On July 3, Kelera Ratu etched her name into the Rebels’ Super W history books, becoming the club’s youngest ever player to score a try.
Following an impressive build up from Jade Te Aute and Jemma Collins, the magnetic winger raced over for her side’s opening try against the Brumbies, embraced by her ecstatic teammates in the process.
“It was an incredible moment for me and my family”, said Ratu.
“I can’t even explain how amazing I felt; the excitement and adrenaline going through me when I crossed over that line was unreal.
“To then have all of my teammate’s race to embrace me straight after, celebrating together; that’s what you dream about growing up.”
Smiling proudly from the coach’s box, Melbourne Rebels’ Super W Head Coach, Alana Thomas, said Ratu’s immediate success was a just reward for her selfless dedication to the game.
“Kelera has the rugby world at her feet - she is young, coachable and has exceptional speed,” said Thomas.
“She’s so versatile, having played on the wing in Super W and halfback in the Lindroth Cup.
“I believe she will have a long career in both 7’s and XV’s and if she remains committed, she can be absolutely anything.”
Ratu’s try was one of the many highlights for Alana Thomas’ side, and one that was worth so much more than just the five points.
A former AON 7’s member, Ratu is part of an exciting surge of talented homegrown female rugby stars, driven to elevate women’s rugby to new heights in Victoria.
Following an impressive Lindroth Cup, Ratu’s efforts in her maiden Super W campaign, underlined the phenomenal impact Victorian Rugby’s pathways is having on grassroots rugby across Victoria, something Ratu “wears with pride.”
“Representing such an unbelievable community feels really great, especially having come through the pathway with Jade Te Aute and Kirsty Matapa.
“We began our XV’s journey together from Vic Under-17’s, right through to Super W, so we have a great relationship where we have each other’s backs, no matter what.”
On this early Saturday morning however, Kelera Ratu was playing for something much more.
On June 7, the Ratu family received devastating news when Kelera’s younger sister, Melaia, was diagnosed with an aggressive brain tumour, rocking the close-knit playing group, and placing Kelera’s Super W campaign in severe jeopardy.
“I found it extremely hard to focus on rugby at the time, because I was getting no sleep, just ridden with stress, every minute of the day thinking about Melaia.
But instead of quitting, Kelera persevered, driven to play for her beloved sister and make her lockdown-bound family back in Melbourne proud.
In what was an emotional ending to this year’s pre-season preparations, Ratu’s stoic resilience provided a huge emotional lift for the playing group, with many of her teammates left speechless by her dedication.
“Initially we didn’t tell the whole team, we just let the leaders know so they could keep an eye on Kelera,” said Thomas.
“Then on a Saturday training session I looked over and there was Melaia standing on the sidelines watching Kelera train, so at the end of that session we shared what had been going on and everyone was just shocked Kelera had not missed a session – we were so proud of her.
“As we travelled to Coffs Harbour to finish the season, I made sure we had Kerela rooming with a player that would keep an eye on her.”
That player would be Nuala O’Connor. Hailing from the Emerald Isle in what has her first season playing representative rugby in Australia, O’Connor knew too well about the difficulties of family separation during a crisis.
“From my time spent rooming with Kelera, I learned so much more about her sister’s circumstances and was completely taken back by Kelera’s resilience, maturity, selflessness and love for both her family and our rugby family.
“She was hit by so many hurdles, be it knowing her sister was undergoing treatment, the lockdowns in Melbourne which prevented her Dad from coming to support her, and the unknown in not being able to see her sister.
“She had so many reasons to give up, but she did the exact opposite. She showed up every day and never let those worries take away her bubbly and determined personality.
“Proud would be an understatement - I genuinely felt like I have gained a little sister from our time together.”
As Kelera laced up her boots for one final time in Super W 2021, one thing was on her mind.
“The one thing I wanted going into the tournament was to score a try for Melaia,” said Ratu.
In the thirty-first minute, the determined winger got her moment, delivering her family a heart-warming gift to what had been a tough past month.
“I remember in the change rooms walking over to Kelera and telling her to score a try for Melaia, and she showed me her strapping tape with Melaia’s name on her wrist,” said Thomas.
“When Kelera scored that try it was so special and the team’s reaction was so good.
“Knowing it was for Melaia, there was a tear in my eye. I could just imagine Veronica, Meli, Melaia and their dog Benji, jumping around in the lounge room cheering – it was a very special moment.”
One month later, as Melaia begins her long road of chemotherapy, Thomas, like many in the local community, remain closely by the Ratu’s side.
To help support Melaia’s battle, the Victorian community has passionately got behind the Ratu’s ‘Walk4BrainCancer’ virtual fundraiser walk, taking place on the 26th of September, with funds raised going towards the fight against the brain cancer.
Thomas says it’s a credit to the Victorian community for supporting and spreading the awareness about ‘Team Lai Lai’s’ campaign.
“What I love about the Women’s Rugby and particularly here in Victoria, is how everyone is so supportive during these tough times, and we have seen this with the Walk for Brain Cancer.
“Teams and players are sharing the links and signing up to walk and raise funds.
“We play hard on the field but support each other fiercely off it.
“The Ratu’s are a great family, and such big supporters of Victorian rugby.
“Times are tough now, but seeing this support lets the Ratu’s know they’re not alone, and there’s a whole community behind them, in this together.”
The Walk4BrainCancer virtual walk takes place on Sunday, September 26. To support or donate to the Ratu family’s cause to find a cure, please visit: https://my.walk4braincancer.com.au/virtual-2021/team-lai-lai?tab=leaderboard