Off the back of Ahi Kā Aotearoa’s recent campaign in the Harvey Norman Women’s National Championships, Sharnyze Pihema was named the joint Player of the Tournament and recipient of the Tahnee Norris Medal.

Teammate Monica Samita was named alongside her in the Tournament Team. Their selection was hard-earned with the Championships being an elite pathway tournament, where players from across Australia, New Zealand, Fiji, and Papua New Guinea showcase their skills in the representative arena.

The Ahi Kā Aotearoa squad was selected from the successful ‘RISE’ Talent Development Programme. In partnership with the NRL, the RISE programme was delivered earlier this year across multiple sessions around the country. RISE aims to better prepare young players for the rigours of high-performance environments such as the NRLW, targeting female players aged 17-21.

Pihema shared, “Coming through the RISE programme, I feel it was beneficial not only for me but the other ladies as well… it showed us how much the game is growing and how important it is to keep the programme up for generations to come.

“Hopefully over the next few years, the programmes in New Zealand will continue to develop further than where they are now.”

Pihema co-captained the young Ahi Kā side in their successful 2024 campaign, which saw them win two matches despite being an under-21 squad playing against open women’s representative teams.

The 19-year-old hails from Manurewa in South Auckland with roots tying her to Ngā Puhi, Ngāti Kahungunu, and Samoa.

Reflecting on the moment she was awarded the MVP title Pihema said, “It was a massive shock to me, I didn’t expect my name to be called for MVP as there were many players that I thought were more worthy of the award. I was honoured and privileged to be that player”.

In humble fashion, the lock did not mention her formidable ball-running, reliable defence, and overall outstanding physicality and athleticism which earned her the MVP title.

Pihema got her first taste of rugby league in intermediate before becoming a Manurewa Marlins junior. Throughout her younger years, she participated in the New Zealand Māori Rugby League Rangatahi Kōtiro tournaments, represented the Auckland Vulcans in the National Youth Tournament, and featured in the New Zealand Secondary Schools team.

“It was tough to move up grades as the competition was getting harder each time, but I now understand that if I didn’t continue to move up, I wouldn’t be where I am now.

“My mother has supported me and my footy dreams since the day I picked up a rugby ball. No matter how difficult life was, she always managed to make time for my games and trainings.”

The young athlete’s years of dedication and training saw her earn selection for the NSWRL Manly Sea Eagles under-18s Tarsha Gale Cup team, in 2023.

“Playing in the Tarsha Gale competition was a good opportunity for me to see what the level of footy is like going forward.

“My advice to young girls wanting to pursue league would be to always take every opportunity you get. If you’re asked to go to a training with the top side, go. If you’ve been invited to a program to develop your skills, go. If your mate asks you to go run some extras before or after training, go.”

Her teammate 20-year-old Monica Samita also impressed on the Championship stage to rightfully earn her place in the Tournament Team. The skilful hooker is no stranger to elite-level football, as a returnee to the team from their inaugural campaign in 2023.

Samita shared, “I had a lot of expectations to help my teammates by helping with preparation for this competition and sharing my experience, but I also learnt a lot from my teammates.

“This year I enjoyed the team culture we had, getting to meet new people and run alongside them doing what we love.”

Not only was Otahuhu Leopards junior one of the most experienced in the squad, but also one of the most accomplished. In 2022 Samita was part of the winning Akarana Falcons team at the National Youth Tournament, then the New Zealand Resident Clubs team. She made her international debut for the Tonga National Women’s team later that year as one of the youngest in the squad.

Most recently, in 2023 Samita was selected for the first-ever Ahi Kā team before joining the runner-up Akarana Falcons Sky Sport Women’s Premiership side. In November, she earned her second international Test cap with the Tonga Women’s team in the Pacific Championships Eden Park triple-header.

“Over the years I’ve learnt a lot of lessons and taken a lot of losses, to become a better player and improve my performance as an athlete. I’m very grateful for the opportunities that I’ve been given, but there is still a lot of improvement to do for me to become the player that I aspire to be.”

Samita credited her remarkable football success to hard work, and the support of her family and coaches, sharing, “‘Hard work beats talent when talent doesn’t work hard.’ This is something I always fall back on and have always been reminded of when I’ve felt like giving up and quitting.

“My parents have always supported me, especially my dad who has shown dedication and made countless sacrifices throughout the years. My previous coaches have all supported me…without their experience and knowledge I wouldn’t be half the player I am today.”

The achievements of the Ahi Kā Aotearoa team, Pihema, and Samita, are testament to the high calibre of local talent that has been fostered through the growing grassroots and domestic representative pathways.

Samita shared, “Look at the likes of Mele Hufanga, Krystal Rota, Mya Hill-Moana and so many more New Zealand women who have gone through the same pathways as us to get to where they are [in the NRLW].

“My ultimate football goal is to one day become an NRLW player for the Warriors, and to be able to put on the Black and White jersey one day.”

Her captain Pihema said, “My biggest footy goal is to make the NRLW but with that comes my mother. I want my mother to be able to be there the day I debut in my first game.”

There is no shortage of young New Zealand girls who, like Samita and Pihema, have dreams of playing in the NRLW and donning the Black and White jersey. Dreams of playing in the NRLW are much closer to home now, with the Warriors confirming an NRLW team for the 2025 season.

Sharnyze Pihema and Monica Samita are just a small reflection of the highly talented upcoming generation of female rugby league footballers in New Zealand, who we will undoubtedly see playing in the NRLW and Kiwi Ferns one day.