Leadership qualities can be learned and honed, but sometimes you meet people who just embody everything a leader can and should be. Tayla Hetherington is one of those people.
The Cook Islands captain has shown how to lead by example throughout the OFC Women’s Nations Cup in Fiji, but it was in Sunday’s quarter-final showdown with Fiji that Hetherington really embraced the role.
“Before the game I had a really good talk with the girls, we kicked the management out and it was just the girls and I,” Hetherington said.
“My goal was just to really light a fire under them. We got our inspiration from Tonga and Samoa because if they can cause an upset, maybe we can too.”
Hetherington’s pep-talk obviously resonated with her teammates as the side went toe-to-toe with their hosts, keeping them contained to just one goal in either half.
“The girls just went out and gave it 110 per cent, there were slight mistakes, but at the end of the day I’m so proud to lead these girls. They’re a team to watch out for in the future and we’re just going to keep pushing.
“I really think I accomplished what I set out to do in the morning before the game and I couldn’t be happier.”
Despite the impact Hetherington has on the team, we almost missed out on seeing her representing Cook Islands. The midfielder has struggled with her football journey in recent years and even thought about giving the game away until having her passion reignited by the Mana Wāhine movement at South Auckland club Manukau United.
“My club Manukau started up this Mana Wāhine movement for Pacific Islanders in South Auckland and my drive started from there, this year, to really bring in all the Pacific girls and encourage them to play. There’s so much untouched talent out there and I want to be part of pushing them and driving them.
“I wasn’t going to come on this trip but a few of the young ones from my team really pushed me to come and from there I said, ‘yeah I’m going to do it, I’m going to prove a point that Pacific girls in South Auckland can do it’, and that’s really been my drive.
“And my late grandmother as well, Mary Tokai from Vairuarangi / Aitutaki just really motivated me to come back, step in and really own my spot.”
While Hetherington displays all the qualities a great leader should, being appointed to lead the Cook Islands still came as a surprise.
“It was a shock and it’s one of the biggest privileges to have. There were tears of joy when I got it, but I’m very happy, it’s a massive privilege.
“I’m a sibling of seven, so I have older sisters that lead me around, I have good parents who lead me around, I have great friends. But in terms of leadership, I’ve always looked up to my older siblings and older players that I’ve played with in the past, they’ve all taught me a lot about how to be a leader.
“I think it’s also kind of natural bossing around my younger siblings, my nieces and nephews. Stepping on the field is a big switch, but I just look after them like family and I hope that they feel that way.”
Representing the Cook Islands, combined with a strong Mana Wāhine movement with Manukau United that has seen five players representing two Pacific Island nations in this competition, has reinvigorated Hetherington’s relationship with football and reminded her she has unfinished business in the game.
“Expect to see me continuing. I’ve got a few things to work on, a bit of fitness, rehab for my dodgy knee, but I hope to make some waves again.”