Will Hopoate has been named to make his Origin return after last appearing for the Blues in his debut season in 2011. Credit: Robb Cox. Copyright: NRL Photos.
He walked away from the game a premiership winner and Origin star at just 19 years of age but it is Will Hopoate's continued willingness to learn that has fuelled his return to the Origin arena, according to Eels teammate and interstate rival Willie Tonga.
Hopoate has been named on the right wing for New South Wales for Game Two next Wednesday night just 12 games back from two years spent on a Mormon mission, while Tonga is part of the Maroons' 21-man squad still trying to ascertain which 17 players will be fit enough to take their place.
While Hopoate's return may have been more predictable than Tonga's three-year battle with injury and form, it is no less significant. Tonga insists that Hopoate's pure class would ensure a return to the NRL but that it was hard work and dedication that earned him a second Blues jersey.
"I'm so stoked for him. From his first day coming in to Parramatta he was very quiet, very shy, and after the first couple of sessions he pulled me aside and asked me, 'Did I do this right? Did I do that right?'" Tonga told NRL.com.
"I was thinking, 'He's been out of the game for two years, he's played Origin, which is pretty much the pinnacle and he's willing to learn,' and from that day on I've had a lot of time for him.
"I'm so happy for him to get that call-up and now that he's actually playing again, he fully deserves it. He's probably the one that's first in and last off the [training] field and they're the players that you want to be rewarded."
Despite two years away from rugby league Hopoate told the media on Tuesday he believed his dedication to his faith had made him a more mentally stronger player and person.
"Being away for two years and facing quite a bit of adversity and rejection has helped me to be a bit more mentally strong, and a bit more thick-skinned," Hopoate said. "As a missionary inviting others to learn from Christ, we face challenges and trials, so I feel that’s helped me mentally."
Due to injury Tonga only played 16 NRL games himself in the period that Hopoate was out of the game but fully supported a fit 19-year-old voluntarily heading for the sidelines for something which was deeply important to him.
"I understand it totally," Tonga said of Hopoate's decision to take a break from the game in 2011. "With his religion and stuff like that, I don't question it at all, but his natural ability alone was always going to get him back into the NRL and it was just a matter of time with him finding his feet and getting back out there. Get his hands on the ball, get plenty of game time to be able to do what he does."
Tonga was a member of the 11-strong Maroons contingent that visited the central west Queensland town of Longreach on Tuesday and said that experience again made him feel blessed to rejoin his Queensland team-mates.
"It's been three years since I've been back in the Maroons camp and a lot of things have happened since then with ups and downs so just to be back into camp with the boys was just like I'd never left to be honest," said the 30-year-old, with eight previous Origins to his name.
"To have an opportunity to go out to Longreach was pretty special. They're doing it tough out there at the moment and me growing up in the country as well I know how much it would have meant to them, for their heroes, an Origin team to take time out and go out and visit the community.
"Sometimes you can forget about those little towns like Longreach but when we went out there everyone was wearing Maroon. The whole town was pretty much banked along the street and it means a lot to all the boys and that's just one town out of Queensland.
"There's a lot of support behind the Maroons team and hopefully the boys can do them proud on Wednesday."