Powering her way into the Black Ferns No.8 jersey for the RWC quarterfinals, Liana Mikaele-Tu’u is one step ahead of her brother, on his way to play on the first All Blacks XV tour. Suzanne McFadden writes.
Liana Mikaele-Tu’u forgives her big brother, Marino, for not coming to watch her play for the Black Ferns in the Rugby World Cup.
That’s even though Marino, and his twin brother Antonio, were Mikaele-Tu’u’s rugby heroes growing up in the Hawkes Bay – at a time when she didn’t follow the Black Ferns, just the fortunes of her siblings.
“It’s okay,” the powerhouse Black Ferns No.8 says. “Marino’s pretty busy at the moment.”
By happenstance, 20-year-old Mikaele-Tu’u is realising her dream and playing in a World Cup on home soil, at the same time as Marino – also a No.8 – is heading to the Northern Hemisphere today in the first All Blacks XV squad.
As she takes the field in Whangārei on Saturday night in the Black Ferns’ starting line-up to meet Wales in the Rugby World Cup quarterfinal, he should be touching down in Dublin.
The timing of these two major events couldn’t be more difficult for their parents. The All Blacks XV – a new squad created as a pathway to the All Blacks – will play two matches on tour; the second against the Barbarians at Tottenham Stadium, around seven hours after the Rugby World Cup final at Eden Park. A final Mikaele-Tu’u hopes to be playing in.
Although the twins are four years older than their sister, the rugby careers of Liana and Marino have followed almost parallel trajectories. They both played for Hawkes Bay when they were still teenagers, and they made it into rugby’s history books in 2021 as the first sister and brother duo to play Super Rugby (she for the Blues, he for the Highlanders). Now they’re both representing their country.
She owes a lot to her brothers, who dragged her into playing with an oval ball in their big backyard, who showed no mercy to their netball-playing little sister, but taught her how to tackle and be tough. But they also taught her to have fun.
“It’s really cool because they were my favourite rugby players growing up,” she says. “I didn’t follow the Black Ferns then, but I was at every one of my brothers’ games.”
Marino Mikaele-Tu’u with sister, Liana, and their parents after a Highlanders game at Eden Park.
Antonio, a midfield back, went on to play two seasons for North Harbour in the NPC. “So to see where we are now is so cool,” Liana says.
“The fact Marino and I play the same position is funny. A lot of the girls joke we play really similar rugby and we look similar when we play – which is baffling to me. I don’t know if it’s a compliment or not.”
The proud Mikaele-Tu’u parents, Laina and Tamiano, are fully behind their daughter, moving north from Hastings for five weeks to watch her play in Auckland and Whangārei.
Despite a knee injury this year, and sprained ribs from the first World Cup match against Australia, Mikaele-Tu’u has had an explosive World Cup campaign, playing her way into what has the makings of the Black Ferns’ top XV.
“Whenever I get on the field, I just want to be remembered for being physical,” the Auckland Storm and Blues No.8 says.
“I want to prove to myself this is exactly where I’m supposed to be, and make the most of it as well.”
Her game has come a long way, she says, from her Black Ferns debut a year ago on the fated Northern Tour, where they didn’t win a game. But she still stood out as one of the breakthrough players – with best friend and fellow newbie, lock Maiakawanakaulani Roos, who’s also in the starting XV against Wales.
“Everything was such a blur, but as a young, fresh player I enjoyed every part of that tour,” says Mikaele-Tu’u, who played at both No.8 and blindside flanker. (She says she’s happy in either role).
She’s made noticeable improvements in her game under new Black Ferns head coach, Wayne Smith – she’s fitter, she says, and playing more freely.
In fact, she wrote ‘Play freely’ on one of her taped wrists for the Black Ferns’ game last weekend against Scotland – a game where she scored her first try in the black jersey.
When Mikaele-Tu’u was presented with her jersey last week by a player she really looks up to, former Black Fern No.8 and two-time World Cup champion, Aroha Savage, she was reminded to be herself out on the field.
“It was a good reminder for me to not overthink things and play the way I play because that’s why I’m here,” she says.
“I think I’m fitter now so I’m able to do more of the things I was dreaming I could do when I wasn’t fit. It helps that I can get around a bit more than I was last year.
“Being contracted, you’re able to have a lot of amazing people around you – physios and trainers – full-time. I always feel like there’s no excuse not to be on form when it comes to game time.”
She’s still buzzing about her first Black Ferns try – scored in the 17th minute when at her powerful best, she crashed onto a pass from halfback Arihiana Marino-Tauhinu, smashing between Scottish defenders and reaching out to score.
“I’m going to be so honest – it felt so cool,” she laughs. “I never score tries, but to be able to do it in front of that huge crowd and with my team behind me, it was amazing. I think I’ll remember that for a long time – because I don’t know when I’ll score another one.”
It hasn’t been the easiest of seasons for Mikaele-Tu’u, who hyperextended her knee during the Pacific Four series, which led to missing the Laurie O’Reilly Series against Australia.
“I just thought it was a little niggle, but as it went on, I thought there was something wrong. So we did a scan and I was missing a chunk of cartilage in my knee and that caused a lot of bone bruising,” she says. “We decided to take some time off to rest. I’m so grateful for the time I had, or I would have been battling through this World Cup. It still comes up, but it’s nothing really bad.”
Away from the field, Mikaele-Tu’u put her physiotherapy degree on hold this year to fully focus on rugby. She’s been working with her physio advisor at the Auckland University of Technology, Tammi Wilson (a former Black Fern who’s also won two World Cups), to see if she can pick up part-time study again next year.
She misses being an ‘angel’ – a role she played with Roos at Tamaki College last year, helping to keep troubled kids going to school. “It was so special, because Tamaki College has a special place in Maia’s upbringing too,” Mikaele-Tu’u says (Roos was head girl at Tamaki).
If the Black Ferns progress to the semifinals (which they should), Mikaele-Tu’u is looking forward to the chance to play France (and possibly England in the final) – searching for redemption for last year’s heavy defeats in their backyards.
“I’ve been watching them from afar,” she says of the progress of the two northern powerhouses in this World Cup. “But we always talk about ‘It’s not about any other team, it’s about what we do’.
“England are playing Australia in their quarterfinal, and that will be the closest match up to us, so it will be good to see how they go against them.”
* The Rugby World Cup quarterfinals start on Saturday, at Northland Events Centre, Whangārei with France vs Italy, 4pm, and New Zealand vs Wales, 7.30pm. On Sunday, at Waitākere Stadium, Auckland, England vs Australia, 1pm, and Canada vs USA, 3.45pm. All live on Spark Sport (NZ game delayed on Three).