A reconnection of three East Coast families has ended in a golden celebration at the Summer Youth Olympic Games in Argentina this morning.
Gisborne Girls’ High student Azalleyah Maaka and East Coast-connected cousin Kalyn Takitimu-Cook played their parts as New Zealand defeated France in a nail-biting final of the women’s rugby sevens.
The Baby Black Ferns, as they have been dubbed, beat the French 15-12 to complete a perfect record at the three-day tournament in Buenos Aires.
Cheering them on from the sideline were members of the families of Maaka and Takitimu-Cook, who only discovered they were cousins through Ngati Porou and Rangitukia roots at the start of the year while talking at a national trial.
Their families are also related to New Zealand team manager Tangi Waikari.
That made for a vocal party of supporters as the girls overcame a halftime deficit and a physically bigger French team.
Having already qualified for the gold medal match, despite having one pool game to go — a 32-5 win over Kazakhstan earlier in the day — New Zealand went into the final as the favourites.
They beat France 26-12 in pool play but the final eventuated into a far different prospect,
Both Maaka and Manukura school Year 13 student Takitimu-Cook were in the starting line-up.
New Zealand took the early initiative. Montessa Tairakena fended off a defender to score in the opening minute and 3½ minutes later, Iritana Hohaia crossed for their second try.
On the stroke of halftime, speedster Alycia Christiaens made the most of a fortuitous bounce and ran 80 metres to score under the posts, then converted to close the deficit to 10-7.
France stunned the New Zealanders with a try early in the third minute of the second half to go 12-10 ahead.
But a poor kick-off handed the ball back to New Zealand and they made the most of it, sending the ball wide to Mahina Paul, who outsped the chasers to put her side 15-10 ahead with 2.45 to go.
It was tense stuff as New Zealand held on much to the relief and elation of their legion of supporters.
Maaka is the daughter of Tojo Maaka, former Ngati Porou East Coast Heartland first five-eighth and Ripeka Poi (former Nga Hau e Wha netball centre).
Takitimu-Cook is the daughter of Gisborne Boys’ High old boy John Cook, from Te Araroa, and Joni Takitimu-Cook, from Tolaga Bay.
Both girls have aspirations to represent their country at the highest level.
In an interview with The Gisborne Herald earlier this year, Maaka said: “My long-term goal is to play for the senior women’s sevens and then maybe the 15s, although at this stage, I prefer sevens”.
Takitimu-Cook is looking at following her parents into the New Zealand Army, and playing for the Black Ferns sevens.