Having appeared as a replacement in the first-ever women’s Super Rugby match, Liana Mikaele-Tu’u knew she had played her part in an historic moment.
But, it was not until she finished a gym session two days later, and checked her phone, that she became aware of a much more personal milestone that had been achieved at Eden Park.
Mikaele-Tu’u had left her mobile in the changing rooms, so was oblivious to a social media post congratulating her and sibling, Marino on becoming the first brother and sister duo to compete in Super Rugby.
Big brother Marino, who represented New Zealand at the World Rugby U20 Championship in 2016 and 2017, made his Super Rugby debut for the Highlanders in 2018 and enjoyed a standout campaign in 2020 before injury curtailed his most recent season in April.
Following her own injury lay-off, Liana had been ecstatic to be selected in the Blues squad against the Chiefs, and did not expect to be greeted with a raft of well-wishes when her training session finished.
“We were at morning gym and obviously we don't go to the gym with our phones,” Liana, 19, told World Rugby.
“Afterwards my phone was blowing up and I just saw on Instagram that post that was put up to the world. And, yeah, I didn't know.
“It was really cool. Me and my brother, we didn't actually talk about it until, probably the night of the day that it was posted, we both just didn't know.”
She added: “I got a few messages and then I was just looking at the comments and people were really, really cool. It was really cool to see.
“I grew up with just my brothers being the only girl and so, when you're going to all these rugby games you just naturally want to be like them and do the things that they did.
“So to get some kind of recognition with them was really special.”
Learning to be tough
Mikaele-Tu’u is four and a half years younger than her twin brothers, Marino and Antonio, but that did not stop them including her in their backyard rugby matches as kids in Hawke’s Bay.
However, it was not until she was 15 — and Marino had moved away from home to play for the Highlanders — that she was able to play in a women’s match.
“All I knew was rugby growing up, but I never played it because our high school never had a rugby team,” she said.
“My brothers were always dragging me into their little rugby scraps in the backyard, because we had a big backyard and it was just one-on-one.
“And, obviously, I was quite big for my age as well, so they just took that as an advantage to get me involved in their rugby in the backyard.
“But, I reckon that taught me a lot about being tough. And, when you have two older brothers who have no mercy with one v one touch… it wasn't even touch at the time, it was like full-on tackle. But, it was definitely fun.”
Mikaele-Tu’u admits that Marino does not overload her with advice when it comes to playing, but says he’s “always there for support” ahead of big matches.
“There’s always a ‘good luck’ before a game or some kind of check-in about how I'm feeling before a game,” she said.
“But, leading into the [Blues] game, he just told me to go hard, same as what my family said.
“So, I knew that he was there for support and that's all I needed going into the game.”
More important than winning or losing
On the day, the Chiefs proved too good for the Blues, running in five tries to secure a 39-12 victory.
However for Mikaele-Tu’u, seeing young girls lined up as mascots before the game highlighted that the match held much more significance than merely which team won or lost.
“Obviously we didn't win the game, but I don't think it mattered on the day,” she said.
“I think everyone was just focused on the occasion and just how big of a game the game was for women in rugby, and all the little girls wanting to be great in the sport.
“And, I reckon it did its job of letting the world see how much potential there is for women in rugby when given the opportunity to showcase it.”
And, Mikaele-Tu’u would love to showcase her own talent on the biggest stage of all next year, Rugby World Cup 2021.
“It didn't really hit me that I could actually go for the Black Ferns until maybe last year when I actually moved up with Auckland. I love being in the mix,” she said.
“When you're young going into an environment with world-class players, it's hard not to feel intimidated and stuff, but everyone's really supportive.
“I reckon when you're seeing everyone give their best efforts at camp it fuels the fire to want the best and to try and give my best at camps. And, every time I go to camp, the more I want to be selected for the team.”
Mikaele-Tu’u added: “Having played on Eden Park, it would be the best feeling to run out again [at RWC 2021] because it's a surreal experience going out there.
“So, to be able to have our family in the stands and our friends in the stands would be special.”