Rūātoki sevens’ star primed for Paris

SMILING ASSASSIN: Eastern Bay’s fan favourite, Stacey Waaka, feels they have the right squad to bring home the Olympic gold. Photo NZ Rugby

Staff Reporter

STACEY Waaka is hoping to finish her 2024 rugby sevens season in the best way possible, with a gold medal around her neck.

The Eastern Bay fan favourite, aka the “smiling assassin”, is off to the NRLW for a stint with the Brisbane Broncos following the Olympics, before it’s back to training and another sevens season.

It’s been a big season and Waaka said she was excited that the main goal of Paris had finally arrived.

“Yeah, I can’t wait. I am ready. I haven’t really felt too much emotion yet but once I am over there and we’re getting stuck in, then it’ll start to kick in and feel real.”

They are currently in Soustons, along with the men’s team, and will be there for a couple of weeks before going to Paris.

Waaka was part of the gold medal-winning side four years ago, but admits this time it will feel a lot different in Paris as there will be crowds and no Covid-19 restrictions, which limited the athletes massively.

“It will be cool and it will bring that atmosphere. The French are crazy sports fans and will put on a good show.

“There will be plenty of screaming and we probably won’t hear each other but it will be all good and the instincts might have to kick in.”

They’re heading to the Olympics with one goal – to bring the gold back with them on the plane.

“Absolutely, it’s the goal. We’re not going over there to have fun. We’re going there to get gold.

“We haven’t talked too much about it but it’s definitely a target. We’ve been talking more about the journey and not worrying about the outcome but focusing on the process.

“We are going to try and go back-to-back. We have four or five girls attending their first Olympics and we don’t want to overwhelm them too much. We want to make their first experience a memorable one.”

They are a team that are full of many heart-warming stories from the likes of Poroporo’s Mahina Paul and Jorja Miller, who are off to their first Olympics, and veteran Sarah Hirini, doing all she can to make the squad despite injuring her knee in December.

“We all knew if anyone could do it and come back from that it would be Sarah because of her mindset, resilience and attitude, and her inspiring story just adds to our journey.”

Waaka feels they have the right squad to bring home gold.

“I feel there is a good mix; we have a good amount of experience, some good new players and as long as we stick to our game plan and trust each other on the field, we should do pretty well.”

She is looking forward to mixing and mingling with fellow athletes in Paris, something they couldn’t do in Tokyo.

“We’ve told the new players all about Tokyo and how cool it was to win gold, but just how much more special it will be here because of the atmosphere and everything else.

“It’s going to be a little bit sweeter roaming around the village with no masks, not having to sanitise your hands all the time and being able to spot athletes and interact with them. You have to enjoy the experience.

“It’s exciting and fun, and to have family and friends in the crowd is just going to make it extra special.”

She said it was exciting to see a good contingent of Eastern Bay players across both teams.

“We know it’s tough for everyone living here, away from their friends and whānau, but for us to represent our rohe and be able to do that on a world stage in France is pretty cool.

“The coolest thing about that crew is they always pay their respects to their community and where they come from. I know Ma’s [Mahina Paul] excited because it’s her first one and she comes from a small place, which is awesome and exciting for her, too.”

Madrid didn’t go how they wanted but it was probably a blessing in disguise.

“We are pretty good at handling pressure in big moments and if we can do that in Paris then we should hopefully do quite well.

“Our effort in Madrid has certainly fuelled a bit of fire in us to do well.”

They head into the games as defending champions and Waaka knows they’ll be targeted.

“We lost Madrid, so it is firing us up. People are still chasing us, and anyone can win on the day.”

She said they were disappointed with how they started the season but have come a long way since then.

“We’re in a good place, physically and mentally as a team, and excited at the challenge in front of us. We’re feeling good.”

Just before they headed away, they played some Olympic-simulated matches against fringe squad members and with about 22 players having played for the side in recent seasons, it was a strong hit out.

“We had six games, and it was exactly what we needed. We credit the depth of our entire squad and us winning gold will be everyone’s effort.”

Following Paris, Waaka is switching codes as she lines up for the Brisbane Broncos women’s rugby league side.  

“I am only gone for a few months. I will be back by December, but I am excited.

“It should be cool and will be a different challenge, but I am ready. I get to get out of New Zealand for a bit and come back refreshed and ready to go.”

The women’s section of the sevens at the Olympics runs from July 28-30.

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