Our two nationinternational
Energetic winger Kalifa Faifai Loa is quickly developing as a crowd favourite at the Titans with his full of energy performances in the past two months, yet his is probably the Titan the fans know least about.
Like the uncertainty facing the 24-year-old when he belatedly became a Titan instead of heading to England to test his fortunes in Super League.
Or that he is a two-nation international representative.
So let’s expand on the story of the Wellington-born Kiwi who grew up in Auckland but first came to Australia as a 17-year-old schoolboy who joined the Newcastle Knights who had played all his junior football as a second-rower.
He had appeared in a pre-season trial and remembers vividly being told by his mother that they had offered to bring him back and he was leaving on a Sydney-bound plane next morning and his journey to the NRL was about to start.
“It was my last day at school in NZ and I was on a date with my girlfriend when my mother called at 9pm and said ‘you’re flight leaves tomorrow at six,” he recalled. “I only had a few hours to get used to the fact I was leaving.
“At almost midnight my best mate arrived at my place with some school mates to say goodbye and good luck; it was pretty special.
“I was at the Newcastle stadium the next season the day they had the big farewell to Andrew Johns who was retiring early [in 2007], it was a big day to experience for a kid from Auckland.”
After starting with the Knights’ S G Ball (under-18s side), where he was converted into a fullback/wing/centre, he was promoted to under-20s where his coach was current Roosters premiership winning mentor Trent Robinson.
He remembers having little skill at taking high balls, one of his strong points today, and being sent to Knights lower grades skills coach Rohan Smith (son of Brian) and having endless tennis balls lobbed his way and told to catch them with elbows together.
Faifai Loa will admit he could be a handful as a young Kiwi away from home, was dumped by the Knights for disciplinary reasons and headed back home with his NRL aspirations in serious doubt. However he was given a pre-season training contract by Dragons under-20s coach Steve Price in the lead-up to the 2009 season. Quite unbelievable considering his height, he was 99kg when he joined the Dragons but after getting a second training period to prove himself, he trimmed back to 88kg and earned a playing contract.
During his two seasons there he made his NRL debut midway through 2010 before Neil Henry lured him to North Queensland for the 2011 season. At season’s end he was chosen for two Tests for New Zealand but suffered a hamstring injury in the first which he aggravated in the second and was condemned to a poor pre-season for 2012.
From then he was in and out of the Cowboys side and spent time in the Northern Pride feeder team in the Queensland Cup. He says he always would have preferred playing for the Cowboys’ other feeder team, Mackay Cutters, and headed there after another disciplinary issue with the Pride.
Ironically ghe Cutters beat the Pride a the semi-final before winning last year’s grand final.
He had a year remaining on his Cowboys contract but asked for a release. He had spoken to the Titans wouldn’t towards the end of last season but had with no offer coming, he was prepared to head overseas to continue his career when his manager told him there was a deal – and an opportunity to stay in the NRL - with the Titans.
“I thought I’d go overseas, it was last minute decision to come here,” Kalifa said. “I came here fat and unfit to be honest; I was 103kg. Now I’m playing at 95kg. I always came back big from the off-season.
“I was happy for a chance here but we had two wingers who were Country reps this season [David Mead and Kevin Gordon] and Anthony Don and Steve Michaels, so it wasn’t going to be easy making the team.
“But I had faith that it I played well for Seagulls I’d get a chance and then I just had to play well to keep my spot, that’s all I can do.”
Since he made the Titans side this season, Faifai Loa has been chosen whenever he was fit to play, a testament to his performances.
Few Titans fans realise he is an international, for New Zealand and Samoa, after what the records show as his best season – when he played 22 games (scoring 10 tries) for the Cowboys in 2011 under the coaching of Neil Henry.
“I was very proud to play for New Zealand; I, still have my Test jersey at home and the army ‘dog tag’ that all Kiwi international receive,” he said.
He played for Samoa at the World Cup last year, which means it will be 2016 before he is eligible to play for the Kiwis again.
And the exuberant character admits he is still very much developing and maturing on and off the field.
“I was always being told to shut up and stop mucking around,” he admits, “but now I think I know when to switch on and off. I’m still only 24 so still learning and maturing.”