2013 World Rugby Sevens Player of the Year Kayla Ahki (nee McAlister) is one of two players added to the Black Ferns squad as they build toward the Tokyo Olympics.
The 31-year-old returned from France recently with her two daughters, Stella and Camille. She again displayed her dominance for Auckland at the NZ National 7's tournament in December, scoring 6 tries in 5 games.
"Probably around mid-last year I realised I have fire in the belly to want to keep playing and seeing these girls do so well, on and off the field, I was obviously craving a bit of that again after leaving at the end of 2017. I probably decided to last year to try and come back and give one more shot," Ahki says.
Ahki (Te Āti Awa), is looking to forcing her way back into the playing squad in time for this years Olympic Games, having been a part of the squad that won a silver medal four years ago in Rio.
Returning home to Aotearoa with her daughters while chasing Olympic dreams means Ahki can spend some time with her family, including brother, former All Black Luke McAlister. "Family is a massive rock for me, I'll need mum and dads support especially with my girls being back here with me, whilst Pita's away.
"Luke's massive support, and will always say chase your dreams, don't let anyone stop that. He's actually been back here for a couple of months with his off-season in Japan, so it's worked out quite well, we got to train together again. It's been a while, so I'm giving him shit, and he's giving me shit."
Her return means all but one member of that 2016 squad are back on deck, with co-coach Alan Bunting excited by the experience on offer as they draw closer to Tokyo in 5 months time.
“The game has definitely grown while Kayla has been away but that will be a great challenge for her. She has a competitive attitude and the bigger the game, the more competitive she gets, and she still has that spark.”
Also re-joining the squad is Shiray Kaka (Ngāti Maniapoto) who has been in and out of the squad in recent years with two ACL's and a shoulder injury, but has been involved in the recent series wins in Sydney and Cape Town. While her injuries have healed, it is her mental strength, she says has seen the biggest development.
"I had a rough year last year, I was ready to give up and have babies, and just stop putting my all into this game because I just kept getting injuries in return. The mental strength I had to go through, I'd sit in the bush at home and just contemplate life. Really having to dig deep and find the real me, and understand that this is something that I really want to do, and if injuries come then that is just part of rugby."
Kaka, who married former All Blacks Sevens flyer Gillies Kaka in 2018, is also looking to push her case into the Olympic squad, having been included as the travelling reserve to Rio in 2016.
"These next few months are going to be really tough, they're going to be really competitive with it being the Olympic year, it's going to be pretty insane, but I'm ready to take on the challenge. And with this new mental strength that I feel I have, me and all the rest of the girls are going to be fighting for the spaces. It's going to be a challenging but fun year."
“Kayla and Shiray come into the squad and really solidify the depth we have. They have both played at the highest level and have executed what it is we are trying to achieve as a team," Bunting says.
Meanwhile, Hawke's Bay Winger Ollie Sapsford and Kitione Vai have been added to the All Blacks Sevens Squad.
“Ollie played really well for Hawke’s Bay at Nationals and impressed when he came into train with the All Blacks Sevens Development squad. We’re excited to have a winger that can play in the forwards who can be really physical and strong in the air,” coach Clark Laidlaw says.
Vai, who is the younger brother of Blues fullback Melani Nanai left school at the end of last year, but his form at the Red Bull Ignite Sevens has seen him propelled into the All Blacks Sevens full-time squad.
Laidlaw says “Kiti has genuine x-factor. It might take time for him to develop but we know he comes from good pedigree, his dad played for Manu Samoa and we have all seen the talent of his brother.”
BLACK FERNS SEVENS SQUAD
Kayla Ahki, Shakira Baker, Micheala Blyde, Kelly Brazier, Gayle Broughton, Dhys Faleafaga, Theresa Fitzpatrick, Stacey Fluhler, Sarah Hirini, Jazmin Hotham, Shiray Kaka, Tyla Nathan-Wong, Mahina Paul, Risaleeana Pouri-Lane, Cheyelle Robins-Reti, Alena Saiili, Montessa Tairakena*, Terina Te Tamaki, Ruby Tui, Niall Williams, Tenika Willison, Portia Woodman
(* = Training contract)
ALL BLACK SEVENS SQUAD
Kurt Baker, Caleb Clarke, Dylan Collier, Scott Curry, Sam Dickson, Scott Gregory, Trael Joass, Niko Jones, Andrew Knewstubb, Vilimoni Koroi, Ngarohi McGarvey-Black, Tim Mikkelson, Sione Molia, Etene Nanai-Seturo, Amanaki Nicole, Jacob Ratumaitavuki-Kneepkens, Joe Ravouvou, Salesi Rayasi, Akuila Rokolisoa, Ollie Sapsford, Tone Ng Shiu, Kitiona Vai, William Warbrick, Regan Ware, Joe Webber