Written by Suzanne McFadden as seen here on newsroom

Explosive Kiwi Ferns centre Shanice Parker never met her Kiwi dad until her teens. Now the Aussie-born multi-code star is embracing new whānau and giving her son what she missed out on.

Each time Shanice Parker pulls on the Kiwi Ferns jersey, it’s as if she’s adding another layer to a journey of discovery – finding out who she is.

“So, my story’s a little different,” 25-year-old Parker, one of the most exciting outside backs in rugby league, says.

“I didn’t know my dad until a bit later in my life. For a big part of my teenage years, I had a bit of an identity crisis.”

But now Parker, who’s spent all her life in Australia, is filling the gaps in her story – learning her whakapapa and connecting with her whānau in the Waikato. And becoming a true-blue Kiwi Fern.

Born in the Perth suburb of Yangebup, the daughter of former Jillaroo league star Danielle Parker, Shanice always knew she was Māori. But she knew nothing of her New Zealand dad until she was 11, and didn’t meet him for the first time till she was 16.

At first, she played footy for her country of birth – but in rugby, for both the Australian Sevens, then the Wallaroos 15s.

But as she began to connect with her Kiwi whānau (she’s Tainui, Ngāti Korokī Kahukura) and switched codes to rugby league, Parker realised she wanted to play for the Māori All Stars, and then for New Zealand. To represent this other half of her life she was unearthing.

Now she’s a mother, to 22-month-old Jakari, Parker says the journey is even more special. “It’s really ignited a drive to give my son what I never had,” she says. A new language, a new culture, a new family.

Sitting next to a pool in Townsville, where she’ll line up for the Kiwi Ferns in the Pacific Championship opener against the Jillaroos tonight, Parker is missing her little boy.

When she made her debut for the Kiwi Ferns a year ago, at the World Cup in England, she was able to take Jakari – then 10 months old – with her. Along with fullback Apii Nicholls and her one-year-old, Felix, they were part of a ground-breaking policy introduced by coach Ricky Henry – encouraging young mums to keep their babies with them on tour.

This past week, Jakari has been at home in Newcastle with Parker’s partner, former league player Kiah Cooper. But Cooper’s mum will fly to Townsville today with Jakari, so he can travel with Parker to Auckland, where the Kiwi Ferns play Tonga at Eden Park next Saturday.

There’s no shortage of “aunties” in the Kiwi Ferns offering to look after Kari. “In fact, he’s going to spend the week with my dad going to the kohanga reo where my dad works,” Parker says.

“My son is really lucky because he’s got two of the best cultures in the world – he’s Aboriginal on his dad’s side, and Māori on mine.

“That’s why I really love immersing myself in these Kiwi Ferns camps because I’m on my own journey as well. It started once my dad came into my life. So being in these camps really just feels so cup-filling.”

When she first met her dad, Robin White, and his wife, Holly, Parker was unsure whether they would begin a relationship. “It’s been kind of a weird feeling, because as soon as we connected, it was just like they’d always been there,” she says.

“It just felt so natural and everything made sense in that moment. Now I have extended whānau everywhere I go. It’s pretty cool.”

The Newcastle Knights scoring star – who’s also a youth worker, studying for a health degree – feels blessed to have a support network in two countries now. “I know it takes a village to raise a child. The girls I play with are a big part of that, but also my partner and his family back home,” she says.

“Kiah has held it down for us and been so supportive for me to come back into the elite space after having Kari. I wouldn’t be here without him, and all of them.”

Parker hopes her son will one day look back and appreciate growing up on league sidelines around the world.

“Obviously he won’t remember going on all these trips, which are a luxury my mum never had in her playing career,” says Parker, who was two when her mum played for the Jillaroos at the 2000 World Cup in England, while she stayed in Perth with her mum’s family. “Mum had to pay her own way, and it would have been expensive to take a baby and a carer with her.

“So it’s really cool how the game has evolved in that sense of supporting women if they have kids, or whatever they do career-wise. I know we’re very fortunate, and we really respect and honour the women who’ve come before us to create this pathway.”

Being a kid watching her mother play moulded the multi-talented player Parker has become.

“Mum obviously played a massive part in the player and the person that I am today. Six days a week, my siblings and I were at the footy fields – whether it was union, tag or league,” says Parker, who started playing league at five.

“There were other people in my life – like my aunty and my nana on my mum’s side – who were really important influences around my sport. My aunty [Melanie Wallis] played league for a Prime Minister’s squad, and even my Nana played. Well, not very well, but she jumped on the field with my aunty and mum.”

