Powerful prop Tanya Kalounivale has made an imposing debut in the Black Ferns jersey, representing a nation that’s given her family a second chance and inspired by sevens superstar Kelly Brazier. CREDIT: LockerRoom’s Suzanne McFadden
After two years waiting in the wings, Tanya Kalounivale finally got to wear the Black Ferns jersey in battle yesterday, with her greatest supporters – her Fijian family and an Olympic gold medallist – braving driving rain and mud to witness it.
With her braided bright pink hair making her unmissable, tighthead prop Kalounivale came off the bench for her first international cap five minutes into the second half of the Black Ferns test against Australia in Tauranga, opening their Pacific Four campaign.
Through the deluge, Kalounivale ran on with her Chiefs Manawa front row team-mates Luka Connor and Angel Mulu, and together they helped swing the momentum away from the Wallaroos, who’d led 10-5 at halftime. Kalounivale made an instant impact with the ball, using her might to drive across the tryline, only to have her try disallowed on a technicality.
But she continued to help shore up the Black Ferns scrum, and made vital metres carrying the ball in New Zealand’s hard-fought 23-10 victory – their first test at home since 2019, and the first under the new coaching regime led by Wayne Smith.
After initially making the Black Ferns squad in 2020, Fijian-born Kalounivale has watched and learned from some of the best tighthead props in the game.
But she’s also gleaned so much off the field from a nippy utility back.
Kelly Brazier, one of the most accomplished players in New Zealand rugby in both 15s and sevens, struck up a friendship with Kalounivale while they were on the sidelines during the Black Ferns’ Northern Tour last year. Brazier, who won sevens gold at the 2021 Tokyo Olympics, has since taken Kalounivale under her wing, becoming her rugby guardian angel.
“She calls me Boss, and I call her Big Boss,” 23-year-old Kalounivale says.
“She’s the one who helped me get back into shape. She’s always on to me, asking me ‘What’s your weight? Have you done your running?’. And I’m like ‘Yes, Big Boss, I’m going to do my third session now’. There’s no escaping her.
“She’s an awesome individual; so caring. She really inspires me to be at my best.”
The pair were reunited in March, playing together in the Chiefs side who won the inaugural Super Rugby Aupiki championship.
Brazier – just home from World Sevens series tournaments in Canada and France – was “so proud” of Kalounivale yesterday, and what she’d achieved to get this far.
“The way she’s worked since the end-of-year tour has been inspiring and I can’t wait for her future in the jersey,” Brazier says. “Tanya’s an awesome player and an even better person.
“I hope I can take the field with her in the black jersey some day.”
Last week, Brazier messaged Kalounivale to see how she was doing in the Black Ferns camp.
“I wrote back ‘Oh Big Boss, I just got named to be on the bench for the first test. I haven’t weighed in yet, but my weight last week was 128kg’,” Kalounivale recalls. “And she’s like’ Okay that’s good Boss, but you’ve got some more work to do’.
“It so important to have people who want you to succeed. You don’t want to give up, because they are always at your side.
“Even when she’s not there, I know Big Boss will always be watching me. So I try to eat properly and look after my body right, so I can give much more than before. I’ve got to do it for me, and I know she’ll be proud.”
Kalounivale dyed her hair pink before this Pacific Four Series to express herself, she says. “I was in a space where I wanted to be different. And pink represents kindness – I wanted to be kind to myself.”
She was “just a little bit excited” to finally get on the field in the black jersey.
“I’m so honoured to be able to represent a country that has given me and my family a second chance,” she says.
Never in a million years, she says, could she have imagined playing for the Black Ferns as a kid running straight with a rugby ball against her brothers in their backyard of their Fijian village, Kanakana.
Kalounivale had never played a game of rugby until she came to New Zealand as a 17-year-old, fresh out of Suva Grammar School.
At primary school, she’d played soccer against boys, but wasn’t allowed to once she reached high school. She didn’t want to play netball, so took up basketball: “It gave me a bit of contact and aggression.”
In 2017, Kalounivale and one of her brothers came to Hamilton on a family holiday, with her mum a permanent resident in New Zealand. “Because my brother and I were still dependent on her, we got to stay longer,” she says.
