Lulu Tuilotolava is a hockey trailblazer, and that's a tag that sits very comfortably, too.

She made her New Zealand debut in the recent tri-series in Cromwell against Japan and Australia, appeared in all six games, and is now off to the World Cup in London today, the only change from the squad that won gold at the Gold Coast Commonwealth Games in April, replacing the now-retired Pippa Hayward.

And she's the first player of full Tongan descent to represent the Black Sticks, which is where the trailblazer part comes in.

The 22-year-old midfielder has made the national squad on the strength of two National Hockey League seasons and while Black Sticks coach Mark Hager knows there's plenty to work on, he's enthused by what he's seen of her.


Tuilotolava's involvement in the sport started in an unusual way.

One day when she was young, father Will saw the Black Sticks at the airport about to embark on an overseas trip.

He went up to one player, Caryn Paewai, asked who they were and where they were off to.

"He didn't know her and wondered what sport they were," said Tuilotolava.

Paewai offered some advice and from that tiny acorn, hockey was settled on as the sport for the family.

One of her two sisters and her brother play socially but Tuilotolava was hooked. From the age of five, it has been her sport of choice.

Sure, she loves watching rugby league - her father and Hager both support St George Illawarra in the NRL - and admitted she was "right there, front and centre" when the Tongans toppled the Kiwis in last year's league World Cup.

But Tuilotolava likes the idea of being something of a frontrunner for young Pacific Island women looking beyond the usual sporting pursuits for those raised in Island families.


"It's cool, so now these Pacific Islanders can think they can play hockey as well, so I feel I've opened a gate for them. It's a good feeling," she said.

Tuilotolava played in the 2016 NHL for Auckland, was picked up by Central in the draft for last year and is in the new, young wave of players looking to carry on the fine work of the recently departed big names, such as Kayla Whitelock, Gemma McCaw, Emily Naylor and Charlotte Harrison.

The interesting thing about her is that it was only recently that she focused her attention on making it to the top. Until then, the game had been fun but...

"It was only recently, at the end of the 2016 NHL tournament. I just felt I could be better. That's when I decided I'd have to do everything I could to make it into the Black Sticks. I had to lose a bit more weight, get a bit fitter and I set realistic goals for 2017."

The keys to her game, and one of the things which caught Hager's eye, is that she puts herself about assertively, in the best sense, has plenty of energy and a buzz about her.

"It's just so different," Tuilotolava said of the sport.


"The adrenaline when you are playing is just so cool, to go and play hard out for 60 minutes.

"I like the aggression of the sport. It's a non-contact sport but there's a lot of contact in it," she quipped.

She's excited by her first overseas trip with the national team and is becoming a sponge, listening to the star players such as captain Stacey Michelsen, Sam Charlton and Anita McLaren.

When Hager first saw her three years ago, "I thought she had a lot of talent but didn't have the fitness level. She didn't make the junior World Cup team."

But she improved her fitness and her game.

"She's got the uncanny ability to know where the net is," Hager said. "She has quick hands. a good shot, good goal sense.


"She does need to work on her fitness and speed but the other things are difficult to coach and she's brought versatility in our group.

"She's done well, she's learning the ropes and it's a hard school but she's pushing through it. At the moment, we're seeing the raw talent."

It'll take time, Hager's reckoning about two years, to really make her mark. Call that her development time. The idea of adding a forceful young presence in that crucial midfield role has plenty going for it.

And when she's at the World Cup, Tuilotolava, who is in her second year studying for a Bachelor in Communications at Massey, will likely spare a thought for parents Will and Luka, who have always encouraged their daughter to push to be the best she can.

"Life at the moment is going very well," she said.