Te Kāea spoke to Iritana Hohaia as an 18 year old preparing to play at the Youth Olympics in 2018. Now, she is int he Black Ferns 15s team.
Ōpunake-born and raised halfback, who can also play fullback, Iritana Hohaia has been pushing her case since bursting onto the provincial scene for Taranaki in 2019.
She is the first Taranaki-based player to be selected for the Black Ferns in more than 25 years, and says it is such an honour to represent her home on the big stage.
"It's mind-blowing really. The Taranaki region has rallied around me, giving me lots of confidence and showing lot's of support," she said earlier this week while in camp with the team in Tauranga.
"My whānau are so happy for me, so rapt. To finally tell them I was a Black Fern, they were so rapt. Can't wait to see me go on tour with these girls."
It will not be Hohaia's first time wearing a black jersey. She was a part of the U18 girls sevens team that won gold at the 2018 Youth Olympics in Argentina. The team featured the likes of Riseleanna Pouri-Lane, Jazmin Hotham and Montessa Tairakena, who have all gone on to play for the Black Ferns Sevens team, and Dhys Faleafaga, who will join Hohaia on the tour of England and France.
Hohaia has pursued the 15s' path and while Taranaki Whio have struggled in the Farah Palmer Cup (FPC) championship division in recent years, Hohaia earned a trial with the Black Ferns 'Possibles' team, and subsequently played for the Barbarians against the Black Ferns in 2020.
She told Te Kāea in 2018, her selection for the Youth Olympics was "a huge dream of mine. All these extra trainings, it will finally pay off."
Three years later, she says it is hard to describe her rapid elevation to the World Champion Black Ferns team. "I'm just really grateful to 15s for giving me this opportunity to step into the Black Ferns environment and learn off some legends. I guess another dream really, come true."
One of those legends will be Kendra Cocksedge, the veteran halfback and first female recipient of the Kelvin R Tremain award for New Zealand Rugby player of the year. Like Hohaia, Cocksedge hails from Taranaki but has played all her career with Canterbury after moving away for University.
Hohaia, who plays for the Taranaki Champion Southern club in Hāwera, grew up playing for Coastal - the home club of the All Black brothers Beauden, Jordie and Scott Barrett. She hopes her elevation to the senior squad from home will inspire her Whio teammates, as well as up and coming rugby players to realise their dreams.
"It's awesome for the young girls back home to see you don't have to come from a big region to make the Black Ferns, you can come from the small provinces. I hope to inspire the young girls to know it is possible, no matter where you're from."
Standing only 1.64m, Hohaia has been one of the brightest rising stars in the FPC. And despite Black Ferns coach Glenn Moore selecting a squad of 34, Hohaia was made to work hard to become available for selection.
An illness prevented her from playing much of the FPC this year, returning only for the last round match against the Hawke's Bay Tui two weeks ago. But as she did with the U18 sevens team, hard work and dedication to her dream paid off.
"There was a lot of uncertainty but I guess for me I knew the dream stayed the same, whether it be delayed or get the call up for this campaign. I guess a lot of hard work behind the scenes."
Days out from flying out ahead of the Black Ferns 100th test match when they take on the England Red Roses, Hohaia is itching to get stuck into test match rugby.
"It's going to be awesome. The girls have rallied around me and made me feel welcome. Definitely, looking forward to it."