special moment, Mulu was presented her test cap, number 236, by Connor. And by coincidence, 236 was the number of the house she grew up in Porirua.
Her whānau were in the grandstand with huge gold balloons spelling out her name.
Black Fern Angel Mulu with her whānau and support crew after her debut against Australia this year.
She was good enough to retain her place on the bench for the 28-0 whitewash of Canada. “The second [test] felt different. It was special but not quite the same high as the first. Still I was like, ‘wow I’m an international player now’,” she says.
Mulu, a senior championship winner at the Mount Maunganui club in 2021, returned to Porirua this year. She helped Northern United win their 16th Wellington championship since 1993, scoring a try in the 58-10 slaying of Marist St Pats in the final.
Norths are rarely beaten, having won 112 of 138 games since 2012, but they had lost twice to Marist during the season.
She was also an important gain for the Wellington Pride in this season’s Farah Palmer Cup, propping up the front row alongside Te Kura Ngata-Aerengamate, also making her Pride debut.
It’s been a special season for Mulu to play in front of her family again, after five years away, so they don’t have to watch her on a livestream anymore.
When Mulu left the Volcanix, head coach Brent Kaua said she would be missed.
“We love Angel. She’s a great human and we wish her all the best in Wellington. She is now based down there so it makes sense that she plays there,” Kaua said. “We had a good convo, and we want to make sure she has the best preparation to ultimately make the World Cup.”
Mulu missed selection in the latest Black Ferns squad to play in the O’Reilly Cup series against Australia later this month. But she still has the opportunity to impress the selectors through the FPC. It goes without saying she wants to play at the World Cup on home soil in October.
Away from the field, she’s already living up to her first name.
Tauranga woman Margaret Gundersen was seriously injured in a car crash in 2019. She suffered six fractured teeth, eight broken ribs, a broken neck, two broken lumbar vertebrae, and a huge gash on her left leg.
Gunderson credits Mulu, then a teenager, with saving her life. Mulu arrived on the scene shortly after the smash, and tapped on her chest when she appeared to stop breathing twice.
“Margaret was moving her neck, saying how sore it was, and I knew it needed to be stabilised and was trying to hold her still,” Mulu told the AMI Insurance website. “I was telling her I would stay with her and that we were getting her grandson, and that made her calm.
“I did think she might die because she did it twice to me, she stopped breathing. I was tapping her and yelling at her, saying, ‘You’re not going anywhere’.
“On one of those occasions, she woke up and asked me if I was a real angel.”
* The Wellington Pride, sitting mid-table, play their fourth FPC game against Manawatu Cyclones this Saturday at 2pm, live coverage on Sky Sport 1.