At just 17 years old, less than a year after being introduced to Rugby 7s, Tiana Penitani was called to the world stage to debut as Australia’s youngest-ever rugby player at a World Cup.
Penitani’s early success coincided with her family’s move from Sydney to Queensland. It wasn’t easy, admits Penitani. “I grew up really quickly and mostly independent. So that was tough for the first couple of years, but the freedom and the opportunity to play for Australia kind of trumped it all.”
Rugby 7s is the ‘big bash’ of the rugby world. As Penitani explains, “It's like a modified version of the main 15s game, so there are seven players on a full-size field, rather than 15. They are 14-minute games, with seven-minute halves, so it's a lot quicker, and there’s lot more room to run.”
It’s a demanding game that takes its toll. Two years after co-captaining Australia to a gold medal victory at the Youth Olympics in Nanjing, China, Penitani missed out on the 2016 Rio Olympics Rugby 7s squad due to injury. The young rugby player was instead forced to go under the knife for her fourth knee operation.
While recovering, she turned her focus to the media. Penitani became one of the presenters on Fox Sport’s The Other Rugby Show; a job that quickly developed into a passion. While she used her on-screen time to (sometimes) prank her male counterparts, her highlight was traveling to Fiji in 2016 where she interviewed the Fijian Rugby 7s team as they were returning home with their Olympic gold medals.
“They’d been so busy for the past two weeks just doing media and whatnot in the main town,” recalls Penitani “But when we got there, they were on their way home to see their families for the first time after winning the gold medal. So we got all of that on camera. It was pretty amazing.”
Now 21, Penitani is taking the next step in her already impressive career – a Bachelor of Communication (Journalism). She’s studying part-time while continuing her work in front of the camera and on-field.
Penitani is part of the Australian team currently competing in the HSBC Women’s Sevens World Series. With just three games left – in Kitakyushu, Japan (April), Langford, Canada (May) and Clermont-Ferrand, France (June) – Penitani’s team is on-track to defend their world series win last year.
And, though she admits her time with The Other Rugby Show gave her a lot of hands-on experience, Penitani says, “I’m obviously not very experienced in terms of going behind the scenes and knowing how TV is made. That’s what I want to learn through my degree.
“You can’t coast off raw talent. If you’ve got the talent there, then put in the hard yards and the hard work and it will always pay off.”