Christchurch's Cruz Topai-Aveai signs three-year NRL contract with Cronulla
Christchurch teenager Cruz Topai-Aveai started his season for the South Sydney U20s in the Toyota Cup has been granted an early release for potential NRL stardom with the Cronulla Sharks.
Now in his first week training with the Sharks first graders, you would never guess the 18-year-old is in just his second year of rugby league.
The former Shirley Boys' High School student was scouted first by the then South Sydney recruitment manager Grant Jones in December 2015, and after jumping ship to the Sharks, Jones decided to pull the giant backrower with him.
"Fortunately I was able to play some good footy and get a bit of exposure within the competition. I had a few clubs offering me contracts within the first few rounds, as I come off contract at the end of this year," said Topai-Aveai.
"Cronulla had always been there wanting me to come over so it had always kind of been Rabbitohs versus Cronulla."
Topai-Aveai was offered a first grade contract with both clubs, but Cronulla upped the payment and also offered his older brother Jordan, 22, a 14-week first grade preseason deal. Two birds one stone - so he took it.
Switching to first grade halfway through the season gives Topai-Aveai - 1.92m tall and weighing over 100kg -exposure to the NRL and a chance of a debut in 2017.
Having Cronulla players Chris Heighington retire, and Luke Lewis off to the Tigers leaves some big shoes to fill.
At his former Rabbitohs club,the three Burgess brothers - England internationals Sam, George and Tom - Jason Clark, Zayn Musgrove and Cam Murray were potentially standing in Topai-Aveai's way.
"It wasn't that I thought I couldn't pass these guys."
Topai-Aveai is recovering from injury and it will take him until at least week 20 or 21 to be even ready to crack at NRL footy.
"Yeah, I was definitely starting to find my feet in the game and starting to really feel comfortable, was just unfortunate to get injured."
The frustration grew bigger for Topai-Aveai as a week after the injury he was selected in the Junior Kiwis side to play the Junior Kangaroos in the Anzac test, but couldn't play.
"It was definitely a tough time, being injured and knowing I could have represented my country would have been a massive achievement and goal of mine right there.
The three-year deal will provide Topai-Aveai some stability he said. "It gives me an opportunity to help and give back to my parents and family but also a chance to accomplish a goal of mine which is to play in the NRL."
So how does a small-town boy cope with the Sydney metropolis?
"It definitely is different to life back home, being away from immediate family and living away from home on my own was definitely a big change, but I have quickly adapted to the lifestyle here and I am really enjoying life here in Sydney
The Bulldogs have re-signed promising Kiwi forward Renouf To'omaga until the end of 2020.
The 21-year-old second rower represented the junior Kiwis in 2015 and performed strongly for the Bulldogs at the Auckland Nines this year.
Meanwhile. another Canterbury rugby league product is leaving the Cronulla Sharks next season to join the Canterbury Bulldogs.
Utility player Fa'amanu Brown, 22, has played 15 first grade games for the Sharks and made his test debut for Samoa last year.
The former Hornby junior joined the Sharks in 2012 and made his first grade debut in 2014.
Brown, who plays in the halves or at hooker, ruptured his ACL in the Auckland Nines pre-season tournament in 2015 and missed the entire 2015 NRL campaign before returning last year.