Often overlooked in favour of rugby, American football is growing in NZ. Merryn Anderson catches up with one of the women on our first national flag football team.
The day Lineli Vaoga decided she wanted to give American football a go, she was thrown in the deep end, immediately joining a practice for the Papatoetoe Wildcats.
Just over six months later, the commercial painter had put down her paintbrush and was on a plane to San Diego with Aotearoa’s very first women’s American flag football team, the Wāhine Toa.
Flag football is like a cross between American tackle football and rippa rugby – players wearing flags around their waists, and play stops if an offensive player’s flag is ripped from their belt.
The team of 10 competed in the adult elite championship series in the United States, as they work their way towards the Asia/Oceania championships in October, and hopefully onto the world champs next year.
The Wāhine Toa won one game and lost two – and were kept scoreless in their final match by the eventual champs, the Dragones from Tijuana.
Vaoga had never really travelled within the North Island before, despite growing up in Auckland, but she’s seen more of New Zealand in the last six months with the sport than she had in her lifetime.
“I’m just grateful, absolutely grateful and honoured to be part of the first ever New Zealand women’s flag football team,” she says.
“Coming into this sport less than a year ago, just a little over six months, it’s just opened up a whole new chapter for me in my life.”
Affectionately known as Neli, the 21-year-old works full-time in Auckland, and felt like she needed a change in her life.
“I’d gotten to that point where I was constantly working and I wasn’t doing much apart from working, going home,” she says.
“I felt like I needed to do something else so I thought of football.”
Having played a variety of sports growing up – netball, basketball, rugby – Vaoga would watch teams playing American football, often practising on the field at her high school, James Cook High School, or at the nearby Mountfort Park.
“I’d always watch football and I’d always wanted to join, but I had never seen any female teams,” explains Vaoga.
“And then when I found out that there were female teams last year, I just decided to give it a go.”
She didn’t know anyone who played, but messaged the Papatoetoe Wildcats on Instagram, and later that day, showed up to her first training.
“It was pretty hectic, but from the get go, the girls were so welcoming and instantly I felt like they had taken me under their wing,” she says.
Vaoga picked up both flag and tackle football, and also plays on both offence and defence – a rarity to have a player so versatile.
It was a simple decision to stick with learning both – Vaoga’s selflessness for her team members inspiring the move.
“It came down to the numbers we had, we didn’t have enough for both offence and defence and instead of having the team pull out, I would rather play both sides,” Vaoga explains.
“I started off with offence and then I made a choice to jump on defence to help my team and that definitely opened up a new area for me, and I realised I could do both. And if I was able to do that to help my team, I was willing to do that.”
Vaoga was recognised as the Wildcats’ women’s rookie of the year for tackle football, and best offensive player for flag football for the summer season. The Wildcats also won the women’s flag football club national championships in March.
Vaoga enjoys playing both, flag a nice break from the body getting bashed in tackle. The main difference she finds is in the type of players.
“In tackle you’re going up against girls who have played rugby and league whereas in flag, you’re going up against girls who have more agility and speed, so it’s quite different in a sense of that,” she explains.
Flag football is a rapidly growing sport in the US, especially popular with kids, preferring the no-contact sport to the physical nature of tackle football – the participation rate for six to 12-year-olds has increased by 38 percent since 2015.
Vaoga believes it’s refreshing to try a new sport and would encourage people to give flag football a go.
“Growing up in New Zealand, everyone knows there’s netball, rugby, basketball, but flag football, for me and I think for other people it would feel the same, it felt like a breath of fresh air,” she says.
“You’re stepping into this new sport, you’re learning something new. And with this new sport in New Zealand, there’s so many new opportunities opening up for everyone, and that’s not just as a player, but administration, managers, coaches, everything like that.”
The vulnerability of knowing no one and nothing about the sport was immediately replaced by a new community for Vaoga.
“Everyone is just so welcoming and because it’s such a new sport, we generally have a lot of new players coming in,” she says.
“The moment you walk in, you know you’re in a safe space, you know you’re not the only new one. And if you are the only new one, you know those who have been playing for years will look after you.”
Vaoga is known as the squad hype woman, with her relentlessly positive attitude. She says it started through their punishments.
“Obviously with a squad like this, you have to be pretty onto it, and if the girls aren’t onto it, there’s a few laps thrown in there,” she laughs.
“But we’ve just got to keep our team spirits up, cause if everyone’s feeling down, the game doesn’t go well, but if you keep your spirits up and everyone’s gelling well together, then everyone’s going to go better on the field.
“I guess that’s why I try to keep everyone smiling, everyone laughing. Also it’s just good for next time, people don’t want to come back if there’s a negative environment, so if you keep the positivity, people are going to want to come back.”