Isolation is proving no barrier for Azalleyah Maaka.
The Year 13 Gisborne Girls’ High School student is flying the flag for the Heartland provinces in the New Zealand U18 Women’s sevens team.
She is also just one of three players - along with Dhys Faleafaga from St Mary’s College, Wellington, and Kalyn Takitimu-Cook from Manaukura, Palmerston North - from the Hurricanes region selected in New Zealand’s first sevens team to attend the Youth Olympic Games later this year in Argentina.
Emotions ran high in the Maaka household on the day last month when she found out she had made the team. “I was overwhelmed after being selected for the Youth Olympics,” she said. “The first person that found out was my mum; she read the email as I was pretty nervous!”
Right now she is training hard throughout the school holidays. “At the moment I am training twice a day four times a week, that is just on my own as we don’t have rugby trainings yet and they start up when school starts back up.”
Azalleyah’s comparative isolation from regular strong competition and being apart from all of her U18s teammates is an extra challenge she is embracing.
Many of her teammates elsewhere such as the trio of Hamilton Girls’ High School players selected train and play together, and others such as recently awarded Papatoetoe Rugby Club Women’s Player of the Year Riscshay Lemanu and Faleafaga who scored three tries in a five minute burst for her Norths club on Saturday have regular competition playing 15s rugby.
Azalleyah is looking forward to meeting up with her New Zealand’s teammates before the team flies out to Buenos Aries in early October. In April she travelled to Sydney in April with the squad to win the Oceania qualifying tournament.
She has been playing sevens for just over two years and predominantly just plays sevens owing to fewer matches in Poverty Bay and no local women’s club rugby competition.
Azalleyah’s Gisborne Girls’ High School and Lytton High School are the two rival girls rugby schools and three weeks ago and a week after Azalleyah’s selection in the New Zealand team, they met in the Ngati Porou East Coast Secondary School Girls’ final.
Lytton prevailed 31-24 after opening up a five try lead, only for Azalleyah and Gisborne Girls’ High School to launch a furious fightback and close the gap.
The two schools will be hoping to qualify for the Condor 7s again this year in early December.
“We came ninth last year; we just missed out on beating Christchurch Girls’ High School. That was our second Condors and the year before we came about 16th.”
Following Condors, Azalleyah played for the New Zealand U17 Girls team that won the second annual World Sevens tournament, beating the Australian Schoolgirls 20-19 in the final.
In January she was selected for the Poverty Bay Women’s side that competed in the National Provincial Sevens in Rotorua for the first time.
Following that, Azalleyah and Gisborne Girls’ High School teammate Te Maiora Olsen-Baker were invited as two of 28 players to attend the U18 trials in Wellington and Azalleyah was selected for the Oceania Tournament from there.
This is her third year playing rugby. “I used to play Rippa when I was little but then I stopped when I moved to Gisborne. My friends started playing, so I started playing again that way.”
As well as her father, former Ngati Porou East Coast midfielder Tojo Maaka, another person that helped introduce Azalleyah to rugby was local sports legend Trish Hina.
Hina has represented her country in four sports – rugby, rugby league, softball and Touch. She was the New Zealand Women’s Rugby League Player of the Year in 2000 – the year Azalleyah was born – and won the 2010 Women’s World Cup with the Black Ferns rugby union team.
Azalleyah also thanks her strength and conditioning coach Zara from the Poverty Bay union for helping her train and prepare for a big few months ahead.
She also plays netball for her school “anywhere on the court except for shooter” and also social Touch. “When I was younger I used to play everything.”
The Youth Olympics will be her fourth trip overseas playing rugby.
“I went to Japan and New Caledonia on trips with the Pakiea team here in Gisborne. I enjoyed experiencing the culture in those places as well as playing the rugby.”
Azalleyah’s dream is to make the Black Ferns in the future, and sees current national sevens captain Sarah Goss as a rugby role model.
For nutrition, she’s a fan of chicken and rice and P.E and maths are her favourite school subjects.
She is unsure what she will do next year after leaving school “I will just go with the flow and see what happens.” There is a high chance that whatever she does will be rugby or sports related.
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