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Parenting Place with NZ Rugby: A chat with Ofa Tu’ungafasi

If there’s anyone who can talk about the importance of family, it’s All Black, Ofa Tu’ungafasi.
With 11 siblings and two daughters, family is everything in the Tu’ungafasi home.

We chatted with Ofa and his lovely wife Emma, and asked them some questions about what family means to them and how they make it all work.

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Tell us a little bit about your family

Ofa · My family is from Tonga, and I have 11 brothers and sisters. We moved to New Zealand at the end of 2005. I was 14 at the time, and it was really tough. I will never forget my first day at school in Mangere. I couldn’t speak a word of English, but luckily I could hang out with my brothers – I think that’s what kept me out of trouble! I now have two daughters of my own – Alice (five and a half), and Dorothy (four), and a beautiful wife, Emma. We live next door to my mum and dad and younger siblings, so our girls always have someone to play with.

Emma · Our girls are so different. Dorothy loves the gym. Even though she’s only four, she does push-ups and squats and runs, and always wants to join her dad when he goes to training. Alice on the other hand, loves school – she’s really into drawing and writing.

O · Family is really important to us. Before I got married, playing rugby was about playing for my family. I have all my siblings’ names on my arm so that every time I play, they’re with me.

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How did you two meet?

O · Emma and I met at school. She was a year above me, so I was punching above my weight. We started going out when I was in fifth form, and she was in sixth form, and have been together ever since. We got married a year and a half ago.

E · When we first met back at school, Ofa couldn’t speak much English, which I thought was funny, but I helped him out a lot. I will always remember asking him one day, “What do you want to be when you grow up?” and he said, “I want to be an All Black, and I want to buy my mum and dad a house.” I thought he was crazy. But a few years later, he did become an All Black! And not long after that, he bought his mum and dad a house. Seeing him achieve these goals makes me excited for the future and what’s in store.

O · Like two more kids!

E · (Laughing) But then we’ll have to get a van.

Ofa, you’re Tongan, and Emma, you’re Samoan. How does this play out in your family?

O · Recently, we went on our first family holiday back to Tonga. From memory, Tonga was a really big country, and in my mind, our family home was huge. But when I went back, everything seemed a lot smaller. It was so good to show the girls where I grew up and what life was like for me. Teaching our kids to understand both our cultures is important to us, but it’s not easy. We want the girls to embrace both cultures, without getting too confused. It really helps that Emma has learned to speak Tongan.

E · It was all his mum’s doing. We lived with Ofa’s family for over a year, and Ofa’s mum just spoke to me in Tongan, so I picked it up pretty quickly. Now I mostly speak Tongan to the girls – something my Samoan mum isn’t too happy about, but she speaks to them in Samoan, so they still know the language. Alice speaks all three languages, and Dorothy just speaks English – but she understands Samoan and Tongan.

O · Things are pretty good at home, but sometimes there are clashes between Emma and I when it comes to our different cultures and what we see as being important for our kids. It’s also tough trying to teach the girls right and wrong in a world that looks quite different to our own traditions.

E · Because I love Ofa and the kids, I accept our differences, but more than just accepting, I have come to understand why and how Ofa’s family do certain things – and that has made all the difference. I want us to teach our girls the importance of understanding our cultures so they can appreciate the differences rather than resent them.

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Ofa, what do you love most about being a dad?

O · I love coming home to my girls. There’s something amazing about arriving home and having Dorothy and Alice waiting there for me. I also love going to the beach with the family. It’s one of the girls’ favourite things. We build sandcastles, and take the four-wheel drive to Muriwai.

What’s been a particularly tough challenge for you as parents?

O · When we had our first child, we were both really young, so that was tough. All I heard was negative talk – everyone in the rugby world said I wasn’t going to make it.

E · Yeah, it was a challenging time. I was 20 when I had Alice, and being a stay-at-home mum wasn’t one of my goals in life at that stage. At times I got frustrated that Ofa was getting to live his dream and I was at home with a child. But Ofa always used to tell me to trust him to provide for us, and I am so glad I did.

O · We knew that we would miss out on some things as young parents, but that’s how life goes. In our family, we always try to find the positive in any situation.

E · That’s what I love about Ofa. He always looks for the positive.

O · (Smiling) When you have a good lady, things go smoothly.

It must be hard when Ofa is away on tour. How do you navigate that as a family?

O · Yeah, I travel every two to three weeks, so I’m away a lot. I really miss my girls, and am very grateful to Emma for doing the parenting when I’m not at home. Thankfully living next door to my family means that there are plenty of babysitters to help out.

E · It’s tough when Ofa’s away because I have to play both roles. But I love that he tries to make it feel like he never left. He video calls all the time. We also have a world map, and pin flags to each country Ofa is travelling to, so the girls know where he is. We watch all his games too – even when they’re at 3am in the morning!

O · The girls count down the days till I get back, so when we’re on the phone, they say, “Only three more sleeps until you’re home!” Last time I was in Australia, Dorothy asked, “Dad, when am I going to run out on the field with you?”

E · All the travelling is not easy, but we are a team. My role is ‘working’ at home, and Ofa’s job is rugby. He provides for us, and I make sure everything is running smoothly at home.

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What’s important to you as a family?

O · Growing up, we had strong values and our Catholic faith had a big role to play in our family. I want to pass on these values on to our kids.

E · Yes, raising our kids with an understanding of our faith is important. Even though Ofa and I grew up in different churches, we have decided to go to Ofa’s church so that we’re all on the same page, and so that the girls don’t get confused.

O · Something else we’d like to pass on to our kids is an awareness of the importance of education. When we were kids, it didn’t matter if it was raining, if we had lunch or not, or whether we had to walk a few kilometres to school, we went. We want them to know the value of education, so they can follow their own dreams. I hope they’ll come to love learning – so they’re not afraid of making mistakes and giving things a try.

E · We want them to feel supported in whatever they choose to do so they can live life to the full.

O · I also want our kids to grow up to serve others. We have to treat people with respect, compassion and care. I grew up living out these values, and I want to pass them on to my girls (and our future kids). I truly believe that if they grow up with these values, they will make a positive difference in the world.

This is an excerpt from the bespoke edition of Parenting magazine created by Parenting Place in collaboration with New Zealand Rugby | Written by Shelly Neethling | Photography by Stephanie Soh

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