During Oceania Rugby and Rugby Australia’s Women in Rugby Month, Rugby Victoria will be featuring the stories of the Victorian Women who make up our great game. Women in rugby… respect!
In 2018 you could be forgiven for thinking Alice Tonumaivao was having the year of her life.
The rugby-rookie turned local Victorian star won every award in sight.
Only four years after first picking up a rugby ball, the 26-year-old graduated from community club Western Districts to back-row in the Melbourne Rebels inaugural Super W side.
An incredible debut season followed. Tonumaivao cleaned up at awards night to win Player of the Year and Best Forward for the Melbourne Rebels in the first incarnation of the Super W competition. Her extraordinary consistency was even recognised by national selectors, earning a Wallaroos debut against the Black Ferns in Sydney later that year.
Everything the rising star touched turned to green and gold.
However, off the field, Tonumaivao was fighting the battle of her life. Behind closed doors, she was facing heartbreak, pain and hopelessness.
“During that year was a very difficult time for me,” Tonumaivao said.
“My dad had been diagnosed with cancer. Everyone in my family had to find an outlet to keep our minds occupied and keep us distracted.”
“For me, it was rugby.”
“I played for my dad that year. I put it all on the field when I played, and I was very focused and determined to do the best I could. It was a different reason for me to play that year.”
“To receive the awards was extremely emotional with everything going on in the background. I didn’t take the awards for just myself. It was for my dad and teammates as well.”
Rugby has always held an “important place” in Tonumaivao’s heart.
Growing up in Samoa with three brothers, family gatherings involved watching live rugby on TV. Her first introduction to the sport was rugby touch, playing with her cousins in the backyard. Her family would move to New Zealand at age nine and then Australia at age 13.
In Australia, Tonumaivao focused her sporting attention on basketball, with the talented player representing Victorian north-west district Keilor. But after reaching her peak in the sport and spending her Saturday’s watching her brothers play rugby from the sidelines, she was persuaded by close friends to come down to local club Western Districts “just for fun.”
It was then that the 24-year-old’s journey in rugby started to snowball.
“I went down to my first training, and I must have done really well, because the coaches invited me back,” she said.
“It helped that my friends were very encouraging. The main thing for me at the time was I just followed where my friends were, and they were into rugby.”
“In my first game, I received three votes for best-on-ground and my coach came up to me to say I had potential. That’s when I thought I might actually be good at the sport.”
“I took it to heart, got on onboard and made a decision to go all in.”
And all in she went.
Four years to the date, she received the call of her lifetime. A dream debut for the Wallaroos was now a reality.
A deep thinker of the game, Tonumaivao reflected on what that moment walking up the race of Olympic Stadium meant to her.
“I remember walking on the field, making my first steps in the gold jersey and taking it all in,” she said.
“The first thing that went through my mind was ‘I’m going to play the best rugby of my life for the next twenty minutes’.”
“The second was my family. They mean everything. Every time I step out onto the field, I’m playing for more than just myself.”
“The skills and passion I have for the game is because of them, playing the game with my dad and brothers when I was growing up.”
“It all comes out on the field, remembering where I come from. The game that my family and people love. It’s a different feeling when I get to play in front of them. It takes your performance to a whole new level. I definitely thought about what the game means to my family when I walked out onto that field.”
Joining her contingent of family, including all three brothers, in flying up to Sydney for the Bledisloe Cup Curtain Raiser was a legion of teammates from her community club, Western Districts. The popular club figure simply described the act of support as “special.”
“We are so family orientated,” she said.
“How you see us as a team is how we are off the field as well. We welcome everyone from all nationalities and backgrounds.”
“Everyone is close-knitted. Even during these covid lockdowns, we are not able to get together physically, but everyone keeps in contact by still talking online or on phone calls and zooms.”
“We are always checking in on each other.”
Tonumaivao credits the two biggest influences in her life, on and off the field, as her father and teammate Sharlene Fagalilo.
Now fully recovered, her father’s health has given her a newfound lease on life and passion for the game she grew up with.
“My dad has been my biggest coach and my biggest critic when it comes to rugby,” she said.
“He’s there for all of my games. All the feedback I get is from him and it’s always very honest. It’s always in the back of my mind when I take the field.”
“My dad is now 100% cured. But it doesn’t take anything away from how much he means to me and what he’s done for me.”
Her teammate turned housemate, Sharlene Fagalilo, has also stood alongside Tonumaivao every step of the way.
Since first playing together at the 2017 Brisbane Global Rugby Tens tournament, the two gravitated towards each other to become teammates at Western Districts and the Melbourne Rebels and have been inseparable friends ever since.
Tonumaivao feels privileged to be able to lean on the wealth of experience of Fagalilo – an inspirational leader in the movement of women’s and youth girls’ rugby in Victoria.
“I’ve learnt so much from her,” she said.
“She captained my local club and the Melbourne Rebels and has such an extensive rugby background playing for Wellington Pride and Samoa. She’s played such a high level of rugby. Her passion, knowledge and skill of the game… a lot of what I’ve learnt as a rugby player is from her.”
“She’s been there for the journey.”
Women in all aspects of rugby union are being celebrated this September during Oceania Rugby and Rugby Australia’s Women in Rugby Month.
Themed, ‘Women in Rugby…Respect’, the month has showcased, celebrated, and acknowledged girls and women across the game, all of whom deserve respect for their courage and contributions to rugby at all levels.
According to Tonumaivao, a new wave of leadership in women’s and youth girls’ rugby has paved the way for an unprecedented rate of participation, attitude change and development since she was first introduced to the game in 2014.
“It comes down to respecting the game and the women who play it,” she said.
“There is a reason why so many young girls want to play the game; they just love it. Women’s rugby has grown so much since I started playing and even the conversation around it. It means so much to our girls during this lockdown. It’s exciting to see so many young leaders having the courage to step out of their comfort zone.”
“The respect has come for women with how the game has grown. There are always young girls willing to step up and grow the game. At the end of the day, it’s a game that brings everyone together. Different levels, nationalities, age groups and genders.”
“The opportunities I’ve been given… I’d love for other girls to have too.”
Despite two years passing since fully committing to the game, Alice Tonumaivao’s story is not done yet.
The 31-year-old has already commenced training, ready to make a comeback to the game that has given her so much, in a bid to wear the Western Districts and Melbourne Rebels jersey for one more season.
The final chapter in her story is still to be written.
“Being away from rugby definitely makes you appreciate it more.”
“I didn’t leave the game the way I wanted to. I have unfinished business. I’ve enjoyed my break from the elite level, but I’m so excited to get back into my community.”
“I want to give it the best year that I can.”
To find out more about Women in Rugby Month visit: Oceania Rugby dedicates September to: Women In Rugby…Respect! | Latest Rugby News | Oceania Rugby