Just a few short years ago, up and coming Kiwi forward Sitaleki Akauola almost gave up on his dream of playing first grade rugby league. But after receiving a lifeline from the Wests Tigers in 2011, the now-Panther hasn’t looked back.
Akauola began his footy career as a promising junior with the New Zealand Warriors before deciding to leave the game – and his family back home – to work a ‘normal’ job with his older brother in Australia.
Akauola loaded and unloaded pallets for international shipping company TNT – an honest living for a kid trying to earn money for his family of 14 siblings.
But after three weeks of heavy lifting, Akauola received a call that would reignite his passion for the game he loved and missed dearly.
Akauola was asked to trial for the Wests Tigers and after impressing club bosses, he earned himself a contract with their powerhouse Holden Cup team.
Akauola spent four seasons at the joint venture – wining an NYC premiership in 2012 before making his first grade debut a season later.
After struggling to make first grade in 2015, Akauola decided to leave the club that saved his career and join the Penrith Panthers on a one-year deal.
The 24-year-old said he owes Panthers coach Anthony Griffin for showing him the faith he didn’t think he had in himself.
“I actually believe in myself again and I no longer drop my head after I do something wrong,” Akauola said.
“Hook’s been a big part of my development and the boys have been very supportive too.”
Akauola has played five games for Penrith and played a starring role against the Eels last Sunday.
“I’m just trying to build my confidence and I really thank Hook for giving me the opportunity,” he said.
“He gave me a few runs earlier this month and I let him down, I was glad to do the job on Sunday night.”
With recent injuries to Sam McKendry and Reagan Campbell-Gillard in the forwards, Akauola is starting to see more and more minutes in the front-row.
“I don’t mind playing a prop, I’m all for the crash and bash,” he said.
“Hook tells me to run hard and tackle hard and be there for my mates on the field.”
While his future is still undecided beyond this year, Akauola hopes his hard work at Penrith will soon pay off with a new deal.
Nathan Taylor is the Western Weekender’s award-winning sports journalist. Nathan is also the Weekender’s Deputy Editor.