Growing up, Bay of Plenty born and bred Luka Connor was always outside.

Hunting, fishing, diving and motorbikes played a major part of her childhood. With three brothers, playing rugby out on the lawn of her Waiotahi home near Opotiki was also prominent.

The 22-year-old has just been highlighted as one of New Zealand's top female rugby players, named as one of 29 players to be offered a 2019 Black Ferns contract and she says it is this lifestyle that has helped her in her rugby career.

"My dad has just brought us up in a lifestyle around hunting and all that kind of stuff, the outdoors, pig hunting ... fishing diving, motorbikes.

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"I had three brothers so pretty much just playing rugby on the lawn after school every day with them ... following them around, watching them play and once I hit high school that's when there was a girls' team."

Connor is one of four newly contracted players. Others include fellow Bay of Plenty player Karli Faneva, Counties Manukau's Arihiana Marino-Tauhinu and Auckland's Natahlia Moors.

She has no doubt her upbringing has attributed to her success in the sport.

"I think definitely having, you know brothers, there's no limits so you're kind of just getting smashed all the time.

"I've got two older ones so they used to be pretty hard out on the front lawn, so got to learn the hard way."

Even at primary school she was keen on rugby and was often the only girl in the team. Though at times she admits it was daunting playing with boys, it became more of a challenge which made the sport even more enjoyable.

Luka Connor will make the most of the opportunities given to her through her 2019 Black Ferns contract. Photo / Andrew Warner
Luka Connor will make the most of the opportunities given to her through her 2019 Black Ferns contract. Photo / Andrew Warner

And the upbringing Connor and her siblings were able to enjoy thanks to their parents, dad Kerry Connor and mum Karlene Connor, also proved fruitful for her rugby-talented family. Oldest brother Lincoln, 26, attended Mount Albert Grammar on a rugby scholarship and Brogan, 24, received a rugby scholarship to attend St Peter's Cambridge. Both suffered injuries and had not pursued professional rugby careers further. Younger brother Jack, 18, was also out on the lawn playing rugby with the trio but is considering other sports.

While she attributes a lot of her rugby success on her childhood, it also comes down to family support, and of course a massive part is her own hard work and determination.

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Five years ago Connor moved from the eastern Bay of Plenty to Tauranga so she could focus on her goal of making the Black Ferns team, the epitome of women's 15s rugby in New Zealand.

"That's mainly the reason I moved to Tauranga to be able to train full-time for the last five years."

Unfortunately she hit a speedbump along the way.

In December 2017, Connor was in sevens training to keep fit on her 15s off-season and suffered an ACL meniscus rupture. She underwent a knee and was out of action in 2018, undergoing rehab.

"I was pretty much devastated when I did my knee, I pretty much knew straight away.

"I had just come off a good season for the Volcanix and then I did that at sevens so I missed out on the whole last year of Black Ferns so that was quite tough, but luckily I had the support around me of my family and physio and we just made the goal just to rehab and come back this year and try again.

Luka Connor fends Hannah Gillespie of Tasman during the 2017 Farah Palmer Cup competition before suffering an injury. Photo / Getty Images
Luka Connor fends Hannah Gillespie of Tasman during the 2017 Farah Palmer Cup competition before suffering an injury. Photo / Getty Images

"My life has just been full-time rehab since then. Rehab has been my fulltime job pretty much."

Now, Connor says she plans to make the most of this opportunity given to her.

"After a year of just fully just rehabbing it gives me that motivation that I can challenge myself this year and try and get a black jersey and work harder towards that goal, and knowing I've got that support behind me now.

"Utimate goal will be to make the team, make the Black Ferns team and continue to make it for as long as I can."

Along with Connor and Faneva, contracts have also been offered to experienced Black Ferns and Bay of Plenty players Lesley Elder and Renee Wickliffe.

She says having a group of Bay of Plenty-based players was helpful for training. Of that group, Connor is the only one born and bred in the Bay of Plenty and as a proud Opotiki woman who returns to the town most weekends, that was important for her to retain.

"One of my goals was to try and stay in my province, stay in Bay of Plenty to try and make it from Opotiki.

"That was my ultimate to myself, ground myself and stay in my province and try and make it."

"I absolutely love my home, I love going home."

Black Ferns Head Coach Glenn Moore said all four of the newly contracted players impressed selectors with not only their performances in the Farah Palmer Cup, but also their determination to keep striving and improving outside of the provincial competition.

Luka Connor is proud to be Bay of Plenty born and bred and her dreams of one day wear the Black Ferns jersey has moved ahead after gaining a contract for 2019. Photo / Andrew Warner
Luka Connor is proud to be Bay of Plenty born and bred and her dreams of one day wear the Black Ferns jersey has moved ahead after gaining a contract for 2019. Photo / Andrew Warner

"Luka Connor has been on our radar for a while now too. She first trialled for the Black Ferns in 2015 and spent 2018 working her way back from injury," Moore said.

"She's worked very hard and deserves her spot."

In selecting this year's contracts, Moore and the selectors believed balancing new and experienced players was crucial for creating greater depth in the Black Ferns squad.

"We're confident we have the mix right. We're in the fortunate position of being able to draw on the experience and skill of seasoned players like Kendra Cocksedge, Selica Winiata and Eloise Blackwell and pair them with new talent, like Luka Connor and Karli Faneva."

The contracted players will be part of the newly developed programmes for women in the Provincial Unions.

The first Black Ferns training camp of the year is scheduled for March 9-10 in Palmerston North and confirmation of the full 2019 Black Ferns international programme is expected in coming weeks.

"We have several Black Ferns training camps coming up in the next few months and we'll be bringing in extra players from the wider training squad. That's when we'll get a better idea of how everyone is tracking," Moore says.

The Black Ferns will play two Test matches against Australia for the Laurie O'Reilly Memorial Trophy on August 10 in Perth, Australia and on August 17 in Auckland. Both matches will be double header fixtures with the All Blacks and Australia contesting the Bledisloe Cup.

The 2019 Black Ferns contracted squad:
Forwards:
Lesley Elder (Bay of Plenty)
Luka Connor - first time contract (Bay of Plenty)
Karli Faneva - first time contract (Bay of Plenty)
Eloise Blackwell (Auckland)
Aldora Itunu (Auckland)
Phillipa Love (Canterbury)
Charmaine McMenamin (Auckland)
Toka Natua (Waikato)
Aleisha Nelson (Auckland)
Te Kura Ngata-Aerengamate (Counties Manukau)
Marcelle Parkes (Wellington)
Jackie Patea-Fereti (Wellington)
Leilani Perese (Counties Manukau)
Charmaine Smith (Auckland)
Harono Te Iringa (Counties Manukau)
Cristo Tofa (North Harbour)
Backs:
Renee Wickliffe (Bay of Plenty)
Chelsea Alley (Waikato)
Grace Brooker (Canterbury)
Kendra Cocksedge (Canterbury)
Krysten Cottrell (Hawke's Bay)
Ruahei Demant (Auckland)
Dhys Faleafaga (Wellington)
Ayesha Leti-I'iga (Wellington)
Arihiana Marino-Tauhinu -first time contract (Counties Manukau)
Kilisitina Moata'ane (Otago)
Natahlia Moors - first time contract (Auckland)
Monica Tagoai (Wellington)
Selica Winiata (Manawatu)