For a young man yet to even blow out 22 candles on a birthday cake, Kiwis rookie Kalifa Faifai Loa has already experienced the highs and lows that come with being a professional sportsman.
Tonight in Newcastle, the Wellington-born and Auckland-raised winger will make his New Zealand debut in the same city where his career nearly ended before it had even taken off.
As a talented young league player in Auckland, Faifai Loa first turned heads when, as a 16-year-old, testing showed he had the pace even then of an NRL winger.
His first manager Stan Martin had no trouble landing him a contract in the Newcastle Knights system in 2008 and stardom, it seemed, was just around the corner.
But rather than knuckle down and make the most of his God-given talent, Faifai Loa quickly found himself on a path to destruction that saw him kicked out by two homestay families and also get caught driving a vehicle after drinking.
By his own admission, he was homesick. But now as he prepares to debut for his country – a debut that three years ago seemed extremely unlikely – Faifai Loa admits to having learnt some harsh lessons.
"During my time at the Knights, some stuff happened, as it does when you're young, and I got kicked out of some homestays and that sort of thing," the Cowboys sensation told the Sunday Star-Times.
"I also got done for drink-driving and obviously the Knights decided not to re-sign me.
"I remember being really homesick and I just drank and stuff like that.
"They sacked me and I moved back home to New Zealand for three months.
"From there, my manager sent me a message to tell me that not a single club in the competition wanted me at any price."
At that time, Faifai Loa and Martin had parted ways and Australian Gavin Orr had taken over as the winger's manager.
With no deals on the table and contemplating the very real prospect that his league career was over, Faifai Loa told Orr to ship him around to clubs again, but this time with a catch – he'd play for free.
"St George decided to let me join them and they helped me get myself sorted," he said.
"I played for free and was on no contract at all. I had to work for my money like a normal person."
But despite the scare, Faifai Loa admits he still didn't quite appreciate how he was supposed to behave off the field as a professional sportsman.
Partying had become a way of life and it wasn't until he moved in with cousin and soon-to-be Kiwis teammate Jeremy Smith that he got on the path that has led him to where he is today.
"I played for the under-20s team in 2009 and I was still in my 2008 zone and was partying and stuff like that," Faifai Loa said.
"That's when Jeremy Smith got me into his house and I ended up living with him for the next eight months.
"He really helped me to get to where I am now. He was pretty strict and disciplined me often.
"Finally, he told me he thought I had come along enough to be able to live on my own later in the 2010 season.
"Since then, I played two first-grade games last year for St George and made the under-20s team of the year as well," Faifai Loa said.
On the field, there was no doubting Faifai Loa's ability and when the Cowboys scouts came knocking last year, he quickly signed, realising he was behind Jason Nightingale and Brett Morris in the pecking order of Dragons wingers.
It was a move that has paid dividends and 22 first-grade games – including several notable performances – later, he was rewarded with a call-up to the Kiwis squad as a late replacement for the injured Manu Vatuvei.
Tonight when he steps on the field at Ausgrid Stadium, he'll have come full circle and standing alongside him performing the haka will be none other than the man he credits with saving him from the rugby league scrapheap – Smith.
"I've grown up a lot in the last couple of years thanks to Jeremy," he said.
"I'm still speechless about all this. He's carried me through some real ups and downs. This week hopefully it's an up. To play alongside my cousin is going to be great. Knowing he's going to be there next to me and pulling on the black jersey is just awesome. Seven-hundred-and-sixty-five players have been there and done that before me and hopefully on Sunday I will make all 765 of them proud by performing well."
- © Fairfax NZ News
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