Then one Sunday, Kalounivale was watching a schoolgirls rugby match on TV, thinking her mum wasn’t keen on her playing rugby.
“This big girl ran through someone, and she was heading for a runaway try. So trying to make fun of my mum I said: ‘Oi, look, I’m going to be like that girl playing rugby’. And Mum was laughing,” she says.
What Kalounivale didn’t realise was her mum was meeting with ex-Fiji rugby captain and former Black Ferns coach, Greg Smith, about getting her brother into club rugby.
“Mum told him about me wanting to play rugby, and later that day, she came home with a pair of boots. She said: ‘These are for you, and you’re training tomorrow night’,” she remembers.
Teenager Kalounivale was to join in with the Huskies, the women’s side in the Hamilton Old Boys club.
“Mum dropped me off and I was so scared and nervous. We did the warm-up, and I thought that was the whole session. But then they said ‘Sis, you’ve got to get up. That’s just the warm-up’. The running was so intense,” she says.
“I came home and told my uncle, ‘There’s so much running in this rugby they play here; this is not the rugby I thought I was going to play’. I just wanted to take the ball and run straight at people.”
More of a shock lay in store for Kalounivale. “My first game, my gosh it was so funny. One of the big girls on the other team, Esther, she bowled me over,” she says.
“And I told myself from that day onwards no-one will ever bowl me over like that again.”
It took Kalounivale a while to get used to the full-body workout she received on the field.
“I remember I was so sore. At three in the morning, I went round to my uncle’s house and sat in the bathtub with the cold water running. Like an ice bath,” she says.
“Any time I want to give up, I go back to that memory of sitting in the bath all night.”
In the same season she started out in rugby, Kalounivale was chosen to play for Waikato. “I guess they needed props back then,” she says. “I felt pretty blessed to be playing.”
But her life became a bit of a juggle, as she’d started studying civil engineering at Wintec.
“I’ve just had to learn to balance it. Sometimes I’m so tired,” she says. “But I enjoy it at Wintec because my lecturers are willing to help me succeed, they want me to do well.”
She has an aunty in Fiji who is a civil engineer, but it wasn’t Kalounivale’s original career path. She started studying medicine at university back in Fiji.
“But as soon as I saw someone else’s blood, I fainted. Medical studies became a no-no for me,” she says. “When we got our New Zealand residency, I decided I would study either forensics or engineering.”
As Kalounivale became a rock in the Waikato front row, she caught the eye of the Black Ferns selectors. She was first chosen in the New Zealand squad in 2020 for the series against the Barbarians.
“I was just being groomed at that stage. I was shown the ropes by Aleisha-Pearl Nelson and Aldora Itunu, the two best tighthead props in New Zealand,” Kalounivale says.
Last year, she didn’t make the field during the Black Ferns tour of England and France. “But it was really cool because I got to see the world, and spend more time with the girls, learning,” she says.
She looks up to Itunu, who’s always looked after her when they’ve been in teams together, and Nelson, who helps her with scrummaging. Another role model is Toka Natua, the Black Ferns prop who scored three tries in New Zealand’s final victory of the 2017 World Cup, and played with Kalounivale in the Waikato side.
Until yesterday, playing Super Rugby Aupiki was the highlight of Kalounivale’s career, as she anchored the Chiefs’ scrum.
“I guess I was at a point where I wanted to prove to myself that I was good enough to play at the highest level,” she says. “And I knew I could, because Big Boss had helped me and I’m not going to give up easily.
“I was just having fun. The environment that was created with [coaches] Alan Bunce, Crystal Kaua and the management, it was so family orientated. I enjoyed it so much.”
The Black Ferns now play Canada at Waitakere on Sunday (who beat the United States 36-5 in their opening match yesterday) and USA in Whangarei the following Saturday. It’s all crucial preparation for the Rugby World Cup to be played in Auckland and Northland in October.
Kalounivale isn’t tempting fate by imagining herself playing there.
“I do want to make the World Cup squad but I haven’t looked quite that far yet,” she says. “At this time of my life, I’m just focused on today. What can I do today to influence tomorrow? That’s the key.
“I trust in my abilities to get me there, and I trust in my faith. It would be cool – but right now I’m just focused on today.”