Blake Ayshford might be a star Warriors player, be married to a local and live in New Zealand, but the proud Aussie says he still can't call himself a Kiwi.
"Nope, I wouldn't go that far!" laughs the 29-year-old Aussie import. Yet despite his roots across the ditch, Blake feels very much at home in Auckland, where he resides with his wife Maria Hahipene and their two children.
Now the Sydney-born sports star has even started speaking Maori. "I'm learning a few words slowly, but the kids are still smarter than me," jokes Blake as he cuddles up on the couch with his son Mason, six, and daughter Marley, four.
Graphic designer Maria, 29, was more than happy to help her husband along.
She tells, "Maori was my first language. I went to kohanga reo when I was three, but then I went to a mainstream school, lost it and never really got it back."
After having her two kids, Maria knew she wanted to learn te reo again and to help her family out, she made some fun flashcards. These were spotted by Blake's then-Warriors teammate Jacob Lillyman, 33, and his partner Tui-Kay Cole, 32, who immediately asked Maria to make her a set too.
Tui – who now lives in Australia, where Jacob plays for the Newcastle Knights – explains, "I thought it could be the beginning of starting to learn Maori together with Maria, our children and our partners."
It wasn't long, however, before Tui and Maria decided to create their business Taonga, producing flashcards, posters, wall art, T-shirts and classroom educational packs. The venture was launched almost exactly a year ago, on Waitangi Day 2017.
"We're multitasking mamas!" laughs Tui as she and Jacob take turns holding their two-year-old daughter Arani at our Woman's Day shoot.
"Maria and I are just so lucky we have partners who can work and give us the opportunity to start this business."
Incredibly proud of his wife, Blake says, "After Maria had Marley, she didn't really know what to do. She's such a talented graphic designer, but she didn't really have the passion for it any more. This project has brought it back."
For Maria, family has been an integral part of the business, especially after the passing of her uncle in 2014.
She explains, "He was learning te reo when he started his own business 25 years ago. He made learning resources like posters and puzzles. After we started our business, I realised we're carrying on his work, so it's quite sentimental to me."
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