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Katelyn Vaha'akolo holding with the Women's 15s World Rugby Breakthrough Player of the Year award.

Katelyn Vaha'akolo holding with the Women's 15s World Rugby Breakthrough Player of the Year award.

Photo/ Supplied/ NZ Rugby


‘I just wanted to debut to be honest!’: Cross-code star reflects on breakthrough year

Dual international Katelyn Vaha’akolo was awarded World Rugby’s Women’s Breakthrough Player of the Year following a stellar season.

Matt Manukuo
Matt Manukuo
09 November 2023, 12:05pm
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Winning the Breakthrough Player of the Year at the World Rugby awards came as a complete surprise for former rugby league turned Black Ferns star Katelyn Vaha’akolo.

Vaha’akolo made her debut for the Black Ferns in June, less than a year after she laced her boots for the Kiwi Ferns at the Women’s Rugby League World Cup.

A proven threat with ball in hand, Vaha’akolo scored three tries in five matches for the Blues, and scored five tries for the ferns. She says receiving the award was a surprise.

“I didn’t expect it at all, I just wanted to debut to be honest! I actually didn’t think I had that great of a season, so to receive this award I need to be kinder to myself!”

Vahakolo had her first taste of professional rugby, playing for the Auckland Storm in the Farah Palmer Cup (FPC) last year, following a standout season for the NRLW Newcastle Knights.

She went on to sign with the Blues, making debut against South Island-based Matatu at the start of the season. Vaha’akolo scored three tries in five matches for the Auckland side.

Vahakolo would then get the call up to Black Ferns in June for the Pacific Four Series, which she says was a dream come true.

“I went from FPC and straight into the (Rugby League) world cup, and after the FPC I said to myself I really wanted to become a Black Fern, like that’s probably the dream for me.

“But I didn’t see it happening this early. And after the world cup, I pretty much dropped everything that happened that year and I was like ‘what am I gonna do to improve myself as a union player.”

“It came as a surprise but now that I’m here I know I’m exactly where I’m meant to be.”

Vaha'akolo in a tackle against the English Roses.

The cross-code star says the shift to union was a challenge, saying it required a different skill-set she needed to adjust to.

“One of my work-ons from the union coaches was I need to stop running at people and using footwork, but in league you just run it straight which was all I was doing.

“I felt like I was the weakest link and didn’t have much game awareness, but I was lucky I had

so much support and I was able to progress in my own way.”

Thinking back to the award, Vaha'akolo says the award is an indicator of the journey she has been on in the sport.

“When I got off the stage I started crying, I just couldn’t believe it.

“I guess the journey I’ve been through and to receive something like that means a lot to me. It wasn’t even about ‘breaking through’ but more about overcoming what it is I’ve been through.”

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