Wests Tigers centre AJ Kepaoa isn't speaking in clichés when he says he wouldn't be where he was without the women in his life.
Having battled homesickness, repeated injury and mental struggles since he moved to Australia to pursue his rugby league dream, the 22-year-old paid tribute to the women — young and old — who have kept him on his journey.
For Kepaoa, it started back in South Auckland.
After his father suffered a severe spinal injury when he was young, it was his mum, Melesete, who worked long hours to support her family.
“Growing up, my mother did pretty much everything," Kepaoa told NRL.com ."She’d be the first one to wake up and make our lunches before she goes to work at 5:30 in the morning.
“Then she’d finish work around 8pm and come home to cook us dinner, be the last one to go sleep. Then five hours later she would wake up and do it all again the next day.
“There was eight of us kids and she also made time to support us in everything we wanted to do, so you can see why I call her super woman.”
At just 17-years-old, Kepaoa signed a deal with the Sydney Roosters and moved to Australia to pursue his dream, leaving his family behind in Auckland.
“Once I left New Zealand to embark on my journey, leaving my family was so hard. I struggled a lot and wanted to move back home because I missed my family so much,” he said.
“But my Mum and Dad told me to stay strong and try and get through it. They’d made so many sacrifices to help me get there so I knew I couldn’t give up.”
Kepaoa made his long-awaited NRL debut for the Wests Tigers in August 2020. Just as his rugby league career was looking promising, the young outside back suffered a season-ending knee injury — just weeks before his partner Jade was due to give birth to their first child.
“When I did my ACL it just showed me that things may be going your way but they can just as easily be taken away from you, just like that,” he said.
“It was a really tough time when I was going through rehab. It was just ups and downs but mostly downs."
When the Kiwi international became a father to his daughter Manea Tangianau Elene Matapuku-Kepaoa the young Wests Tiger said his life changed forever.
“When I was in rehab, the only thing that got me through was knowing that my life wasn’t just about footy anymore but that I had a little one to care for. Once I got home and saw her face it felt like all of my problems just went away," he said.
“My partner allowed me to focus on my recovery and focus on getting back on to my feet because it was a bit of a struggle. She took on the role of being a full time mother so I could focus on my comeback which was massive.
“I don’t have family over here so she was pretty much my number one support system through it all so she was really important for me getting back on to my feet."
Kepaoa’s resilience was pushed to its limits when he tore his pectoral muscle in pre-season training this year, but the young father said it was a new “perspective” that got him through his second round of rehab in two years.
“Once my daughter came into this world, I looked at life in a different perspective. It wasn’t just about footy anymore,” he said.
“I have her on my screen so that whenever I go on my phone I remind myself about my purposes in life and that everything I do in life is just for her, so that she can grow up and have things in life that I didn’t get to have.
“She’s made me a better person, she also changed how I treat other people, I want to be a good role model just for her. I wanted her to see me do good things in life and look up to me.”
In his seventh game back from injury, Asu Kepaoa will pay tribute to all of the special women in his life for this weekend’s Women in League Round.
"I’m starting to play more consistent footy, because I'm not only focusing on footy: I'm happier and I know it shows on the the field," he said.
“For me, women are very important, we’ve come from woman and we’ve been raised by woman. Who we are as people is a reflection of our mothers and every women that’s been a part of our lives."
“I was almost about to give up but the special women in my life have kept me on track and helped me stay motivated, and just focus on the things that make me happy. They’ve made me mentally strong and I wouldn’t be here today without them.”
Match: Broncos v Wests Tigers
Round 20 -
Venue: Suncorp Stadium, Brisbane