Before making her debut for the Kiwi Ferns, Capri Paekau thinks about the little white card in her bedroom drawer back home in Te Awamutu.
It’s a card given to her by former Kiwi Ferns captain, Krystal Rota, three years ago – a message the up-and-coming hooker, law student and part-time scaffolder has cherished ever since.
“Krystal was my captain in the Counties-Manukau Stingrays and she wrote on this card for me,” 22-year-old Paekau says. “She would always push me and give me tips on how I could better my game. And she told me to be confident when I’m playing and always back myself.
“I’ve kept the card in my drawer, and I pull it out now and again to read it.”
Rota retired from international league last month after seven years in the Kiwi Ferns, when she became one of the standout players – and leaders – in the women’s game. The canny hooker’s success has inspired her young Kiwi Ferns successor.
“She such a strong, lovely woman who’s always looking out for the younger ones. And of course, we play the same position, so she’s just always been there supporting me,” Paekau (Ngāti Raukawa, Tainui) says. “And I’ve always looked up to her.”
The mentoring and encouragement from one of the Kiwi Ferns greats has paid off.
For the past few years, Paekau has teetered on the cusp of the Kiwi Ferns. She’s followed the Aotearoa Māori rugby league pathway, to be the youngest player – at 18 – to ever turn out for the Māori All Stars. And this year, she made her NRLW debut with the Parramatta Eels.
Named on the interchange bench for today’s Pacific Championship test against Tonga, part of a unique Eden Park triple header, Paekau hopes to make her first appearance in the Kiwi Ferns jersey. And she knows her biggest fan and her reason for taking up league – dad Jaden – will be cheering her on from the stands.
“I was trying to be straight-face serious with my coach [Ricky Henry] when he told me I was in the team,” she says. “But I’m so excited. It’s definitely a privilege and a dream come true.”
But it wasn’t her original sporting dream to play league for New Zealand.
She was a passionate netballer throughout her school years, and imagined herself wearing the black dress of the Silver Ferns.
Does she miss netball? “I thought I did, till I went back to it, and I forgot the rules,” she laughs. “I was stepping and trying to run with the ball. So I thought, I better stick with league.”
In her Waikato hometown of Te Awamutu, Paekau started sport as a toddler, running in tiny tots races at the local athletics club. It’s where she began to hone her speed.
She also played touch at Hamilton Girls High School, captaining the team to victory at the New Zealand schools championships in 2019. “I learned a lot about being an athlete and even team culture as part of that touch team,” she says.
And she was an impressive tag player – making the New Zealand U21 side and playing at the world tag rugby championships in Australia (her new Kiwi Ferns team-mate Leianne Tufuga also played in that side).
But she grew up in a true “league-y” family, watching her two brothers play, and her dad coach.
“We would always have dinner in the lounge watching State of Origin, or the Kiwis playing, or any NRL game,” Paekau recalls. “All my family would come over and they’d just go wild in front of the TV, and I just remember being this little girl who was so uninterested.
“But I’ve always been into sports, so I was kind of like, ‘Oh, okay I’ll give league a go’. And I just instantly fell in love with the sport.”
She was 14 when she played her first game of league, for Waikato Māori at the Aotearoa NZ Māori Rugby League Tuakana tournament played every Labour Weekend. She’s played in the tournament every year since then – until this weekend.
“I can’t play this year, because it’s on this weekend in Rotorua. I’ve already heard from all the girls in my team, and they’re all so proud and rapt for me,” she says.
Speeding down the Aotearoa Māori league pathway, Paekau reached Māori All Stars status in 2020. At the tender age of 18, she was both nervous and excited.
“I was just so privileged and grateful to be there, especially being so young. But I also thought I’ll take this as a learning experience to grow and be inspired by all the older ladies around me,” she says. “And I grew so many relationships and friendships from that campaign. It was awesome.
“It’s such a privilege to be representing your culture, so I put my Māori All Stars jersey right up there with the Kiwi Ferns jersey.”
While the Māori side lost to the Indigenous All Stars, 10-4, in 2020, Paekau experienced being on the winning side on the Gold Coast earlier this year when Māori won 16-12.
She’s proud to represent her whānau in Auckland today – to honour her parents, Lorrell and Jaden, for the sacrifices they’ve made in her league career so far.
“When I first made the Māori All Stars, Dad would drive me up to Auckland twice a week to train. Last year I was going up there three or four times a week, and Mum or Dad would drive me up and back. They’ve made a lot of sacrifices for me,” she says.
“They’ve always pushed me and encouraged me and I definitely wouldn’t be here without them. If I didn’t have parents like them, I probably won’t be playing.”
Work ethic is important to Paekau. Last year, she was training three or four times a day to become a better league player.
“I would wake up at 3.45am to go to the gym. I was working with my partner who owns a scaffolding company, so I was helping him out on site at 6am,” she says.
“It was a big goal of mine to ‘work hard, train hard, and all the achievements will come later’.” Achievements like playing for the All Stars, the Eels and now the Kiwi Ferns.
But back to the scaffolding. Paekau was “on the tools with all the boys”, erecting and dismantling scaffold structures.
“It was my favourite job. Because I was training and studying fulltime as well, it was hard to find a job that would fit into my schedule,” she says. “So my partner said ‘Well, you can come work for me’, and I was really grateful.
“It was so cool. But oh my god, it was like a workout every day. Honestly, I had to lug scaffolding gear – and for those who don’t know, it’s really heavy.”
Then the opportunity came for Paekau to move to Australia and play in the NRLW with the Parramatta club. She made five appearances for the Eels this season.
“I’ve always wanted to play in NRLW so just being a part of it was so cool. Being part of the professionalism of the game and actually seeing it, right in front of me, not just on the TV,” she says. “I definitely want to play it again next year. It’s tough relocating to Australia, so if we could have the Warriors playing in the competition again sometime soon, that would be awesome.”
Paekau is preparing for life after sport, too, with one semester to go to finish her law degree at the University of Waikato. She’s been studying online so she can juggle it with training and playing.
“It’s weird because as a kid I wanted to do architecture – I’ve always been an arty girl, drawing houses and stuff,” she says. “But I ended up enrolling in law – and it’s definitely something I love doing, especially when I’m in study mode.
“I’ve found a real passion for it, for my people and my culture. Obviously, there’s still a lot going on, with Māori around the treaty and land – and that’s become the reason I’m still doing this and thriving.
“And also because my nana hassles me all the time, like ‘Are you still doing your law degree?’”
While her two careers may clash at times, Paekau knows she has to make it work.
“I always tell myself I have no excuses because there are so many women playing league who juggle so many things. A lot of them are mums, like Apii [Nicholls] – she’s a cop and a mum who plays footy,” she says.
“So I say ‘Well, you know what? If they can do it, I can do it too’. I think we feed off each other.”
* The Kiwi Ferns meet Tonga in the Pacific Championship today at 3.45pm as part of a league triple header at Eden Park (Kiwis A v Tonga A men at 1.30pm, and Kiwis v Toa Samoa at 6pm). All games will be live on Sky Sport 4.