After missing the 2003 and 2013 World Cups due to family commitments, she forced her way back into the Kiwi Ferns squad by winning player of the tournament at August’s Women’s National Rugby League Championships.
However, Atai confirmed that Saturday’s World Cup final would be her last match in the black jersey, along with captain Laura Mariu, who has played in all five women’s tournaments.
“This is definitely it, after this World Cup I will be retiring and my husband will be happy that I am finally hanging up the boots,” Atai said.
“I have always had a passion for footy and the friendships that you build in the game. I just love the challenge to get physical which rugby league provides but this is definitely my last match.
After having their 13-year domination ended when the Jillaroos beat them for the first time in the 2013 World Cup final, the Kiwi Ferns will be seeking to avenge the loss on the biggest stage the women’s game has been played.
For the first time, the Women’s World Cup final will be played at the same venue on the same day as the men’s decider and Australian co-captain Ruan Sims said the crowd would be the biggest many of the players had experienced.
“We are side by side with the men’s game and we are the first sport to ever crown the women’s and men’s champions on the same day and I am extremely proud that rugby league is able to do that,” Sims said.
New Zealand five-eighth Georgia Hale added: “We are fortunate that the women’s game has got to this level and we are able to be on the exact same stage as the men’s. I think it’s awesome for the women’s game and we are just really looking forward to Saturday”.
Australia and New Zealand dominated the preliminary rounds at Southern Cross Group Stadium, with the Jillaroos scoring 242 points in their four games leading up to the final and the Kiwi Ferns scoring 216 points. Both teams conceded just two tries.
“There was a bit of a disappointment about some of the scores in the pool games but it just shows how good both of these teams are and I think we are going to have a lot of little girls running around in Australia and New Zealand wanting to emulate their heroes in this game,” Australian coach Brad Donald said.
Among the stars in the Kiwi Ferns line-up is 36-year-old wing sensation Honey Hireme, who is the Women’s World Cup leading try scorer after bettering her 2013 tally of 10 tries by one in three games so far, while backrower Teuila Fotu-Moala was named player of the tournament.
Australian five-eighth Ali Brigginshaw leads the tournament for try assists (eight) and will be closely watched by New Zealand, while winger Karina Brown has scored six tries in three games.
The Jillaroos will field a squad brimming with size, athleticism and youth, who have benefitted from a high-performance program and team camps in the lead-up to the World Cup, but the Kiwi Ferns boast experience and the confidence they can reverse the result of the 2013 final.
Since then the nations have met three times, with Australia winning twice, and New Zealand coach Tony Benson believes little separates the two teams.
“I think both teams will turn on a game that people will enjoy and I think that women’s rugby league is definitely at a level where it should be played in stadiums like Suncorp on Saturday,” Benson said.
Brad Walter | @BradWalterSport
Chief Correspondent, RLWC2017