WNRL 2019: Playing at Mt Smart Stadium means so much to Atawhai Tupaea

The NZ Warriors women will make history this weekend when they run out at Mt Smart Stadium for the very first time. 

This will also be the first time many of the players' friends and family get to see them in action for the club live.

But for centre Atawhai Tupaea, Sunday’s match against the Dragons will be an emotional one.

"So my dad's been diagnosed with stage-four bowel cancer," Tupaea told Newshub, with a deep breath. "I'm doing it for him."

Tupaea described father Mita as the rock of their family, so it was an understandably tough topic to talk about. 

She credits him for being a "massive, massive" influence on her career, and remembers coming home from school and being made to go running instead of doing homework.

"Dad would be like, 'ok, chuck your shoes on, we're going for a run', so off we would go.

Atawhai Tupaea in action for Kiwi Ferns
Atawhai Tupaea in action for Kiwi Ferns. Photo credit: Photosport

"I think there was like four of us - my four sisters and my dad - and off we go running around the block, and we'd do that every day."

That laid the foundations for her to go on and represent New Zealand at touch (like her father) and rugby league.

Tupaea was playing for Counties at the league nationals this year, when her dad texted her, saying he missed her and her siblings, and wanted them to go into the hospital to see him.

"It was very strange, because my dad took us into a private room and he told us to leave our kids in the other room - it just didn't feel right.

"My dad is such a strong person and he's so private, and he just started crying and tears started coming out of his eyes. My mum was behind him and I was like, 'ok, something's wrong'.

"That's when he said the doctors have found a massive tumour, which has spread, so they said to my dad that he had about four weeks to a few months left to live with us, which was really hard to take."

Atawhai has been with her father, as he goes through chemotherapy. She said his first round hit him bad.

Unable to play for the Warriors last year, because she was pregnant with her second child, Tupaea was willing to give up playing for the Warriors again this season, but her father was having none of it.

"I always say to him, 'I don't need to play league, I could stay here and look after you, if you want to', but he's so stubborn," she said, with a beaming smile.

"He's like, 'nope, you get out there, you do your thing, you go to training'."

The experience has changed Tupaea's approach to the game.

"So when I'm at training or when I'm on the field, I just give it everything I've got."

That hasn’t gone unnoticed by her coach Luisa Avaiki, who was one of the select few Tupaea told at the club.

"Obviously, that's really personal for her and it's not something she wanted to share with the team, and we had to be respectful of that," Avaiki told Newshub.

"She was thinking about the team, and she said to me she didn't want to come across at training like she was being slack or she wasn't performing to her best, but she wanted to make me aware of this personal [issue] she's going through with her family."

Avaiki offered as much support as she could, suggesting Tupaea spend as much time away from the team as she needed, but Tupaea told her exactly what her father said.

"She said, 'no, this is what my dad wanted me to do', so he's the one that's really supporting her to continue

"She's managing it really well," Avaiki said. "She's a great leader, she's in our leadership group and always thinking of others, and it just really shows the character that Ata has." 

Tupaea is extremely excited to play at home this weekend and in light of everything that's happened, the opportunity really hits home.

Her five sisters and brothers will be at Mt Smart Stadium, but unfortunately, her father isn’t likely to be there.

"I know that he'll be watching on the TV hopefully. I just wanna make him proud."

Newshub.

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