October 26, 2022
As seen on Lockeroom.
Mya Hill-Moana is just out of her teens, but already a role model and leader in the Kiwi Ferns about to play in the Rugby League World Cup in England. And the promising frontrower brings both her rampaging runs and te ao Māori values to the side.
At 15, Mya Hill-Moana first joined Taniwharau, the local rugby league club in Huntly where her dad still played – even though her parents weren’t too keen on her taking the field.
At 16, after watching the first season of the NRLW on TV, she bravely left her close-knit whānau to move across the Tasman and pursue her dream of becoming “a footie star”.
By 18, Hill-Moana – who’s Waikato Tainui and fluent in te reo Māori – was leading the haka for the Māori All Stars in their annual encounter with the Indigenous All Stars; the rookie making her presence felt on the field of play, too.
Now, at the tender age of 20, she wears an NRLW Premiership ring and she’s on her way to the Rugby League World Cup in England, already a blossoming leader in the Kiwi Ferns side.
In her biggest season yet, she’s a strong bet to establish herself in the Ferns’ starting XIII at this tournament – and to help fellow frontrower Kararaina Wira-Kohu lead their haka, Te Iwi Kiwi, whenever the team take on their opposition over the next five weeks.
Hill-Moana performed a beautiful karakia when her team-mates arrived in camp in Auckland on Friday, to begin their final build-up to the World Cup which kicks off next week.
“It was a huge honour to be asked to do the karakia, but a bit nerve-wracking,” she says. “I’m not the type to stand up in front of crowds and speak.
“But it makes me proud of who I am and where I come from. And it helps to boost my confidence and helps me grow as a person.”
Leading the haka also allows Hill-Moana to release her pre-game nerves. “Being able to lead the girls into war out there, pretty much, and being able to show our Māori culture to the world is so cool,” she says.
Hill-Moana is fully aware, too, she’ll have lots of young eyes on her – she’s become a role model for kōtiro (girls) in her hometown of Huntly and the Taniwharau club where her league journey began. Girls who want to follow her path to making a profession from playing the game they love.
The impact of the powerful young prop no doubt reaches well beyond the Waikato.
A two-test Kiwi Fern, Hill-Moana has already won an NRLW Premiership title with the Sydney Roosters and is a regular in the Māori All Stars.
She laughs when she thinks about what else she’d be doing if she wasn’t playing league. “That’s a good question – I have no idea. I don’t have any other career goals. Since I was 16, I’ve had this dream to make it in footie,” she says.
“It actually blows my mind sometimes; I buzz out at what I’ve done at this age. I’ve won a NRLW Premiership and I’m going to the World Cup at 20. I would never have imagined this would happen so soon.”
Before the Kiwi Ferns squad flew out of Auckland yesterday, eager to play in their first World Cup match against France in just over a week, Hill-Moana and Wira-Kohu spoke to three New Zealand girls sides playing in an inaugural tournament in Auckland on the weekend.
They are the next generation of Kiwi Ferns, and Hill-Moana takes being an example setter seriously.
“I know a lot of people back home in Huntly look up to me, and I think it’s possible for our younger generation – listen to me talking like I’m old – to follow my path, if they’re willing to take it,” she says.
“And I think I’m the perfect example of that coming through the all stages – of NZ Māori, the rangatahi tournaments, playing in the NZNRL – and having the courage to leave my family and pursue my dream over in Australia.”
Hill-Moana’s own role model has been her dad, Tame Moana. For as far back as she can remember, her ‘warhorse’ dad has played prop for Taniwharau, a club in which her whānau have always been deeply involved. “But he’s nearly 50 now, so hopefully he’s hung up his boots for good,” she laughs.
“My dad taught me the basics of footie, making sure I was tackling and training right. He’s also my biggest critic, which keeps me humble. Even when he says: ‘You had a good game’, he will always point out my work-ons, which I’m very grateful for.”
She learned to tackle playing league with the boys at Ngā Taiātea Wharekura, a kaupapa Māori immersion secondary school in Hamilton, but she didn’t take the sport beyond that until she was 15.
“That was when I first started playing for our Taniwharau club,” she says. “At first my parents didn’t want me to play because it was such a physical sport. But over the years, I dropped netball, I dropped all the sports I was doing to pursue my dream of becoming a footie star.”
Hill-Moana admits it was “scary” leaving home at 16 to stay with family in Australia so she could establish her league career. She started off in the Tarsha Gale Cup, the elite U18 women’s competition in New South Wales, for the Roosters and then the Canterbury-Bankstown Bulldogs in 2020. Then Covid froze all competition, and she came home.
But it gave the teenager the chance to help the Upper Central Stallions win the NZNRL women’s competition and to debut for the Kiwi Ferns against Fetu Samoa at the end of 2020. As an interchange player, she came onto the Mt Smart field and made an instant impression with strong runs down the middle and a high work-rate.
“Going from playing under 19s to women’s football was definitely different, but it was so much fun,” she recalls.
When she eventually returned to Australia to play in the 2021 All Stars match, she was scouted for NRLW by the Roosters. She cemented her place in the starting front row for the premiership grand final in April (Taniwharau presented her with the club’s coveted green blazer when she returned home to Huntly) and she’s regarded as one of the best young forwards in the Roosters’ club system.
“I’m really enjoying my footie at the moment,” Hill-Moana says. “My knowledge of the game has grown, which has made me more strategic around how I play. I owe so much to our coach John Strange and the management team at the Roosters for that growth.”
Now she’s excited to see her game make another leap forward at her first international league tournament in the eight-nation World Cup. “We’ve come back together, with a few new faces, and the vibe is good,” Hill-Moana says. The last time the team played together was a 50-12 test victory over Mate Ma’a Tonga in June, where Hill-Moana started at prop and racked up 12 runs for 106 metres and 15 tackles.
Her goal in England next month? “To win it,” she says matter-of-factly. “We have a lot of different levels of experience, we’re coming from different clubs, and everyone’s contributing different skills and abilities. And yes, we can put all that together to win the World Cup.”
Her proud parents will be in the crowd, with an aunty and cousin also travelling from New Zealand. “My mum will get right to the front of the stand and try to yell at me during the game. Even if there are thousands of people there, I’ll probably still hear her,” Hill-Moana laughs.
It’s been 14 years since the Kiwi Ferns have won the World Cup, and Hill-Moana knows it will be a game-changer for the sport in Aotearoa if they bring the silverware home. Because there’s nothing she wants more than to grow the game here, so there’s a pathway for girls to reach the top.
“I want to help create a New-Zealand based programme or pathway for girls, maybe to the Warriors. And then they can pursue a professional career here instead of having to go and live in Australia like I did,” she says. “That’s a really important goal of mine.”
*The Kiwi Ferns open their Rugby League World Cup campaign against France on Thursday, November 3, at 6am (NZT) live on Spark Sport, with delayed coverage at 9.30am on Three.