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Ayesha sorry for beaten defenders

Ayesha Leti-I’iga takes the field last month for her club Oriental-Rongotai in the Wellington Women’s Championship final. Ories beat Northern United 26-15. PHOTO: Andy McArthur.

Ayesha Leti-I’iga has apologised to all those opponents she has run around, fended off and beaten all ends up on her way to the tryline in club and representative rugby over the past several years.

“I would just like to say sorry to all those defenders, it was nothing personal!”

She made the admission, sporting a cheeky grin, when talking to the Huddy Hui (full interview linked below) on Tuesday night, but warns she hopes there is more to come just as soon as she gets over a niggly injury that has sidelined her from the start of the 2021 Farah Palmer Cup NPC competition.

“I injured my middle finger. Not the best injury to be off the field with but I’m tracking along and hope to be back for the Canterbury game this weekend, if not the rest of the competition.”

The injury was rather unfortunate. “I did it at training – my finger got caught in one of my teammate’s pockets.”

The Pride beat Otago 13-5 in their season opener, had their bye this past weekend and this Sunday play defending champions Canterbury in Christchurch in round three of the competition.

Leti-I’iga has scored a record 46 tries in 34 appearances for Wellington and her firepower was sorely lacking in the clumsy victory against gritty Otago.

Playing for Ories in last month’s Wellington club rugby Women’s final.

From Porirua, she started playing rugby while at Porirua College. “Rugby would never have been my first pick but I was always playing sport and my uncle and his daughters were coaching the school rugby team and were short on numbers and roped me in to fill in for a sevens tournament. From there I loved it and have been playing ever since,”

Ayesha scored a try with her first touch of the ball for the Porirua College First XV.

“I remember that try – when I scored I thought everyone just let me through and I had to look again at the referee to check if it was a try or not.”

She hasn’t done much looking back since.

This season she has scored 27 tries and 135 points in 11 games in club rugby.

Her most prolific try-scoring season in club rugby was 2018 when she scored 41 tries in 13 games for Oriental-Rongotai. Ories were beaten finalists that year but have since won the Women’s Championship three years straight.

“I put our success down to a strong team culture. I guess we have been playing together for a long time as well. I have been playing alongside the same players since I played so I think that is why we have been successful.”

Does Ayesha have a favourite try that she has scored in club rugby?

“I always say all my tries are team tries, because without the others I couldn’t have scored them. I don’t have a favourite try though; I will just say all of them were my favourites!”

One standout try that she said she remembers well was in the 2019 final for Ories against Norths, when she reeled in a grubber kick by centre and current teammate Fa’ausa Makisi and beat six players on the way to the line – see below:

From Porirua College to Ories and on to the Wellington Pride as a 16 year old.

“I was very nervous in my first year in the Pride. I was still eligible to play U18s and the Pride coach [James Porter] approached me and said it would be awesome if you joined our squad.

“Being young I was so scared to play with all the older women, but with a lot of encouragement from my family saying I had nothing to lose, I took the challenge on. That was one of my favourite seasons ever, and two players I enjoyed playing with then, Georgia Daals and Lizzie Goulden, are coming back this year so that is great.”

Does Ayesha have a favourite moment playing for the Pride?

“In my first year being exposed to rugby at that level and my first time playing in a final. We came up against Auckland. Unfortunately, we lost [9-39] but that is one of my highlights with the Pride.”

Soon her try scoring exploits would be noticed by the National selectors. Her Black Ferns debut was on Soldier Field in Chicago against the USA in 2018.

“I was so excited and I was trying my hardest not to cry on the phone when I got the call-up for the Black Ferns.

“I think the best part was being able to tell my grandad. He has been one of my biggest supporters throughout my rugby career and my life.

“Then putting on that jersey for the first time I definitely held my tears back, I didn’t want to see anyone crying on TV! I just felt like all the sacrifices that my grandparents made for me paid off. That one was for them.”

Ayesha lost her mother Mary Asolupe Leti-I’iga aged 11 and grew up with her grandparents (Faaui and Salafa.). “I always say my granddad is my coach off the field, and he thinks he knows better than the coaches.

“He always told me I have to work hard for what I wanted; it was never going to get handed to me. Little things that have helped me get to where I am such as waking me up at 5am for morning runs. I wasn’t happy at the time, but I owe that to them.”

Whenever Ayesha scores a try she kisses her wrist on her way back to halfway for the re-start.

“I have this tradition in every game where I write my mum’s name on my wrist, and I always think that I have had my mum and my granddad running alongside me.”

She might have scored 159 tries in 62 games for Ories, but the competition for Black Ferns places is tough, with such players as Portia Woodman and Renee Wickliffe vying for places.

“I haven’t trained with Portia much, as she has been playing sevens or has been injured, but Renee is an amazing player on the field and a good friend off it. She never holds back and always shares her knowledge with the up and coming players. I am grateful for that, because when I joined the environment it was pretty scary.”

In the meantime, she is about helping the Wellington Pride, on and off the field.

“We had a good preparation for the first game against Otago. We won, but it wasn’t how we wanted to perform. We came away with a lot of learnings and work-ons, and we just need to be more urgent and keep gelling as a team.”

The Pride play defending champions Canterbury on Sunday in Christchurch in their second game. Last year Canterbury won by 54-12. Canterbury have won 22 games on the trot since their last loss to Wellington 43-38 in 2018.

Above: Scoring her third try in her fifth Women’s NPC start, for Wellington against Canterbury in 2015. PHOTO: Hugh Pretorius. 

Above: Scoring her first ever try for Wellington on the left wing, against Manawatu in 2015.

Above: Scoring one of two tries for Wellington against Canterbury in their 2018 meeting at Porirua Park – wellington won 43-38 and this was Canterbury’s most recent NPC loss 22 games ago for them. 


Watch the interview on Tuesday night with Huddy Hui below:


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