Alehana Mara didn't tell his family he was making his first grade debut; he didn't tell his friends. He only told his partner because he figured she would wonder why he was flying to Australia. He didn't need any extra pressure.
"I was just so nervous before the game, it took so much energy out I was sitting there, shaking in my boots, slapping my legs,'' he recalls of his 22-minute debut against Manly last weekend.
Mara was hoping his grandmother might make it to Mt Smart for his second outing against Brisbane on Friday night. But his parents wouldn't have made it to Brookvale Oval if they'd known anyway. His father lives in Vanuatu, his mother in Tokelau. Both returned to their home islands when they split up when he was just six, leaving young Alehana in Wellington with his grandmother and aunt to be educated.
His carers found out when they saw the reshuffled Warriors team, with Mara replacing the injured Ian Henderson, in the media and Mara was already in Australia when they rang to ask if the news was true.
But at least one of Mara's "second'' family was alongside him for his first-grade bow. When he moved to Auckland alone at the age of 17, the Warriors placed him in a house with fellow Wellingtonians Ben Matulino and Meli Koliavu (a former under-20s centre) and Hamilton-born halfback Issac John.
"Boy, it was an experience,'' he says with a grin.
"I had to grow up quick, doing my own washing, my own cleaning. The first couple of weeks it was good the house was clean. Then everyone got used to each other, and you'd come home and ask 'who drank the last of the milk?' We all bonded and became our own little family.''
And now he has his own little family: he has his own place in Mt Albert with his English partner Becs and a six-month-old daughter Laiva (a Tokelaun word meaning "nine branches''), named after his aunt. His first job after arriving home was installing baby gates after his daughter learned to crawl last Monday.
The insistence of Mara's aunt that he have a Catholic education nearly stymied the career of the NRL's first Vanuatan-Tokelaun player. He commuted from Porirua into the city to study at St Patrick's College at her insistence, and played under-15 rugby for the school at their insistence. In return, he was allowed to keep playing league with his local mates at St George where he was spotted by Wellington Academy coach Paul Bergman.
Bergman whose programme also unearthed Matulino and Roosters prop Mose Masoe switched Mara from halfback to centre, before former Warriors under-20 coach Tony Iro converted him again to hooker because of a surfeit of outside backs.
"I'm glad I did,'' he says. "I had Kevin Locke and Bill Tupou ahead of me and I was just glad to get a shot.''
With a quick mind and feet and good hands, Mara is a natural dummy-half. He's managed only 10 games of reserve grade this year for the Auckland Vulcans thanks to sternum, ankle and two medial ligament injuries but regained fitness at just the right time.
"My goal was to make my debut before I am 21 [his birthday is in November] and coming towards the end of the season, I didn't think it would happen,'' he says. "Then Henderson got injured, the opportunity came up and I got my shot.
"I reckon I went good no missed tackles, and I wanted to have fun and I really did have fun. It's a memory I will keep forever.''
- © Fairfax NZ News