Harvey Norman NSW Sky Blues outside back Tiana Penitani has to go a fair way back in her footballing career to find the last time she wore the No.7 on her back.
But that is where the 27-year-old will be playing in her inaugural Test for Tonga (Mate Ma’a) tomorrow (Saturday 21 October) against the Kiwi Ferns at Auckland’s Eden Park.
“You have to go back a fair way … actually I can’t remember how far back but it’ll be fun,” Penitani told nswrl.com.au
“Honestly with the team we’ve got, Tonga is not known for producing a lot of halves – that’s not our talent or forte.
“But (coach) Kelvin (Wright) spoke with me that I could potentially be in the halves. So I thought ‘why not?’
“There is a lot more thinking in this role than running or the yardage I’m used to. It will be a different game for me but it’s been fun learning so much this week – Kelvin is a great coach.”
Wright is a premiership-winning one as well having guided the Brisbane Broncos to back-to-back NRLW titles in 2019-2020.
Penitani has played both centre and wing for the Sky Blues in her five Origin matches, while she has played fullback for the Cronulla-Sutherland Sharks in Harvey Norman NSW Women’s Premiership.
She is linking up alongside 2023 Sky Blues squad member and former Parramatta NRLW teammate Cassey Tohi-Hiku in the halves for Tonga.
Current Sharks NRLW teammates Vanessa Foliaki, who has played six games for NSW, and Tegan Dymock, who was in the NSW U19s winning Origin side in 2021, have also signed on with Tonga.
“Cassey is a very, very talented footballer. I don’t think she realises how good she is,” Penitani said of Tohi-Hiku who was selected in the Prime Minister’s XIII Jillaroos side last month.
“She is a natural in the halves and I’m looking forward to seeing what she can create on her edge.”
“Kelvin hasn’t put too much onto us – kept it nice and simple.”
Another Sky Blue returning to her cultural roots is Brooke Anderson – one of Penitani’s best friends – who will be playing No.9 for New Zealand tomorrow.
“We’ve touched base here and there by texts,” Penitani said.
“It’s really nice to see her also get the opportunity to represent where she’s from. We are kind of in the same boat in that sense that we’re both re-connecting with our heritage.
“We’re proud Australians but we are half-castes with another side to our make-up.”
Penitani’s younger sister Natasha played for Tonga in their Test match against the Ferns in June 2022. Their late father Solomon was Tongan.
“I was in Origin camp when Tonga played their last Test match, and I would have loved that opportunity to honour that strong connection I have for the Tonga culture through my dad.
“Watching my sister last year with the love and support they received was a massive influence on me wanting to play for Tonga this year.
“I felt so proud watching all the young Tongan girls playing – it lit a fire within me.”
Penitani, who played for the Jillaroos in 2019, could remain with Tonga for the 2026 World Cup.
“I definitely could but I’m not thinking that far ahead,” she said.
“Playing for Tonga is something I’ve wanted to do for a long time. The opportunity came up and I jumped for it. I didn’t want to miss the chance – Tonga is half of me.”
As for taking on the No.7 jersey for the Sharks or even NSW, Penitani is content in the outside backs for now.
“I’ve had the privilege of playing outside talented halfbacks my whole career,” she said.
“If the opportunity came up I’d consider it but realistically, when I’m playing outside such smart and quick-thinking halves, I’m more than comfortable with where I am in the back line.”