The first Māori to win Olympic gold in sevens rugby, cross-code star Amy Turner has returned home to play in what could be her last major rugby league match – now she’s thriving in her career helping people with disabilities.
It’s understandable why Amy Turner was wavering over returning to New Zealand. Even when it was to play for the Aotearoa Māori All Stars, in front of whānau – some who hadn’t seen run with an oval ball since she was a kid in Tokoroa.
Back at home in Queensland’s seaside suburb of Scarborough are Turner’s two young daughters and their dad. Their eldest, Kovah, proudly wears one of Mum’s Kiwi Ferns shirts to school (though it’s more of a dress on a five-year-old).
Turner also left behind the people she takes care of each day in her business supporting those with disabilities. People who always make the Olympic sevens gold medallist smile.
“I get to be amongst these beautiful humans and teach them life skills that some people take for granted,” Turner says. “We celebrate the wins like hanging out washing – things that make a huge impact on their everyday lives.”
So when the Brisbane Broncos centre was invited back to her original home to play for Māori Wāhine Toa in their clash with Australia’s Indigenous All Stars this weekend, she was at first “on the fence”.
“But then I found out it was going to be in Rotorua and I was ‘Yeah I’m jumping on that waka and coming home to play in front of my whānau, embrace our beautiful culture and show off an amazing brand of footie,” says Turner, who’s of Ngāti Raukawa and Ngāpuhi descent.
“And be a good role model to all those young Māori girls who want to wear this jersey one day, showing them they can do it.”
But this could also be the last time Turner, who’s 39 next month, plays a rugby league match in Aotearoa.
Her career at the top of international sport has been a glittering one. Turner played rugby sevens for Australia at the 2016 Rio Olympics – where they denied the Black Ferns Sevens gold – then switched codes and countries to make her international league debut for the Kiwi Ferns last June.
But she’s not sure where her playing career goes from here.
“To be honest, I’ll see how I go with this game, and then reassess,” Turner says. “I’m at the other end of the scale when it comes to my playing career. I’m a realist and I know I’m getting on now.
“There are girls in the Māori All Stars who are 18, and they buzz out when I tell them how old I really am.”
Turner has plans to play club league for top Brisbane club Wynnum-Manly Seagulls this season, but beyond that, she has no idea what lies ahead.
She’s played just one test for the Kiwi Ferns, against Tonga last June, where she scored a try and made two line-breaks in their 50-12 victory at Mt Smart Stadium. So does she dream of playing for her country of birth again?
“Everyone always wants to play for the Kiwi Ferns – so if it comes, it comes,” she says. “I’ve been fortunate to have been able to tick that box. So I’ll reassess after this game and take each game as it comes.”
League was the first sport Turner played as a six-year-old in Tokoroa, and as she added touch and rugby to her sporting repertoire, her family made countless 45-minute trips to Rotorua for trainings and weekend games.
“So that’s what makes this game so special,” says Turner, who scored a try in the Māori All Stars victory in 2021. “Being able to come home and play in front of my family; some of them haven’t seen me playing a major game like this. It’s amazing being able to represent not only my family but my people.
“Being able to come back again fills my cup so much. And being around all the Māori tamariki coming to the signing yesterday was magical.”
Turner, who’s also played for the NZ Māori Sevens, says she’s more anxious doing the haka than she is playing the game. “Especially on home soil with all eyes on you. It’s nerve-wracking,” she laughs.
Amy Turner was part of the Māori Wahine Toa haka before the 2021 All Stars match in Queensland.
She was 20 when she left Tokoroa for Queensland, and was driving trucks at the mines at Mt Isa when she took up a professional contract to play sevens rugby for Australia, building up to the game’s debut Olympic appearance in 2016.
“When we won the Olympic gold medal, I was like ‘Yeah its cool’,” says Turner, who was also received the Medal of the Order of Australia for her services to the sport.
“But then a friend said: ‘You know you’re the first Māori to win an Olympic sevens gold medal?’ and I’d never thought of it like that. So I hold it close to my heart and now I always reflect on what I’ve done.
“I’ve worked hard and sacrificed so many things, but it’s what I love as well. I enjoy training and being part of a team, who become part of your family. And let’s be honest, everyone loves travelling for free – that’s why I started playing sport when I was younger, so I could travel beyond Tokoroa.”
Turner returned to her league roots with the Brisbane Broncos in 2019, when they won the NRLW. She took the 2020 season off, pregnant with Riemy, but the centre nicknamed ‘Way Way’ has been back in the maroon and gold for the past two seasons.
“You can be an incredible athlete but being a good person is top of the list”.
Being a mum and playing at the highest level has come with its challenges, Turner admits, but she’s been grateful for the “role model” mothers she’s played alongside – Australian Sevens star Nicole Beck and fellow cross-code star Honey Hireme-Smiler.
“Pup [Beck] used to bring her daughter, Sophie, to our trainings. Just seeing how the baby responded to being around the girls, and how having a baby around brought something special to our team, rather than just footie, footie,” Turner says.
“It’s a different dynamic being a Mama, you need your babies there. I remember playing with Queensland rugby and I’d just had Kovah so I had my breast pump in the corner of the changing room. Everyone adapts.” Turner’s room-mate in Rotorua is another cross-code international, Shanice Parker, who brought her son, Jakari, with her from Australia.
Turner has made daily calls to her whānau while she’s been in Rotorua, but also to a few of the people she takes care of in her family business, Without Limits Disability Support Services.
“We provide services to people with disabilities. We have cleaning services, and respite for carers. We take our clients out into the community, to go swimming or out for coffee or to footie games,” says Turner, who’s also been a youth worker.
“It’s a beautiful job, that really makes you appreciate life. The people we work with make me smile every day.”
Turner can see she’s using the transferable skills she’s picked up in her rugby careers in the latest chapter in her life: “You can be an incredible athlete but being a good person is top of the list”.
* Live coverage of the Aotearoa NZ Māori Wahine Toa All Stars vs Australian Indigenous Women’s All Stars in Rotorua on Saturday begins on Sky Sport 4 at 3.05pm.