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Chiefs star Emoni’s healing journey

How family helped the rising rugby star bounce back from his shattered Rugby World Cup dreams
Emoni Narawa holding daughter Milla, standing with partner DaniellePictures: Juliette Drysdale

Making the All Blacks is the stuff of dreams for countless young rugby players, so it was a pinch-me moment for Chiefs speedster and family man Emoni Narawa when he found himself training with the squad in Paris as they prepared for last year’s Rugby World Cup.

The flying winger, 24, had already scored a try in his test debut against Argentina and was excited to be part of the All Blacks’ latest bid for the prized Webb Ellis Cup.

But Emoni’s dreams came crashing down during the team’s last training run before the competition, when he felt a searing pain in his back. He knew straight away something had gone terribly wrong.

“I was running around, doing my normal thing, when a disc in my back slipped down and hit a nerve,” he recalls. “It was the worst pain I’ve ever felt and my left leg went numb.

“I had some scans and when the results came back, coach Ian Foster sat me down. He told me the injury would rule me out of the World Cup. I went back to my room and broke down, my dream was over before it had even started.”

Emoni Narawa and partner Danielle standing on a field

Emoni immediately contacted his partner Danielle Rihia, 24. She’d been due to join him a few weeks into the competition, along with their daughter Milla, now two.

“Emoni was so upset,” remembers Danielle. “It was really hard to see him like that. He said, ‘Please can you get here?’ So I changed all our flights. We went over to him as quickly as we could.”

It was a devastating situation, but as the days went on, the young couple decided to try to make the best of it.

“Although Emoni was in so much pain initially, things went numb afterwards. Then he was able to comfortably sit,” tells Danielle. “We took advantage of his downtime to do some travel around Europe with Milla. We also had my mum Tina as our full-time nanny. It was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.”

After they got back to New Zealand, Emoni started eight long months of recovery and rehabilitation. Asked what got him through time away from his beloved sport, his answer is simple – whānau.

Emoni and Danielle swinging Milla between them
“My little family is my why,” Emoni says of partner Danielle and Milla.

“My little family is my why,” he smiles. “Danielle and I have been together since we were 19. Becoming a father has given me a whole new purpose. When I was going through the grief of the injury and losing my World Cup dream, I’d look at Milla and realise everything was not so bad. We feel so blessed to have a beautiful, healthy daughter. She’s changed me as a person and made me a better partner too.”

Danielle adds that Milla is a “little cheerleader” who loves going to Chiefs games. “She holds onto the rails, saying, ‘Go, Daddy!’ She’s not so keen on Emoni trying to cuddle her after the game, though. She says, ‘Daddy sweaty!’”

Emoni is close to his relatives back in Fiji, who he credits with keeping him grounded.

Emoni kissing Milla on the cheek

“I come from humble beginnings in a really small village, where I sometimes sold tomatoes and watermelons on the side of the road. We try to go back to see my family as often as we can, so my parents can be involved in Milla’s life too.”

Emoni arrived in Aotearoa in 2017 to take up a rugby scholarship during his last year of high school. The following year, just two weeks before his visa was due to expire, the Bay of Plenty Rugby Union offered him a “$1 contract”. He made his NPC debut that season, installing heat pumps and air-conditioning units on the side to earn a living.

When he first met Danielle through mutual friends in Mount Maunganui, Emoni was playing rugby for the Bay of Plenty Steamers. She was at university in Hamilton.

“He tricked me,” laughs Danielle. “When I asked him what he did, he said he installed heat pumps. He didn’t mention anything about rugby until he girlfriended me. Then he let me know he was heading to Auckland to join the Blues!”

Emoni and Danielle laying in a hospital bed holding newborn Milla, while she's connected to tubes and wires
After a rough start to life, gorgeous Milla is the apple of her daddy’s eye.

In 2022, after two years at the Blues, Emoni joined the Chiefs, whom he calls the couple’s “third family”. The team provided incredible support when Milla was born with vocal cord paralysis and needed 24-hour oxygen for more than three months.

“It was a scary introduction to parenthood. Rugby had to stop while we were in hospital for a few weeks,” he explains. “The Chiefs were brilliant, wrapping around us and supporting us. We love the culture and vibe here. There are lots of kids in the group and the coaches understand what life with a young family is like.”

Danielle works part-time as a primary school teacher. She loves the buzz of watching him play and hearing the fans cheer him on.

“In the early days, it was super-exciting when I was at uni and heading up to Auckland for the Blues games,” she says. “And we really love it here now with the Chiefs. Emoni has so much energy and puts in lots of hard work. It’s cool seeing your partner doing what he loves.”

Danielle, Milla and Emoni in the stands after one of his Chiefs games
Danielle and Milla love the buzz of seeing Emoni playing live.

Getting together at such a young age means they’ve shared some of the biggest milestones of their lives so far.

“I’m so proud of how Emoni has grown over the last five years, not only as a player but also as a man and father.”

When they do get some downtime, family time is a priority for the outdoorsy couple, with weekends away, beach visits with “water baby” Milla, movies, dinners out and cards nights with other couples from the Chiefs.

Danielle says they’re grateful to her mum Tina, who is like a “third parent” to Milla, ensuring the couple has some precious time on their own for date nights.

Emoni Narawa holding Milla

As this issue of Woman’s Day is released, the Chiefs have just missed out on the trophy in their Super Rugby Pacific final against the Blues. Coaches have also just announced the new All Blacks squad, naming Emoni for his second season with the side.

Emoni has already made the “easy choice” to re-sign to play for the Chiefs and New Zealand Rugby until 2026. He says, “It’s so great to be playing again. After my injury, I’ve come back with a new appreciation for the game. It’s shown me that a career can end just like that. It’s important to not take things for granted.”

So does that mean wedding bells might be on the horizon?

Smiling at the question, Emoni replies, “My knee is strong, but I might keep Danielle guessing a bit longer!”

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