Mum Danielle is still playing club league in Perth: “She tries, she hobbles along,” Parker laughs.

It was her mum who encouraged her to leave home at 18 and move across the continent to take up a rugby union contract with the Australian Sevens – turning down a place in the Jillaroos training squad. Having taken up rugby at 15, she could see the professional opportunities sevens would give her.

Multi-code legend Honey Hireme-Smiler remembers seeing the young Aussie bolter playing sevens (it turns out they’re related by marriage).

“Shanice seems so chill and shy off the field, but when she’s on it, she’s a real competitor,” say Hireme-Smiler, now a Kiwi Ferns selector. “She has a massive game face, and she’s right in there. She’s such a dynamic and powerful player – she’s got speed and height, and amazing skills to play anywhere. She’s the full package.”

Parker started playing league again in 2018, and the next year made her NRLW debut with the title-winning Sydney Roosters. This year she collected her third NRLW crown, but with the defending champions Newcastle Knights, scoring an early try in their 24-18 win over the Gold Coast Titans.

“Back-to-back championship victories don’t happen that often, so we’re in a very privileged position,” she says. “It’s just so good to be surrounded by elite players like [NRLW Player of the Year] Tamika Upton, and Jesse and Hannah Southwell. And I’m fortunate enough to have that here with the Kiwi Ferns as well.”

Though some believe Parker is now playing some of her best football, she feels as though she’s just hitting her stride. “When I look back at where I’ve been, my confidence since having my son has just sprouted,” she says.

“I feel like I’m paying good footy because I’m having fun and I’m loving what I do. But there’s always little areas that I feel like I can tweak and improve on.”

But at 25, she reckons she won’t have long to make any modifications. She calls herself an “old girl” now and see her retirement only a few years away.

“When you become a mum, your priorities change. I love having my time away and keeping that little piece of yourself alive which is so important. So I’ll play maybe another three to four years and then I’ll be moving on,” she says. “Well, I say that now.”

The next World Cup in 2026 stands as a beacon in her career after last year’s disappointment, when a serious knee injury in a “weird, ugly tackle” in the second game against the Cook Islands ruled her out for the rest of the tournament.

Parker wouldn’t mind another shot at rugby – specifically with Chiefs Manawa in the Super Rugby Aupiki competition. “If I had the chance to play a season with the Chiefs, it’d be good for me to be around my Kiwi family,” she says.

“But I love league, I love the space. We’re all very supportive of each other and the sport has come from a long history of women getting nothing, to now being able to provide a bit more for our families and for ourselves.”

In the meantime, she wants to make her mark as a Kiwi Fern starter and establish herself as a leader; she’s just been named in a support role for new co-captains Georgia Hale and Raecene McGregor.

“Honestly, when Ricky asked me to be involved in the leadership group, I was a bit taken aback – but I guess I’m ready to step into that role now,” she says. “I’ve been a part of the game for a long time and I’m one of the older heads – and older bodies –in this very youthful side. So I’m really privileged to be part of the leadership squad.”

There are 11 debutants in the Kiwi Ferns line-up for this series, including Annessa Biddle, the NRLW Rookie of the Year and Players Player of the Year, who’ll combine with Parker in the centres tonight.

“I watched all of our debutants – but Annessa in particular – through the whole NRLW campaign. She came over and started off so hard, like one of the strongest outside backs in the game. Hopefully we’ll see a bit more of that on Saturday,” Parker says.

“We’ve got so much talent that’s being unearthed. I’m excited for the future of the Kiwi Ferns. It’s like the beginning of a new era.”

Away from the field, Parker has become a master of multi-tasking. On top of her league training, she works four days a week as a youth worker coordinating wellbeing programmes in schools. And she’s studying for a Bachelor of Health and Movement degree to eventually become a teacher.

“It’s all self-inflicted stress really,” she laughs. “My day usually starts by dropping off my son to daycare, going to work from seven till three, then driving an hour to get straight into training. Everything’s go go go – it’s like I don’t really have time to breathe sometimes.

“But being a parent is the hardest job of all. Sometimes I miss out on a lot of the cool things, as I get home from training like around 9pm and Kari’s in bed.”

But she hopes her son will one day understand.

“Having Kari reignited a spark and gave me more purpose – not just in footy but in life,” Parker says. “I love what I’m doing and I hope one day he can look back at this and say ‘My mum was so cool’. It’s cool to be able to be that female role model in his life.”