Maama Vaipulu soaring high for Auckland

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In the afternoon, the 20-year-old lock helped Auckland upset Canterbury 39-27 in the Farah Palmer Cup presented by Bunnings Warehouse Premiership (FPC) final in Christchurch. It was the first victory by the Storm over Canterbury since 2017 and their first national title since 2015.

In the evening she received a surprise phone call from Whitney Hansen advising her of selection in the Black Ferns XV to take on Samoa in Pukekohe on September 23.

“My teammates told me to keep my phone nearby and I was like, ‘whatever,’ Vaipulu laughed.

“When my phone rang, I didn’t recognise the voice on the line and was like ‘Who are you?’ When it was Whitney, I was speechless and said, ‘Thank you,’ thank you,’ thank you.’

Auckland is thankful for the contribution of Vaipulu this season. After recovering from a twisted ankle in the 17-15 win over Wellington on June 23, she became increasingly imposing in a rapidly improving Auckland pack.

In the 29-22 victory over Waikato in the semi-final, Vaipulu scored her first two tries for Auckland.

“Waikato is a real physical team. They love the contact and big hits like us. It’s always a tough battle with them. I think we bring out the best in each other,” Vaipulu said.

If Waikato is similar, Canterbury is Auckland’s antithesis. The methodical Canterbury thrashed Auckland 41-14 in the 2022 Premiership final, something that burned at Vaipulu.

“I was new last year, but they smashed us. It sucked and made me want to do better. Losing is not fun so we worked harder and smarter this time.

“Don’t play at their tempo. We wanted to control the ball, get our wingers involved and play our game.

“Defending the maul is our weakness. Every training we spent ages on that. We’d stand in a line and flood. We just had to throw everything at it.”   

Vaipulu has been aided immeasurably by the presence of Black Ferns locks Eloise Blackwell and Maia Roos in the Auckland roster. Maia is a contemporary and close friend from the same club, College Rifles. With 46 Tests and a full-time job as a schoolteacher, Eloise is a less natural acquaintance. 

“Eloise, I was scared of her for two years,” Vaipulu laughed.

“She is one of those serious ladies, who comes off scary but is real passionate and was always giving me little pointers. When I started putting myself out there more, I think she liked me. I don’t think she likes shy people or slackers.”

Coach and World Rugby Hall of Fame inductee Anna Richards is the same.

“Oh man, she’s a different breed. The GOAT,” Vaipulu said.

Rugby is only a new purist for Vaipulu. She took up the sport in 2021 after abandoning a promising volleyball pathway which saw her represent New Zealand at the age group level and even travel to Bangkok to play.

From Kaikohe, an uncle of the same name is a Tongan international, and her father Akapani Vaipulu, now a corrections officer, played for Northland. Maama is the fourth of five siblings separated by nine years in age Her brother Kali played briefly for Bay of Plenty, and her mother Simone was a talented basketball player.

Maama helped the Aorere College Premier Girls Volleyball team to a fourth-place finish at the New Zealand Secondary Schools Championships in 2018. Her height, athleticism, and power were naturally transferable skills for rugby. Kelsie Thwaites and Kimberly Smith are two Black Ferns from volleyball backgrounds.

Maama says her favourite rugby player is All Blacks loose forward Ardie Savea. She is employed by Auckland Rugby to help grow the sport in primary schools.

The Black Ferns XV go into camp on Sunday ahead of their one-off fixture against Manu Sina on September 23 in Pukekohe.