Recalled Maroons star Willie Tonga has spent his career determined to prove critics wrong. Credit: Robb Cox. Copyright: NRL Photos
Recalled Maroons star Willie Tonga has revealed how heavyweight boxing champion Mike Tyson inspired his rise from Cherbourg to State of Origin and how the doubts of others have motivated a possible return to the Queensland team next Wednesday night in Game Two of the 2014 Holden State of Origin Series.
Tonga was one of three surprise inclusions when the Maroons announced their 22-man squad on Monday night that quickly became 21 before the Broncos-Raiders Round 13 fixture had even reached its climax.
Along with Ben Hunt and Anthony Milford, Tonga remains on standby should the injury crisis that has hit Queensland take more high-profile victims but even if the 30-year-old does not get to run out next Wednesday and end a three-year Origin exile, the fact that he has come so close is the latest validation of his determination to defy the doubters.
And those doubters started telling Tonga from a young age that he'd never make it. He remembers them all yet won't tell you their names.
Teachers and coaches who said he'd never make it, so-called mates growing up in Cherbourg who said the six kilometre runs with his father John at 5am every morning were a waste of time and those who saw a former Test representative injured and out of shape and who quickly discarded his chances of ever recapturing a place in the NRL.
All the people who have ever told Willie Tonga that he was destined to fail have helped to fuel a burning desire to prove them wrong, a desire that manifested itself in a willingness to do work that others refused to do.
"My old man used to wake me up and five o'clock in the morning to go for six kay runs and my mates would say, 'Why are you doing this?'" Tonga tells NRL.com.
"Living in Cherbourg, Aboriginal community, they were so much more talented than I was but they didn't have that work ethic or discipline.
"I remember watching a Mike Tyson documentary – because I was a massive boxing fan as well – and he said that he'd train when he thought no one else would. And I was 15 and I was thinking, No one would be going for runs at five o'clock in the morning for six kays. So I'd be doing that and the boys would ask me, 'Why are you doing this for, you're not going to make it anywhere.' And I was like, I'll remember you, I'll remember you, I'll remember you," he adds, pointing to figures still clear in his mind more than a decade later.
"There were teachers telling me that I would amount to nothing and I still remember those people. I'm not going to pick them out or anything like that but those things... There are certain people that have said certain things in my career that have just spurred me on, especially within the last year.
"I don't read the papers or anything like that but if I happen to come across someone saying something negative about me then I'll just keep it in the back of my head."
Tonga's latest inspiration has come in the form of those doubting first his commitment to playing at the highest level and then undergoing potentially career-ending back surgery little more than a year ago.
The Eels star underwent the same operation as Roosters captain Anthony Minichiello and having now stripped some 12 kilograms from a frame that carried 107 kilograms last year to once again recapture that light-footed brilliance, he is ready to prove people wrong yet again.
"There were some dark times there, I'm going to be honest with you," Tonga says from the Maroons' camp at Sanctuary Cove. "With back surgery, you think the worst and I know some people have gone the way that I've gone and have recovered 100 per cent and come back better and stronger and some people have gone the other way.
"I wasn't sure whether I'd be able to play again but there's something in me that just says, whenever I have those negative thoughts, just to get it out. It's taken a while for me to get to that stage but I'm able to block that out and re-focus again and know what my goal is.
"I heard people say that I couldn't [get back to the NRL], and I've heard that all my life. That I'd never make first grade and then when I did that I'd never play Origin, I'd never play for Australia and then when I got injured, I was hearing those things again.
"Hearing those things after my back operation, that I wouldn't play first grade again or I wouldn't play Origin again, those are the things that I like to hear, they motivate me.
"If someone tells me I can't do something then I'll set out to prove them wrong."