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Sights set on NZ Sevens

Azalleyah Maaka
GISBORNE Girls’ High School student Azalleyah Maaka is not sure what she wants to do after leaving school. For now, she is just “going with the flow” . . . but the 17-year-old knows what she wants when it comes to sport.

“Nothing beats putting on a black jersey with the fern on your chest,” Maaka said.

“I never want that feeling to stop, so my goal is to get better from here and play for the New Zealand Black Ferns sevens team.”

Maaka is the only player from a Heartland provincial union to have been picked for the New Zealand under-18 team heading to Australia in two weeks.

The daughter of former Ngati Porou East Coast back Tojo Maaka and Nga Hau e Wha netball centre Ripeka Poi, Maaka will travel with her u18 teammates to Australia to compete at the inaugural Oceania Rugby Under-18 Sevens Championship against Australia, Fiji, Papua New Guinea, Samoa and Tonga in Sydney on April 21 and 22.

“I’m nervous but excited,” said Maaka, who plays netball for the school (“anywhere but shooter, because I can’t aim).

“Sevens is my passion.

“I love the open spaces, beating a player or two, and the fact that you can run anywhere on the field and are not restricted to one area.”

When the former Tikitiki, Te Hapara and Gisborne Intermediate student was asked what her strengths were as a sevens player, she was reluctant to answer. When pressed for an answer, she said, “Maybe my speed and ability to read the play . . . but I still have a lot to learn and improve on.”

Maaka took the first step towards achieving her national sevens ambition when she was picked for the New Zealand under-17 sevens team who beat Australia last year and won the World Series.

“Most of that team are in the u18 team. It will be interesting to see if the Aussies have made many changes, considering that they are a strong side to face.”

Maaka and another Girls’ High player, Te Maiora Olsen-Baker, were chosen to attend trial camps in Wellington, along with 28 other u18 contenders.

Olsen-Baker missed the final selection but is one of the non-travelling reserves.

“I thought I’d blown it at the trial camp,” Maaka said.

“I got injured during our games. I was sandwiched between two tacklers, which twisted my lower back, and I was unable to carry on, so I wasn’t sure if I would make the cut.

“Now that I have, I’m excited about our next camp, in Auckland on April 15, before we fly to Sydney on April 19.

“Mum was the first to get the news that I had made the team and she came in crying, she was so excited for me.”

The winners of this tournament will compete at the World Youth Olympics in Argentina in October.

“It would be great if we could win and go to Argentina,” Maaka said.

“I went to Japan with the Paikea sevens team last year and loved the experience.

“Dad is probably my biggest mentor when it comes to rugby, although at times I have selective hearing . . . but when he talks, he’s usually 90 percent right.

“Trish (Hina) and Amoe (Tarsau) kickstarted my sevens career. If it weren’t for them, I probably wouldn’t be playing rugby at all.

“Henry Lamont, Dwayne Russell and TK Moeke have also helped me develop as a sevens player.

“I’ve had many coaches over the two years I’ve been playing rugby, sevens specifically.

“Chris Neill is another coach who, in the past year, has had a huge influence on where I am today in my rugby.

“He has helped me get to that next level in rugby.

“He has so much knowledge and passion for the game. The things he taught our Gisborne Girls’ High School sevens and 15s and Poverty Bay women’s sevens teams have really helped us.”