Rugby has been a huge part of Bella Milo’s life since the day, aged only four, she was first thrown a ball by her father, having followed her elder brother to training.
The game has enabled her to live out her dreams and travel the world, from the family home in Hamilton to Auckland and Hong Kong via Rugby World Cups in Canada, France and Ireland.
Milo relocated to Hong Kong after representing Samoa at RWC 2014, and she has since set up home in the city, grasping the opportunity to hone her coaching skills alongside playing.
Aiming for her 4th Rugby World Cup Event in 2021, Bella Milo is part of an exclusive group of rugby players. This is (part of) her rugby journey. Enjoy this episode with a legend of Valley, Hong Kong and Samoan rugby!https://t.co/Z0NlMUDnJh pic.twitter.com/AIHyScTSiu— SG Valley RFC (@SGValleyRFC) December 18, 2020
It was as assistant coach that Milo travelled to Ireland 2017 with Hong Kong, and now, as the team’s Strength and Conditioning coach, she is focused on helping them return to the tournament in New Zealand this year.
“[It would be] huge for women here and especially our local Chinese girls,” Milo told World Rugby. “If we make another World Cup, we're going to get a lot more kids and girls wanting to play the sport.”
Hong Kong’s path to RWC 2021 could yet cross Samoa’s, if they place second in Asia and join Manusina in the Final Qualification Tournament. Milo’s last appearance for the Pacific Island nation came against Fiji in November, 2019, but she remains available for selection.
So, where would her allegiances lie were the two teams to meet this year? “Right now I would play,” she said.
Milo’s connection to Samoa is a strong one. Although she grew up on New Zealand’s North Island, she is proud of her heritage and is keen to use her expertise to help the women’s game flourish in the Pacific Island nation.
“In 10 years' time, I would love to be back in Samoa working or coaching in the rugby sector, whether it's grassroots or at the national level,” Milo said.
“I've always wanted to go home and coach. I think financially, probably not right now. But, I think, if I can set myself up, then I'd absolutely love to go back to Samoa and give back to the sport that's given a lot to me.”
Milo saw the impact rugby could have on Samoan communities first-hand, when she travelled there as part of the TEINI TOA programme in 2018.
“We did some coaching with school kids and I just loved it,” she said. “Loved seeing the smiles on their faces, how engaged they are to want to play with you and learn.
“When they're learning a different skill, they're just like, 'Oh I didn't think about that'. So, it's just that rewarding factor and satisfaction that, one, you're helping them with the sport, but, two, you might be empowering them to do something different as well.”
Milo’s own coaching journey began at Auckland Marist, when she was asked to take charge of the women’s team while she recovered from a serious shoulder injury.
Having started out as a scrum-half before moving to number 10 due to her height, Milo says she was used to thinking about the game like a coach, and implementing game plans on the pitch.
She admits, however, that season was a “learning curve” as she struggled to come to terms with team-mates not meeting the standards she demanded of them.
The experience did help Milo formulate her own coaching philosophy, though, which she says consists of “doing the basics well” while creating an environment in which players are not afraid to make mistakes.
“You can’t play fancy rugby if you don’t have the minor skills,” she said.
“Building a massive culture off the field, outside of rugby [is important]. And, that in turn translates over onto the game where, if things aren't going too well, people can actually talk about it and are able to problem solve on the field as well.”
Coaching at Rugby World Cup
Her move to Hong Kong has given Milo the opportunity to refine that coaching philosophy still further.
Milo had just returned from RWC 2014 in France when her cousin, Wesley Feausi and his wife, Sam, convinced her to make the move to Hong Kong.
Wesley was working at Gai Wu Falcons at the time, but it was World Rugby Women’s Executive Leadership Scholarship recipient Sam who completed the paperwork first, which meant Milo instead joined Valley.
What was supposed to be a six-month playing stint has become something a lot more permanent. In 2016, Jo Hull phoned Milo in Dublin, where she was competing in the Olympic repechage tournament, to ask if she would join the women’s national team coaching staff.
Fourteen months later, Milo returned to Ireland’s capital for RWC 2017 as an assistant coach. “That was probably the longest four weeks of work,” she admitted.
“It was just an experience that not many people go through. Not many coaches get to coach at a World Cup, be in that environment.
“Just being able to look back on it and learn from a lot of the things is just massive.”
Hong Kong lost all three pool matches, against Canada, New Zealand and Wales, but the coaching team devised a plan to celebrate the players’ victories within those defeats, be it the team’s top tackler or someone who had disrupted a lineout.
“We looked for some really, really small things that our girls could really pride themselves on and not come away like, 'Oh, we got absolutely smoked’,” Milo explained.
“They could come away with something that they learnt from. So, we had a little ceremony after every game, which is cool, and the girls really bought into it.”
Milo currently combines a player-coach role at Valley with her commitments with the Hong Kong national team.
Whether she makes it to a fourth Rugby World Cup herself, Milo believes the tournament in New Zealand could have a massive impact on the women’s game in the Pacific Islands.
“For our people to see females playing in New Zealand on the world stage, that is [huge],” she said.
“Our people are very proud Pacific Islanders. So, for them to say, 'Oh, there's our team', even though it's Fiji, they're still a Pacific Island and the Samoans will go and support Fiji.”