“There’s just something fierce about Samoan women.”
Tiffany Fa’ae’e is one of five such women to captain her nation in rugby in recent times.
The Californian-born, New Zealand-raised Samoan led the United States to a fourth place finish at the Rugby World Cup in 2017.
In the 16 months since that tournament, Samoans Liz Patu (Australia), Sene Naoupu (Ireland), Fiao’o Fa’amausili (New Zealand), and Masuisuimatamaali Pauaraisa of the Manu Sina have captained nations ranked in the top 13 of women’s rugby.
Fa’ae’e said it’s a testament to the leadership of Samoan women.
“We’re very good at stepping up for people other than ourselves.
“In a team environment, especially in rugby you need combo of all sorts of personalities and approaches.
“Then you need someone that plays with gratitude to bring it all together.
Fa’ae’e credits this trait to her upbringing, where she was taught to be unselfish and look after her own.
The eldest of four siblings, she was born in California and lived there until her mother moved the family back home to Solosolo village in Samoa.
“Mum is one of 11, and about half of them still live at home.
“It was my nan’s 90th earlier this year, so we all came from New Zealand, Australia, all over.
Fa’ae’e said she loves coming back to Samoa, and does so at least once every couple of years to see her nan.
“She’s the only one who really follows rugby out of family, she loves sport.
“That’s definitely where I get it from.”
Fa’ae’e lived in Solosolo for three years until the family moved again, settling on Auckland’s North Shore.
It was at Birkenhead College where she first translated that love of sport into rugby union.
After her first competitive taste of the game at around 16, Fa’ae’e began what she calls a unique journey.
“Rugby was never the priority for me, I always put my career first.
“But I’ve got the Samoan mentality, where everything I do I wanna be the best at it.
“Things happen because of that.”
Despite never completely focussing on rugby, Fa’ae’e’s play in the Auckland club scene didn’t go unnoticed.
She said many of her playing peers told her she had a real future in the sport, and urged her to move to other clubs with them to pursue it.
Fa’ae’e represented both Samoa and New Zealand internationally in rugby league, and trialled for the rugby union Manu Sina in the early 2000s.
But being the eldest sibling of a single mother, work was always number one.
Fa’ae’e worked for infrastructure company Lendlease in New Zealand until a job opportunity in New York with the same company came up.
“By 2014 when I was capped by the Kiwi Ferns (New Zealand rugby league team), I had already booked a one-way ticket,” she said.
“It wasn’t about rugby, I just wanted to try living there.
“I came with no intentions of playing anything.”
Nevertheless, rugby become a way for Fa’ae’e to take a piece of home with her.
“Playing the game I’d always played next to Freedom Tower or Brooklyn Bridge, it was special,” she said.
Away from her family and more-demanding job in Auckland, Fa’ae’e had more free time to fill.
She joined the New York Rugby Club in 2014, and made a strong impression in her first season stateside.
She was selected in the USA national team to tour Canada in 2015.
“Coming to America where the game is still young, my experience was massive.”
Fa’ae’e said she was a little intimidated by the level of some of the US athletes physically, so had to rely on her rugby brain.
“I was never the biggest, fastest, strongest.
“But with that experience, I got more confident as I got older.”
On that 2015 tour, Fa’ae’e played against friends of hers on the Black Ferns, which she found a strange experience.
“They were like ‘oh now you wanna take it seriously,” she said.
“But what was really cool was after the game we all hung out together.
“You’re all friends at the end, and that showed my American teammates what rugby is all about.”
Fa’ae’e said she in spite of the strangeness she felt just as comfortable representing the United States as she had Samoa and New Zealand.
“I feel a special connection to all three cultures.
“I’m a blend, very proud of being born here, my Samoan heritage and my upbringing in New Zealand.”
She said she’s always felt like the in-between person, which is no bad thing.
“It expands your way of thinking, I’ve had to adapt to my environment.
“For example here in New York you really have to back yourself.”
That New York attitude was surely part of why Fa’ae’e was named captain of the USA team for a game against Canada prior to the World Cup in 2017.
“I was in tears when coach asked me.
“You work hard, and for your coach to see you as the person they trust to lead the team out there.
“It’s a huge compliment.”
Fa’ae’e retained the captaincy through the World Cup, where she led the underdog Americans all the way to the semi-finals.
“It was so buzzy, getting that far for the first time in 20 years, it was huge for us.
“You go in wanting to do well, but in my mind I could never say where you want to end up.
“And then when you’re that close to a final, oh man.”
She said less-than-ideal preparations for the tournament only made the team stronger.
“We couldn’t get any warm-up games scheduled, so we had a rough long camp instead in San Diego.
“That helped our mentality going onto the pitch.”
Fa’ae’e said the girls needed to start looking at each other.
“It’s different to team sports they grew up with.”
In sports like baseball and American football, the coaches can direct the action more closely, as there are more stoppages in play.
“We had to start trusting the process and backing each other,” Fa’ae’e said.
Fa’ae’e is proud of that World Cup campaign, and said it’s without a doubt the pinnacle of her playing career.
“It reflects all the work done growing the game here.”
Fa’ae’e finished her playing career after the club season following the World Cup, having led the New York Rugby Club to the national championship.
“Fourth in the world then first in the nation,” she said.
“It’s like a movie isn’t it!”
In June of that year, Fa’ae’e found herself spending more of her time on developing the teammates around her, rather than thinking of her own game.
Coaching was the obvious next step.
“I wanted to get behind the scenes, was confident in next group and wanted to help.”
Fa’ae’e took on an assistant role coaching her old team the year after she retired.
She said being a captain previously has helped with this tremendously.
“Things like learning the American culture, what makes them tick.
“Everything happens for a reason, it has all lead to this.”
Having impressed in her coaching at New York Rugby Club and subsequently as head coach of the men’s and women’s teams at Monroe College, Fa’ae’e was recently appointed assistant coach at professional Major League Rugby side Rugby United New York.
The move attracted significant attention, with Fa’ae’e becoming the first female coach to be employed in US men’s professional rugby.
While she recognises the progress her appointment symbolises, Fa’ae’e said it was mainly the media who were making it a big deal.
“They’re just rugby players, hopefully it just becomes the norm.
“It’s a huge opportunity though, I’m still learning but am excited about what I have to offer.”
She said it’s been interesting seeing how the professional game operates in the men’s league, as opposed to her days playing as an amateur.
“When I was playing, we paid for our own travel and everything.
“It’s good to know what the standards are and how it can look, and obviously I want all that for the women as well.”
Fa’ae’e said it’s about changing the mindset about women in rugby.
She said attitudes are beginning to shift, with more people recognising that women can play the sport too.
“People were coming up to us after the World Cup, saying they were surprised at the style of rugby we could play.”
Even though the women’s rugby players of tomorrow may have easier journeys, Fa’ae’e said she would never change anything.
“Once you overcome hurdles they aren’t hurdles anymore.
“I feel blessed, don’t know why it’s happening to me but I’ll take it.
“It’s just about inspiring others, give everything a go because you can never know how it will turn out.”
She’s more than thankful to Samoa for its continuing support and influence on her journey.
“Even though I was representing the US, I got many messages of support from the island.
“We’re all family, and growing up with those values has opened these doors for me.”