A special homecoming
Leivaha Pulu and Agnatius Paasi can approach the last nine rounds of the NRL Telstra Premiership after this weekend’s bye satisfied, and inspired, that they finally drew that line in the sand they had pictured many years ago.
And that they have reached that milestone of redemption.
They were two Auckland schoolboy footballers who left for the Gold Coast not knowing what to expect, even what they would do, outside of attending Keebra Park High School and hoping that by facing the fear of leaving the family unit would worth finding opportunities that may not be there in their tough neighbourhoods.
Keebra, where Benji Marshall and others began their dreams that came true, was seen as a pathway to the NRL, mostly likely via Wests Tigers in Sydney.
It was a long road. And they both went so close to falling off the kerb along the way.
Yet, finally, the two good mates returned home last weekend to play NRL rugby league, for the first time in front of those family and friends who waved them goodbye so long ago wondering what may be.
Alongside them was another fellow Aucklander and late bloomer, Nathaniel Peteru, sharing the same experience – playing in their home city as NRL players for the first time.
Paasi was gone a little over two years in Australia before he was back in Auckland and was edging towards being a wasted talent before he took off again to the Gold Coast in November 2014.
In between was a pre-season with the Tigers that led to him going home before he’d played a game because of visa issues and a cut foot suffered while playing table tennis, then four years at the Warriors that reaped him an under-20s premiership and their reserve grade (NSW Cup) player of the year award but only one NRL appearance and no full-time contract that so many of those who emerged around him were rewarded with.
He was working early hours, studying architecture part-time and trying to become a professional footballer.
“Yeah, I felt proud,” said Paasi of running onto Mt Smart Stadium as an established NRL player would have been in the forefront of the Warriors’ ‘tip sheet’ because of his powerful form in the past 12 months. Paasi missed the Anzac Day clash in Auckland last year because of injury.
“To go through all that and be back here playing against my old club. It was maybe a surprise to some people but I’m really proud at what I have achieved and to be back here playing NRL in front of my family and friends.
“It meant a lot because without their support I wouldn’t have made it this far.
“My mum and dad and my grandpa [attended]; he was the one who led me to rugby league. It was his first NRL game he’s gone to.”
While many believed former Titans assistant coach Rohan Smith freely recommended Paasi to the club when he arrived before the 2014-15 pre-season, it was Paasi who chased him.
“Ro’ had just gone to the Titans so I Facebook messaged him and asked if he would put a good word in for me there.
“They offered me a train and trial and I thought I’d take the chance. Being away from home and my partner and son was hard [Chloe stayed in Auckland in 2015 to finish her university studies] but I had a big incentive to make the most of the opportunity and I’m really happy how it has turned out. She has really supported me.”
For ‘Vaha’ the journey to redemption was even longer.
While ‘Iggy’ made played his first game for the Titans in round 1 last year – after playing his sole top grade game for the Warriors three months before his 23rd birthday – Pulu debuted, also in round 1 after coming to the Titans as an unknown last pre-season a year after Paasi, he was three weeks short of his 26th birthday when he wore an NRL jersey for the first time.
His 16th appearance was back home last weekend and his pride was also obvious, although both men are humble, quiet and contain their emotions.
Pulu was once a 130kg teenager when he left Auckland, told by school teachers he would amount to nothing.
Football was a potential meal ticket and career, but he didn’t have the diet and discipline to realise his potential. He too, did not secure a future at Wests Tigers (after two seasons in under-20s) and it was only after a season in France that he attuned himself better to what the NRL required of him.
However, three fruitless seasons followed and he still hadn’t tasted time in the big league.
It was the initiation of his father-in-law Amon Ta’akaemoeaka, a registered player agent, who advised him the Tians were looking for forwards and convinced Vaha, and Neil Henry, he was worth a shot.
A modest two-year contract eventuated but it was better than leaving for work at 3am each morning and getting home from training after dark the previous year when he played for St Marys (Sydney Roosters’ feeder team).
“For a few years I just work to get some quick cash and put footy second,” he said. “I was a young father and providing for my family was more important.
“It wasn’t until I got older that I thought I would give it a go, put in 100 per cent; I didn’t want to look back with regrets.
“I was excited to come home and play NRL before my family in Auckland, and show them that all the sacrifices that I, and they, made were worth it. And they were more excited than me, eh.”
Pulu was a father at 18 with his partner Lina, and like Paasi is a dad of two now.
It is his younger brother George who now has greater challenges than a young Leivaha. He is serving five years in jail after getting involved in the wrong crowd and taking part in an armed robbery.
Leivaha, wants to be his role model and is inspiring George to make something of his life when he returns to society. He visited him this week after staying in Auckland after Saturday’s match. It’s still about family being there when most needed.
Paasi’s parents left Tonga when he was two years old and they both worked two jobs to give him and his siblings a better life. He was happy to repay them with the pride of watching him run out for the Titans last weekend.
“I’m happy for Iggy as much as for myself,” Leivaha said
“He has come a long way, especially how he went back to NZ from the Tigers and how things went at the Warriors; playing just one NRL game there. He inspires me.
“But we still have a long part of the journey to go; we want to be the best we can and get the most out of our careers.
“Maybe we have shown some people back home that if you put your mind right into it you can be whatever you want.”
PICTURE: Leivaha and Agnatius with a young fan in Auckland last week.
To watch a wonderful interview Agnatius did with Sky TV NZ with former Kiwi Test hooker MOnty Bethan, CLICK BELOW.