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Freda Tafuna: 'When I crossed the adrenalin was flowing through my veins'

By Adam Julian
HAMILTON, NEW ZEALAND - MAY 11: Freda Tafuna of USA is tackled during the 2024 Pacific Four Series match between New Zealand Black Ferns and USA at FMG Stadium Waikato on May 11, 2024 in Hamilton, New Zealand. (Photo by Hannah Peters - World Rugby/World Rugby via Getty Images)

Freda Tafuna became the first American player to score tries in consecutive Tests against the Black Ferns when she crossed in the 64th minute of the Eagles’ 57-5 loss in the Pacific Four Series in Hamilton on Saturday.

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In the corresponding fixture in Ottawa last year, she also scored a try as the USA started strongly but couldn’t maintain their advantage.

Tafuna is a bustling blindside flanker with seven caps to her name. Her try on Saturday epitomised her relentlessly honest approach.

“It was a team try. It took us 14 phases to get it. It was about the forwards pushing and a strong mindset to finish,” Tafuna told RugbyPass.

“I had a pick and go because I saw a defender a little bit behind the try line. Liana Mikaele Tu’u got underneath me, but my body height was above her as I went in. She made big contact. I was so surprised when it was given.”

The USA was surprised to be behind 26-0 after eight minutes, a stark contrast to Ottawa in 2023 when they led 17-0.

“It’s not the best feeling. We can do better. We never want to start a game like that,” Tafuna admitted.

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“We made mistakes and didn’t adjust to what New Zealand was doing. After the third try, we were like this can’t be happening. We do a lot of practice. It can’t be like this. 

“You can get down quickly, but you have to keep fighting. That’s the challenge of international sport. There is nowhere to hide. You have to fight for the right to be there. 

“When we got into our structures and challenged them more directly, we put up a better fight.”

One of seven siblings, Tafuna was born and raised in Orange County, California. She grew up playing basketball and soccer and laughed she was a “tackle bag” for her older brothers.

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With Tongan heritage, church played an important part in her upbringing and it was in this communal environment Freda discovered rugby.

“My sister was into softball and shot put. When she was introduced to rugby that was it. Darlene begged me to play, and I debuted in September 2019 at a Los Angeles Sevens tournament. I didn’t like it, I thought I was one and done until my Church friends had other ideas.”

Freda Tafuna USA rugby

Lindenwood University in St Charles, Missouri is one of the leading rugby universities in America. Half an hour from St Louis, Lindenwood appealed to Tafuna with its health and wellness options and close-knit Polynesian community. 

Rugby wasn’t the priority, but her interest grew at one of the leading institutions in the country.

Tafuna helped Lindenwood win two national D1 Elite championships, also recovering from a broken leg for a time in this period. At University she has played with girls from New Zealand, Australia, Venezuela, Spain, England, Scotland, and the Pacific Islands.

Tafuna’s international breakthrough happened when she was selected for the USA U23 team and identified as one of the Top 40 players in the nation. Her senior debut was against Australia in Ottawa last year.

“It was so nerve-racking going from college to international. I can’t mess this up. Once I got the first tackle in, I felt good. I was able to relax and express myself.”

The USA was soundly beaten but they gave the Black Ferns a mighty fright in the next encounter with Tafuna prominent.

 “I didn’t know much about the Black Ferns because I’d watched so little rugby.  Some of the girls were in awe.  I knew it would be a special challenge.

“Unfortunately, they lost their halfback early in the game to a red card. When we had them hard on defense I thought these girls are beatable.

“My try happened from a lineout move created by our former South African coach Rob Cain. The idea was to fake the maul, that is join in initially and then pull back and have one of the flankers or centres take it.

“We called the play, and I got a tap on my bum to withdraw from the maul and go. I saw the first defender and steeped her. After that space was the only thing, I could see. Oh my gosh, I’m going to score my first international try.

“When I crossed the adrenalin was flowing through my veins. The first person I hugged was my cousin Eti Haungatau. That’s the best feeling I’ve had in rugby.

“We had incredible momentum. At half-time, we were up 17-5 and our captains were hyping us up saying New Zealand is beatable. We’d not been in that position before, but we can get there again. It’s about building stronger combinations with each other and getting more games.”

Tafuna’s first win in an American jersey was against Samoa (36-26) in a WXV 2 fixture last year.

Individually Tafuna won the MA Sorensen Award as one of the best collegiate players in America in 2023. Maryanne Sorensen was a women’s collegiate rugby trailblazer at William & Mary and was the starting prop for the USA when they won the 1991 World Cup and made the next two World Cup finals in 1994 and 1998. 

“They start with 20 nominees then four, then me. It’s a big honour to win something named after Maryanne. She helped America get to the top of the World. That’s where we want to be too.”

Tries in Consecutive Test Against the Black Ferns

2023-24: Freda Tafuna (USA), Hamilton (1, 5-57), Ottawa (1, 17-39)

2021-22: Amy Cokayne (England), Auckland (3, 31-34), Northampton (3, 56-15)

2022: Bienne Terita (Australia), Adelaide, (2, 14-22), Auckland (2, 17-41)

2017: Lydia Thompson (England), Rotorua (1, 29-21), Dublin (2, 32-41)

2018-19: Maëlle Filopon (France), Grenoble, (1, 30-27), San Diego (1, 16-25)

2012: Joanne Watmore (England), Aldershot (1, 17-8), Twickenham (1, 32-23)

England’s Lark Atkin-Davies, Abby Dow, and Ellie Kildunne scored tries in the Exeter and Northampton Tests of the 2021 Black Ferns series. Kildunne scored a try in the 2022 Rugby World Cup final in Auckland making her the only player to score in three successive Tests against the Black Ferns.

Watch Australia vs USA for free on RugbyPass TV here.*

*Worldwide apart from in New Zealand, the USA, and Canada.

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