Wealth of knowledge . . . Talented rugby player Anjelica Matapo wants to get more women involved in rugby. PHOTO: KAYLA HODGE

September is Women in Rugby month are plenty of women dedicated to developing the sport in the Waitaki district. Kayla Hodge catches up with Anjelica Matapo about her varied career and fight for women’s rugby.

Anjelica Matapo could have easily remained one of North Otago’s hidden rugby gems, if she had not decided to play netball.

Earlier this year, Matapo decided it was time to return to sport, after taking a break to raise her two young children. She decided to give netball a go, and went along to trials for Athletic Netball Club.

Across the road, the Waitaki Wahine rugby team was training.

As Matapo, a former rugby player, walked home from trials, Wahine players told her she should come to a rugby training.

So she did, and once she stepped on the field, she knew she was back where she belonged.

Matapo (25) decided to play rugby rather than netball, playing the entire season for the Wahine – ”doing my pre-season during the season” – and was rewarded at the end of the year, named 2021 player of the year. But she did sneak in a couple of netball games for Athletic Maroon after the rugby season finished.

Getting back into rugby had not been easy.

Having no family in Oamaru other than her fiance, Epineri Logavatu, Matapo took their two children, Willow (2) and Tehani (1), to twice-weekly trainings, matches on Saturdays, and in the team van to away games.

“It was a massive effort, but I guess that’s what you do when you love the game so much,” Matapo said.

“Coming back [after having children], your body has changed, it’s a whole new ball game.”

It was completely different from what the midfielder was used to.

Matapo grew up in a rugby family in Auckland, but played basketball and netball because her secondary school did not offer women’s rugby.

When she moved to Hamilton, to study at the University of Waikato, she played rugby for the university, in the Waikato Farah Palmer Cup squad, and the Waikato sevens squad. She also worked for Chiefs and Waitaki Rugby for two years, doing data analysis of players’ GPS monitors.

Sevens gave her the opportunity to head overseas and play against the Japanese team, in its build up to the Rio Olympic Games.

“That kind of opened my eyes to the opportunities in rugby. That was kind of my first big break, I guess, if you can call it that,” Matapo said.

Returning home, Matapo knew she wanted to play rugby, but it was put on the back burner as she started her family.

Her fiance was offered a rugby contract at Athletic Marist, and job as a gib-stopper, and the family decided to move south to North Otago in 2019.

Matapo worked part-time at Ardgowan School, and at Rainbow Confectionery.

After playing a season for the Waitaki Wahine, North Otago Rugby women’s rugby development officer Georgie Sturgess “shoulder tapped” Matapo to attend a New Zealand Rugby Union Ako Wahine programme – and she jumped at the chance.

The programme, held in Christchurch, brought women involved in rugby in the South Island together, to become accredited world rugby educators.

It was an empowering experience, creating connections with other like-minded women and special to be involved in a programme led by, and designed for, women, she said.

“The spaces aren’t necessarily a welcoming place, or open for women. I don’t mean that in a disrespectful way, I understand, and appreciate, that the needs of females are so much different from our male players.

“I guess being a female, in a male-dominated sport, can be [really] intimidating, so having the opportunity to upskill in the midst of other powerful and inspiring women from all over the South Island, that is led by trailblazers in our game, was definitely a God-given experience.”

In the future, Matapo wanted to use her knowledge and qualification from the programme to help provide more opportunities for young women in rugby.

“Everyone wants to give back to their sport, but it’s more to pave way for the younger girls coming through, because we’ve got such a young Waitaki Wahine team, and if we give them pathways then we won’t lose them.”

“[It’s about] doing the background work to keep them there.”

Matapo planned to return to the Wahine next season, and hopefully netball if the seasons did not clash, and try to win back-to-back player of the year titles.