Gago, Paul reflect on Black Ferns contracts

Gago, Paul reflect on Black Ferns contracts

The two most recent Counties Energy Heat stars to earn Black Ferns contracts have spoken out about the magnitude of their selection and the impact on those around them.

Grace Gago and Mererangi Paul joined Arihiana Marino-Tauhinu and Hazel Tubic as local players given the highest honour in the women’s game as they picked up central contracts for the first time.

It is the reward of hard work, dedication and sacrifice and an achievement they share with those that made it possible for them to get there.

“It means the sacrifice was worth it - not mine but my parents, especially my mum,” Gago said. “It was hard for her to see me upset and stressed over a loss or selection so now that I’m where I’m at - she understands with victories, lows are a part of the package as well.”

Likewise, Paul said the announcement was as much a reward for her family as it was for the player herself.

“My whanau were really happy for me once I had told them the news, especially my parents,” Paul said. 

“To play my first game will be an experience in itself. The history of this team is special, and it’ll be cool to be a part of it. 

Gago is born and bred Counties Manukau and her journey has taken her through a local pathway that has helped finesse her game.

“To play my first game will mean a lot based on my faith and who I serve. It hasn’t been an easy journey but definitely rewarding,” she explained.

“I’m hearty Rewa - went to Rewa High and was coached and managed by some cool people. Headed to Rewa Rugby, mentored by Ari, Aroz, Lani Rawinia, Jacqui.

“Played with Counties and had the likes of TK, who took me under her wing. I got my first real chance at playing hooker from Chad Shepherd and later on by JP. I have been mentally and physically battled by Pete,” she laughed.

“The Blues helped me grow a lot in my weaknesses.

“But my family held it down for me by letting me do what I need to do to get to where I need to be.”

Paul’s journey started in the Bay of Plenty but her career has taken flight since making the move to Counties Manukau and she has enjoyed a meteoric rise over the past couple of seasons.

“Moving up to Counties from the Bay of Plenty helped me to grow my game as I moved more in field for my playing position,” Paul said. 

“The HP programme set up at Counties has also helped me out a lot physically and mentally.  I started to enjoy rugby more and loved my time with the Manawa.”

Peter Shaw, CMRFU Women’s High Performance and Pathways Manager, was delighted that two of his charges have been able to achieve their goals.

“Getting the news about Grace Gago; jeez that was emotional,” Shaw explained. “I was driving and had to pull over.

“She was so clinical for the Blues this year, was the top hooker in the side and arguably the best thrower in the competition. Grace has really taken her attacking game to the next level. Always been a strong defender, her game on both sides of the ball has developed to an international skill set, alongside her already world class set piece work.

“I know how much this opportunity to be a fully professional rugby player means to Grace and her family, I am incredibly proud of her. No one deserves this opportunity more than Grace Gago. “Counties Manukau Rugby Union’s values are “Courage, Connected, & Work Hard” and look no further than this young woman to see these values lived day to day. Congratulations to Grace, her family, Manurewa High School and the Manurewa Rugby club.

“Mere was outstanding for the Chiefs Manawa in her debut season. She is a versatile and powerful athlete, there are not many other players who are just as capable as a playmaker as a finisher out wide, she has the speed and power to create opportunities, dangerous footwork and vision to read the game, beat defenders and finish tries. She scored six tries and started each game for the Manawa, a key member of that side.

“She is a player who has continued to be identified as having the genuine potential to play professionally. Mere made some significant changes to the way she approaches the game of rugby in 2023, particularly her consistency, performance mindset and belief. Mere is a great example for identifying and committing to a goal, putting her head down, and trusting the process. An exciting moment for her and her whanau who I know are extremely proud of her.”

Shaw takes great pride in the work the Union has done to assist both women be able to reach for and achieve their goals.

“On behalf of Counties Manukau Rugby, again I congratulate both Mere and Grace. It’s a testament to them and the hard work they have put into their High Performance Pathway programmes respectively,” he said.

“These Counties Manukau women are great ambassadors for girls/women who are rising through the grades, to see the pathway from Farah Palmer Cup, to Aupiki and ultimately on to international rugby.

“Our wahine continue to contribute a huge amount pride in the red, white and black hoops to our province, and we can’t wait to see Hazel, Ari, Grace and Mererangi wear the silver fern together moving forward.”

Both players have enjoyed time this week with the Black Ferns as they prepare for the season ahead.