Martha Mataele almost gave up on her Black Ferns dream before her call-up came this month.
When the Black Ferns director of rugby, Allan Bunting, rang the 24-year-old to tell her the good news, she had to hold things together and not scream directly into her phone. Her contagious positive energy can be felt through the phone simply recalling the moment.
“But straight afterwards I screamed at the top of my lungs and I just started crying, bawling my eyes out,” says Mataele, who was born in Auckland but grew up in Christchurch. She’s of Tongan heritage, with her dad from Ma’ufanga, a village on the main island.
The winger had just returned from Perth, where she and husband Manasa Mataele were playing for the Western Force in the Super W and Super Rugby Pacific leagues respectively.
“I moved over to just be with my husband and we thought we were going to stay overseas for quite a while,” she says. “So I thought I had to give up on my Black Ferns dream at that point.”
But when the Mataeles ended up back in New Zealand in July without Force contracts, Martha realised her dream to wear the black jersey was still alive.
“That’s when I did what I needed to do, put my best foot forward for the upcoming FPC [Farah Palmer Cup]. I had the conversations I needed to have and got the support around me, because I really wanted to make this next squad.”
Now Mataele’s been named on the reserves bench for the Black Ferns team to play the Wallaroos in Hamilton on Saturday, one of three potential debutants.
The last time the two teams met was in June, where the Kiwis triumphed over their trans-Tasman rivals, 50-0.
Mataele was mainly committed to netball at high school, but played a lot of sports, including athletics and a bit of sevens.
Once she finished at Christchurch Girls’ High School at the end of 2017, she decided to fully commit to rugby union and XVs. In 2019, she played her first FPC game for Canterbury, scoring a try in her debut coming off the bench. She’s played for them every season since, marking her mark as a prolific try-scorer on the wing.
“I’m so grateful to come from Canterbury,” she says about her time with the team. “I’m super grateful that we’ve got such a supportive and high performing environment. It’s really helped me with my transition into the Black Ferns environment.”
In 2022, Mataele was part of the Matatū team in the inaugural Super Rugby Aupiki.
Matatū finished bottom of the table in 2022, unable to find a win in their three matches. But in 2023, they reversed their fortunes, defeating the Chiefs Manawa (who hadn’t lost a game in two seasons), 33-31 in the final to take out the Aupiki title. Mataele scored one of Matatū’s four tries in that game.
“Oh my goodness, it was the best,” she says. “Matatū was just another step up from FPC – just the level of detail, the content and our game plan.
“I enjoyed it so much, being challenged and playing with some of the best in the world.”
It’s prepared her well for the life of a Black Fern, the content similar to what Matatū trainings were like. But Mataele is now able to focus on rugby fulltime with her Black Ferns call-up, an opportunity she’s very grateful for.
“I feel really privileged that I can do that. It’s just such a cool feeling,” she says.
“I’m able to tolerate the load better, like when I come into the tours. I can have more time, I have more clarity on what I’m doing because I have more time to do homework, to study the game.”
Mataele roomed with Ruby Tui last week, who was able to show her the ropes, both as a winger and a Black Fern.
“Honestly she was amazing, she helped me in so many different ways on and off the field,” Mataele says. “She’s just a good person to learn off and she’s been the best, just her knowledge of the winger position, roaming. I’ve learned a lot from her.”
Mataele training with the Black Ferns this week.
The whole Black Ferns experience – from training to being given free kit – has been a dream come true for Mataele.
“It’s been pretty surreal to be honest, just to be here, to be named in the squad,” she says.
Nervous and excited, Mataele is hoping to have her family at the game in Hamilton – including her rugby-playing husband and sister.
Younger sister Atlanta Lolohea played at hooker for Matatū this year, and made the Black Ferns XV side who beat Manusina Samoa, 38-12, last weekend. Lolohea, who also played for the Force in Perth this year, was naturally one of the first people Mataele told when she made the Black Ferns.
“She was so happy, and it was just a good time for us because she was getting ready to play Samoa as well, so it was cool,” she says.
The thought of being able to pull on the black jersey in front of her family this weekend is one that’s hard to imagine for Mataele. “It would mean everything, it would be a very emotional time, just to have all my family there, my husband,” she says.
It’s pushed her to keep striving towards further selection for the Black Ferns, with the WXV competition in October and November this year and their Rugby World Cup now just under two years away. The Black Ferns will be aiming to defend their World Cup title in 2025 in England, with the tournament kicking off in August.
But for now, all focus is on the rest of the year for the Black Ferns, and for Mataele, it’s about keeping her spot in the team.
“I’ve been in and out of the Black Ferns environment for the last few years,” Mataele says.”So I really want to keep putting my best foot forward and keep learning off others.”
*The Black Ferns take on the Wallaroos in the O’Reilly Cup on Saturday in Hamilton, with coverage live on Sky Sport 1 from 4pm and free-to-air on Sky Sport Open from 4.30pm.