Imagine you are 17 and you have just finished high school. You get a phone call letting you know you have made the 2019 Black Ferns Sevens squad and will be a professional athlete.

That dream became reality for Whakatāne 17-year-old Mahina Paul this week.

She is one of three new faces in the squad announced yesterday, along with Hamilton 18-year-olds Jazmin Hotham and Montessa Tairakena. The trio will provide an injection of youth in what is a crucial year for the side as it seeks qualification for the 2020 Olympics in Tokyo.

Paul, who grew up in Whakatāne before completing her schooling at St Kentigern in Auckland, said she was overwhelmed when she received the news.

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"I'm obviously really excited to be here and be amongst the top New Zealand female rugby players," Paul said.

She was most looking forward to absorbing all she could from the established players in the side. The likes of Tyla Nathan Wong, Sarah Hirini (nee Goss), Michaela Blyde and Kelly Brazier are household names and certainly have plenty of wisdom to share after a 2018 campaign which included Commonwealth Games gold and a Sevens World Cup win.

"The main thing is learning as much as I can and developing my own game. Taking in all the feedback I get from the coaches and the other girls and expressing myself when I get the chance.

"When I came in for my induction day, just seeing all the girls and them coming up to say hi was pretty buzzy, but it's been cool. They're very welcoming, very encouraging and supportive. We had our first week of training last week and if I didn't know the moves or anything they'd come and help."

The three new players were all selected for the New Zealand Youth Olympics gold medal-winning team last year, although Hotham, who was named as captain, had to withdraw due to injury.

"Being in that team environment [at the Youth Olympics], especially in the final when it was quite close, just having each other's backs, trusting each other and keeping that connection on the field, that's probably one thing I learned," Paul said.

New contracted players for the Black Ferns Sevens squad Mahina Paul (left), 17, of Whakatāne, Montessa Tairakena, 18, of Hamilton, and Jazmin Hotham, 18, Hamilton. Photo / George Novak
New contracted players for the Black Ferns Sevens squad Mahina Paul (left), 17, of Whakatāne, Montessa Tairakena, 18, of Hamilton, and Jazmin Hotham, 18, Hamilton. Photo / George Novak

She has previously represented New Zealand in touch rugby, but she was well aware that being a full-time Black Ferns Sevens player was going to be more intense than anything she had experienced previously.

"It's definitely a step up. Last week was pretty hard out but I don't expect anything less, it's a high performance environment.

"I came from a touch background so I like that sevens is quite similar, just with contact. I think I enjoy the amount of space you get on the field."

Coach Allan Bunting said one thing the three new players had in common was one of the most valuable commodities in sevens - speed.

"The squad has experience and a group of middle players who have been growing for a while, and these new, exciting young players. They are three players with massive potential. We are looking towards Tokyo at the moment, but these are the sorts of players that can look towards the 2024 Olympics and beyond.

"All three were involved in the Youth Olympic Games set-up which gave us more opportunities to see them play but, more importantly, gave them the opportunity to get out on the field, to train and get quality coaching."

He said, when looking at the new players, there were several attributes that showed him they had what it takes.

"Obviously speed is one, but they have to be quick often - so speed and endurance. Then they have to have instinct, a bit of swag and there are certain positions we were looking to fill.

"There's a lot [of players pushing for positions in the squad]. We have a development group of about 20 players who come out here and are competing for the training contracts we have to offer. There's a lot of competition out there at the moment."

Bunting said the new players had taken well to their new environment.

"It's a little bit different, they're busy days. It's about getting into a routine and getting some consistency. Jazmin was here most of last year on a training contract, so she knows what it's all about. Montessa and Mahina have been involved in other sports, so I don't think it's too much of a surprise. It's just about being able to train often and train hard.

"Especially, with this competitive bunch, if you go in half-hearted you get caught out a bit."

The 2019 Black Ferns Sevens squad
Shakira Baker (Waikato), Michaela Blyde (Bay of Plenty), Kelly Brazier (Bay of Plenty), Gayle Broughton (Taranaki), Rhiarna Ferris (Manawatu), Theresa Fitzpatrick (Auckland), Huia Harding (Waikato), Sarah Hirini (nee Goss) (Manawatu), Jazmin Hotham (Waikato), Tyla Nathan Wong (Auckland), Mahina Paul (Bay of Plenty), Risi Pouri-Lane (Tasman), Alena Saili (Southland), Montessa Tairakena (Waikato), Terina Te Tamaki (Waikato), Ruby Tui (Bay of Plenty), Stacey Waaka (Waikato), Kat Whata-Simpkins (Wellington), Niall Williams (Auckland), Tenika Willison (Waikato), Portia Woodman (Counties Manukau).