Autumn-Rain Stephens was living the dream – she’d secured an NRL contract playing women’s league professionally in Australia for the Newcastle Knights.
But then Covid-19 returned, her competition got postponed and she got stranded in Australia unable to secure a MIQ spot to get home.
The days of trying turned into weeks.
But on Tuesday – as she headed into her sixth week of uncertainty – Stephens got the good news she’d hoped for.
Alongside her fellow Kiwi Ferns teammates also stranded, Katelyn Vaha’akolo and Maitua Feterika, they checked the MIQ website.
The ecstatic celebration was captured on video as the trio realised they were going home.
For Stephens’ mum, Eliza Stephens from Rotorua, the news was music to her ears.
She’d been in constant contact with her daughter sharing the frustration about the possibility she might not be home for Christmas.
“She’d told me before she was number 5042 so it wasn’t looking good. Two hours later she sent back that video and oh my god, I had bloody tears coming out my eyes. Just to see their reactions that they were finally coming home.”
Speaking to the Rotorua Daily Post from Newcastle, Autumn-Rain Stephens said at the time of finding out, she was really grateful but not all of her fellow Kiwi Ferns players had secured spots home.
“In the moment I was excited but then once that hype was over the realisation that not all of us ladies stranded here didn’t secure a spot to get home was quite sad, knowing that they’re going to be left here.”
She said there were a few of them who would give up their spots for others but it wasn’t an option with New Zealand MIQ.
She said Newcastle was a great place to live and her club had taken great care of her but with the way MIQ was managed now, she wasn’t sure she’d ever get home.
“There was a feeling of what if I can’t get home for a long time?”
Despite starting to feel homesick about a week ago, she said the experience had been positive for self growth.
“It makes me look forward to coming back next year and giving the NRL a good crack.”
She also wants to give back to Newcastle Knights “by being my best self out on the pitch” for their commitment to her.
“The fire within is burning and this space I’ve been in for the last 11weeks makes me excited for when the time comes to step out onto the grass in the red and blue jersey.”
Eliza Stephens said the wait to come home was made more frustrating with the knowledge the men’s NRL teams were allowed to continue playing.
Eliza Stephens said the MIQ process had been widely criticised and she believed there needed to be some kind of process put in place to prioritise the people needing to come home.
“They (the Kiwi Ferns players) should have priority over people coming back who aren’t even from our country or high-powered businessmen. It also shouldn’t be for those who want to shoot back for a holiday.”
Eliza Stephens said professional athletes who had achieved their dreams should be looked after.
“I don’t know but there might be some who might not want to go back for the competition next year. Some of those girls had a hard time emotionally over there. Would they really want to leave New Zealand again?”
The good news for her daughter is she flies out on Sunday and should make it out of isolation in time to play the New Zealand Māori Rugby League Tuakana open women and men’s tournament at the Rotorua International Stadium at Labour Weekend.
“They went over to Australia for a job and couldn’t get out there so they are biting at the bit to get on the field and play.”
There are now 32 MIQ hotels in New Zealand but it’s still not enough and securing a spot is a game of luck.
There is a new “virtual lobby” system in which people are randomly selected for places but the demand outstrips the supply.
For the past two rounds, there have been more than 30,000 in that lobby – 10 times the number of rooms available.
Rotorua was in line to get a fourth MIQ hotel but the Government ruled it out last week, following public backlash.
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