Shannon Leota hoping to guide Auckland to Farah Palmer Cup finals spot

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She concedes her skill-set isn’t on the same level of the Black Ferns, but her work ethic, ability over the ball and support of other players is invaluable.

Last Saturday in the final round of the Farah Palmer Cup regular season, Auckland trailed Wellington 12-25, needing a win to reach the Premiership semifinals. They were without five of their Black Ferns, with Wellington down two. 

However, late tries to centre Mele Hufanga and reserve prop Cilla-Marie Po’e, both converted by starting tighthead Sophie Fisher, resulted in a spectacular 26-25 victory.  

“I felt like it was the first time all season we had proper urgency and desperation. We talked all week about not relying on other teams or our Black Ferns, but we made it hard for ourselves,” Leota said.

“It was really cool to come through against the odds. I think sometimes we’re hissing from the warm-up [and] attempt to do something great and when it doesn’t come off we take a step back and struggle.”

A turnover from openside Sulieti Halafihi helped turn momentum. Auckland scored shortly after the steal to commence the unlikely comeback. 

Leota first played rugby when she was seven years old, following her older brother into the code. She attended Mount Albert Grammar School (MAGS), but ended up transitioning into netball. 

In 2012, Sevens was introduced into the Olympic Games so MAGS and Ponsonby clubs assembled teams. Leota, in her last year of high school, joined future Black Ferns Sevens Olympic gold medalist Theresa Fitzpatrick in the shorter format. Three years later the pair helped Auckland win the National Sevens title.

Auckland won the FPC between 1999 and 2015, capturing 15 titles. Leota was a part of the 2014 and 2015 success where the Storm won 17 successive matches and beat Waikato (28-14) and Wellington (39-9) in finals.

“I’d never been in a team before where the expectation was to win all the time. Fiaoo Faamausili, Emma Jensen, Linda Itunu, wow. Playing with them was a lot of pressure for a teenager but they taught me a lot about mindset, preparation and game.” 

Leota disclosed her shoulder in 2016, returning for the 2017 club season. In July, injury struck again in a match for Ponsonby against College Rifles.

“I was playing eight, where I don’t typically play, and made a thrust off the back of the scrum. The spring of my boot got stuck in the ground and I tried to launch forward and felt my right knee pop, and then I got tackled. I tore everything, ACL, MCL, PCL and meniscus. My knee was basically jelly.” 

Full recovery took three years, Leota never seriously contemplating retirement due to the company of friends at the gym motivating her to stay fit.

She made her return for Ponsonby against College Rifles in June 2020. The same year the Fillies broke their 27-year Coleman Shield title drought with an extra-time 35-20 victory over Manurewa in the final. Black Fern Sylvia Brunt, then 16, scored three tries.

“That was a super fun final. We were up a bit, but Manurewa kept coming back. When they scored on fulltime, Black Fern Arihiana Marino-Tauhinu had a doable kick to win the game. I started crying on the try line until Ruby Tui started shouting, 'she's not going to get it,’ ‘she’s not going to get it'.’’

“When it went into extra time it was like nah, we're not losing this.” 

Auckland's last couple of seasons have been hampered by Covid. They only played a dozen matches across 2020 and 2021 and were unable to contest finals in 2021. Despite the disruption Leota featured in ten of those games. This year she has featured in all six Storm games. 

In the 2022 FPC regular season, Auckland had strong victories against Counties Manukau (39-20), Manawatū (32-5) and lost a thriller to unbeaten Canterbury (27-33). Their last match against this weekend’s semifinal opponents Waikato was not so great, a 5-41 defeat.

“We’ve got a lot of confidence from our Wellington comeback and with our Black Ferns back we’ll be much stronger. It’s finals footy, anything can happen,” Leota warned.

Black Ferns Maiakawanakaulani Roos, Tafito Lafaele, Charmaine McMenamin, Sylvia Brunt and Ruahei Demant could all return for Auckland.

Awhina Tangen-Wainohu, Ariana Bayler, Tanya Kalounivale and Renee Holmes are available for Waikato.

Away from rugby, Leota is an intellectual property engineer for Fisher & Paykel and is working towards her Masters degree in intellectual property law.