As the mid-winter sun rises above Auckland, a car pulls into an Avondale driveway. The air is crisp, and the streets are still quiet. Inside the house, a young man is awake, preparing for his day ahead.
The young athlete will get in his vehicle and head to the gym, where he will work hard for several hours before spending time on the training paddock.
His mother meets the young man in the kitchen.
She has just arrived home from the overnight shift at a local rest home, having just worked a second shift to cover for a colleague who hasn't turned up.
With broad smiles on their faces, the two embrace. The time is around seven o'clock. The young man gets in his car and heads out. His mum heads to bed, exhausted.
As he drives to Mt Smart Stadium, Sione Lousi, a Warriors prop having a breakthrough season in the first grade, thinks about his mum as he drives; thinks about how hard she works. Thinks about honouring her and his father, a mechanic, and the rest of his family on the football field.
"Every time I go to training, I think of my mum," Lousi tells Sunday News.
"I leave at seven in the morning, and she's just getting home. Far out. It hurts. You don't want to see your parents going hard. They're not in a business where you can earn a lot of money.
"I think that's the main reason I still live at home. I still love my parents and still want to help them out."
Lousi, who shares a bedroom with his young brother Sam, now an Auckland Vulcans regular, has come a long way in 2012. For most league fans, his name wasn't really in the discussion regarding coach Brian McClennan's first NRL squad. Another year grafting away for the Vulcans surely loomed.
Yet the 22-year-old impressed the new coach in the pre-season trials, earning him a spot in the Warriors team to play the Sea Eagles in round one at Eden Park.
Lousi has been a regular fixture on Bluey's team sheet ever since, starting four games and registering game time in each one of the Warriors 13 matches, heading into last night's clash against the Sharks.
Just staying uninjured has been big enough, Lousi believes. Injuries, and less maturity, have consigned the young prop to only nine first-grade performance heading into this year.
"Its something that's always has held me back – the injuries," Lousi said. "This year, I've been lucky. I was flying under the radar at the start there. No one really thought I'd be in the team, and to be honest, I didn't either. I stuck to my guns. I trained hard, worked hard and got the outcome."
A more "professional" approach to his entire game has followed this year as well.
Trainings are taken more seriously, as is his diet and off-field activities. Lousi limits his drinking to one or two "quiets" with the lads.
"It's about being professional," he said.
"It comes with maturity. I never thought that stuff really mattered. In the past two years, I thought that.
"But it does. It does a lot for your game. Being smarter about the recovery. Diet-wise and stuff. Mostly my off-the-field stuff.
"Dieting, recovery – it's really helped."
His team-mates have been impressed with Lousi this season. Grizzled veteran prop and former Origin rep Jacob Lillyman remembers first seeing the youngster play.
He also recalls Lousi's drop to the Vulcans last year and has been impressed with how he's fought his way back to first grade.
"I was in shock with how much he surprised me," he said. "He was smacking blokes and carting the ball up hard.
"Probably, and Sione would be the first to admit this, he took it a little bit for granted and got in a bit of a comfort zone.
"Last year, he lingered in the Vulcans for pretty much the whole year, and to his credit he's come out and had a really good pre-season, went really well in the trials and hasn't looked back since.
"People probably don't realise that he's got a lot of skill about him as well. He's got great footwork and good passes and offloads."
Fellow prop Ben Matulino echoes Lillyman's comments. He reckons Lousi could be another offload king.
"He's just another Feleti Mateo, he's got all the tricks in the bag," he said. "He's a bit shy when it comes to NRL, we always push him to stick to your strengths, and I'll think you'll see the real Sione come out soon. He can do those offloads and tip forward the line, and I'm looking forward to him revealing all his tricks."
Recent weeks have seen fewer minutes for Lousi. His overall runs and metres have been down. But as anyone who knows league will tell you, one game can turn things around – one dominant performance sparked by one big carry or big hit-up. For a young man like Lousi with talent by the bucketload, that performance isn't far away.
Nor is the consistency that will continue to see his name regularly inked into McClennan's weekly team sheet.
Draw that all back to that drive from Avondale to the Warriors gym early in the morning. To the thoughts of hard work and gratitude to his family running through his head.
Know that this is a young man who knows what it takes. Knows how to do the hard yards, not only on the footy field, but in life, too.
- © Fairfax NZ News