Carla Hohepa is clutching a piece of a jigsaw puzzle. Printed on it is a happy family selfie: Hohepa the smiling mum, with her fiancé Karne and their five-year-old son Cohen.
Each member of New Zealand’s Black Ferns squad contributed a family photo for one piece of the puzzle. When all the pieces are together, the team are reminded of all those who are supporting them as they vie for the Women’s Rugby World Cup title in Ireland.
While most of the families and loved ones are back in New Zealand, Hohepa makes her daily FaceTime calls to Japan, where her fiancé and son live – for Karne is none other than Karne Hesketh, the Kiwi-born wing who scored the dramatic winning try for Japan against South Africa to create one of the biggest upsets in Rugby World Cup history in 2015.
As well as settling down with a rugby player, Hohepa grew up surrounded by the sport as both her parents – Debbie, a No 8, and Selwyn, an inside-centre – represented Waikato. The wing-cum-centre sees this as a typical Kiwi upbringing.
“I played touch before I started playing rugby growing up,” Hohepa says. “So the skills I learnt playing touch with mum and dad and aunties and uncles helped to transfer to XVs. Any New Zealand kid at one time or another plays touch. You grow up with an oval ball in your hand.”
Despite turning away from rugby as a teen in favour of netball, Hohepa rediscovered her passion for the sport while studying to be a PE teacher in Dunedin. As a result of the coaxing of a flatmate, she joined Alahambra Union Rugby Football Club. Both her rugby career and romance blossomed from there. “Karne was playing for the same club. A few nights at the club rooms we caught each other’s eye and it went from there.”
Having made the Black Ferns in 2007, Hohepa went on to be part of the New Zealand squad that last won the Women’s Rugby World Cup in England in 2010.
It was not long after her debut World Cup that Hohepa and Hesketh’s lives changed with the arrival of Cohen. The 32-year-old is matter-of-fact as she explains she was back on the rugby pitch within three months of giving birth. The New Zealand management accommodated her as little Cohen stayed close to the team base and she balanced training with breast-feeding.
“I think it was three months I was straight back into it,” she says. “I remember going to my first camp when I was breast-feeding him. He stayed at the same area as us, so when he needed to be fed I was allowed to go out and give him a feed and then straight back to the girls on the field.”
We do months when his dad has our son and months when I do. You don’t know how tough it can be
How does she reconcile the nurturing of motherhood with hitting hard on the rugby field? “I guess rugby for me is about playing with my friends, getting out there, throwing the ball around. I am not too sure how you switch, but when you are on the rugby field you are on the rugby field. When you are at home with your baby, you have that mother nature.”
The young mother’s dream was to represent New Zealand in rugby sevens at the Rio Olympics. Chasing the dream led Hohepa to make a huge sacrifice as a parent, with her son moving to Japan for portions of the year as she and Hesketh balanced family and professional careers.
“Cohen’s been dragged all over the world, you could say. The first year, as I was feeding Cohen, he needed to be with me most of the time.
“When he hit one, we kinda shared responsibilities.”
With emotion, she adds: “It got a little bit harder for dad to be away from his son for that long. We did three to four, five months at a time, where dad would have him and then we would switch over and mum would have him. We just kind of made it work.”
This was a difficult time, but Hohepa saw the love of her family supporting her love of rugby. “It was tough. I guess you don’t know how tough until you do it, but my partner was really supportive.
“He wanted me to reach my dreams and go to the Olympics with the girls. Without him and without my family, I think it might have been impossible, but we made it work for the love of the game.”
Unfortunately, Hohepa’s Olympic dream did not become a reality due to a broken wrist. This led to where she is now, back with her “first love”: XVs via some cherished family time in Fukuoka. “We have just taken on the culture. The Japanese people are really lovely.
“Karne plays rugby for Japan and our son goes to school in Japan and speaks Japanese,” which she describes as “a pretty weird lifestyle”. Returning to the jigsaw, it is a reminder of players’ own families and that each player is part of the Black Ferns family too. “I think that is where we are as a team, we are family,” she says.
“There is no stronger bond than being a family.”
It helps Hohepa while away to be surrounded by a number of team-mates who are also mothers. This means Cohen has a whole squad of “aunties”.
“Every time we have Skype sessions or our kids are on the line, everyone is kinda jumping in to say ‘hi’,” she explains. “Cohen has grown up with a lot of aunties over the years, which we all call each other.
“I guess we have that same thing in common and when we can see one is down, we pick each other up. Not just the mums, everyone in the team is so awesome and family-orientated, so they know how hard it is to be away from our little ones.
“I guess when you love someone so much, it helps to be with the people who are feeling it as well.”