Benji Marshall’s disappointment at losing the Kiwis captaincy in World Cup year was placed in perspective last night when aspiring West Tigers first grader and fellow New Zealander Mosese Fotuaika was found dead inside a Sydney apartment.
The 20-year-old Junior Kiwis prop was in contention to make his NRL debut this season alongside Marshall after being promoted to the senior squad – but instead of sharing in Fotuaika’s career highlight teammates, club officials and fans are mourning his unexpected death.
An expectant father with his partner Shanice, Fotuaika was discovered about 8.50pm (NZT) inside his unit in the city's inner west suburb of Merrylands.
His death is not considered suspicious and a police report will be forwarded to the NSW Coroner.
Originally from Gisborne, Fotuaika enrolled at Marshall’s former school Keebra Park High on the Gold Coast in 2009, he left at the end of 2010 to join the Wests Tigers after starring in the top team.
A solemn assembly was held this morning while the league programme, which includes 320 Kiwi kids, held their own remembrance with head coach Greg Lenton.
“You could have heard a pin drop, they were just shattered, they all aspired to be like him,” said Lenton, who was struggling to comprehend why Fotuaika might take his own life.
“Just before Christmas he was sitting on the couch in front of me. I was saying how fantastic he looked, and how happy he seemed to be with his partner,” he said.
Unlike many of Keebra Park’s students that graduate to the NRL or Super League, Fotuaika had not been identified by the school’s scouting network in New Zealand.
“He just rolled in the front door,” recalled recalled of the strapping forward’s arrival.
“He said he wanted to come and do a programme and work really hard.
“He walked the walked, he would never talk. He was a very quiet, respectful kid, he was a hard man and a hard trainer.
“He held all our records in the gym."
And on the field? “You knew if he ran at you, you were in trouble and if you ran at him you were in more trouble.”
Fotuaika’s younger brother followed his sibling into the league programme and was being offered support and counselling by the school.
The Wests Tigers released a statement today expressing their sadness at the loss of their young teammate.
“Mosese had a great future ahead of him and we will miss him dearly," said captain Robbie Farah.
Tigers chief executive officer Stephen Humphreys described Fotuaika was “a player of great potential and a very popular and respected member of our club.”
“We are all deeply shocked and devastated by the news of his death. I have been in regular contact with his family and partner and are providing them with all of the comfort and support we can in this most difficult time.”
Kiwis and West Tigers second rower Adam Blair also expressed his sympathy via Twitter: “Our thoughts and prayers go out to Mosese Fotuaika and his friends and family much love to u all.”
New Zealand Rugby League high performance general manager Tony Kemp offered condolences on behalf of the organisation.
Kemp was sure Fotuaika was capable of succeeding at the highest level.
“He got player of the day last year in the NYC (Toyota Cup under-20s) final, so he was on track.
“Most of our national team now have been Junior Kiwis, Mosese was a Junior Kiwi last year, so he had plenty of potential.”
The NRL also conveyed its deepest sympathy to Fotuaika’s family.
“This is an absolute tragedy and our heart goes out to Mosese’s family and to his teammates,” said NRL chief executive Dave Smith.
Fotuaika’s funeral is expected to be held on the Gold Coast. A memorial plaque will be positioned on Keebra Park’s grounds.
Who is your pick for international league player of the year?Related story: (See story)