Māori All Stars forward Kennedy Cherrington is excited to finally wear the Māori jersey in Aotearoa but says NRL stars shouldn't be having to choose between representing their culture or protecting their future.
"Being Australian-born and bred, I've only really seen the effects or the inspiration I have been for girls here. But when I went back home at Christmas, it was the same thing. I just throw the footy around but going back home, I think, will provide so much more opportunity for the girls back home.
"I've always wanted to play home and in Aotearoa, and I've never had the opportunity to, so I'm ready to grasp it with two hands."
But the drawn-out collective bargaining agreements between the NRL and the Players Association have cast a shadow over the game in recent weeks, particularly as the game's leading women's stars have been left without contracts until an agreement is reached.
That has left the game's female players without a secure future and some are fearful of what an injury could mean to their immediate future.
Body on the line
Cherrington (Ngāpuhi, Ngāti Hine, Ngāi Tūhoe, Ngāti Tūwharetoa, Ngāti Ruapani), however, is prepared to put her body on the line next week in Rotorua for the Māori jersey she holds dearest of all.
"This is like the pinnacle of my career. This jersey is above my Australian jersey, it's above the New South Wales jersey or any of my club jerseys. It just ties back to culture. Culture is important."
But Cherrington is equally supportive of players choosing their careers and livelihoods ahead of the match.
"The prime example is Tamika Upton from the women's indigenous side, who has pulled out because she's understood re-signing with the Knights is more important than this game, which is completely fair. It shouldn't be coming down to that though, that dilemma between playing it safe or playing for your future," Cherrington told teaomaori.news
Not a money issue
The situation has led to some sections of the media and rugby league fans speculating the players could potentially boycott the beginning of the season, including the All-Stars weekend. Cherrington also says there has been a misconception that the players' stance is based on money.
"It isn't about pay. It isn't about the salary cap and us getting the money that way. It's more so the fine print and for us female athletes, especially, our game is probably affected more by the CBA agreements because it's not what happens now, it's within the next five years and hopefully in the next three years we become professional."
Former Warriors NRLW player Hilda Peters (Te Aupōuri) empathises with the current players and their desire for better conditions.
"A lot of us over the last three years have had to take annual leave.
'They deserve answers'
We all love rugby league but when you start to feel safe in that environment, and we are heading into a professional space I understand the players will be wanting a lot more answers now and they deserve those answers.
"It's not nice to be in an uncomfortable situation. I think people get it mixed up when they hear contracts and think everything's going to be ok but inside those contracts, they're very specific. I definitely understand what the current players are going through at the moment."