Moa's roundabout route to NRL success

Surprise-packet Roosters forward Sam Moa has one person – other than himself – to thank for his remarkable NRL comeback. The one-game 2008 Cronulla squad member was all but forgotten playing in the English Super League from 2009 to 2012… until former Hull FC teammate and Roosters legend Craig Fitzgibbon pushed his case in Bondi Junction.

The chunky front-rower, who has run for more than 450 metres across four matches in an impressive start to the season, was all but unknown in NRL ranks until ‘Fitzy’ stepped in. And Moa, preparing to face the Raiders in Canberra on Sunday, knows he owes his bald-headed trainer plenty.

“When [Fitzgibbon] got the job (on the coaching staff) at the Roosters he was always pushing my barrow trying to get me here,” Moa tells NRL.com.

“He was going out on one leg for me and people were probably saying ‘look, he’s unknown – we don’t know him!’ He was really pushing hard. When I came back I had to work hard and repay the fave.”

Moa’s now a starter in one of the NRL’s most aggressive and feared packs – and part of a squad with bona fide premiership-winning potential – but five years ago, at 21, it appeared his days playing professional rugby league in Australia were all but over. After just one first grade game under Ricky Stuart at the Sharks, the four-time Tongan representative flew to England at the end of the season desperate to prove himself… and earn a reputation that would one day see him return. Now he’s back – bigger, better and more powerful.

“The big difference for me here is I feel like a part of this squad, the NRL team here,” Moa, whose side has enjoyed a 3-1 start to 2013, reveals.

“I was on the fringe back at Cronulla and I wasn’t playing well enough to get in the side. I felt like an outcast. I feel like a part of the NRL squad here. It’s all starting to come together nicely.

“Towards the end of every year [in England] I’ve gotten better... and I met ‘Fitzy’ over there the second year and struck up a good friendship with him. I watched him with how he trained and he was always helping me with preparation and training and what I should do… I used to watch him play for Australia and in State of Origin and I was star-struck when he came over, then I realised he was just one of the boys and good to hang out with and I learned through him how to become a professional. It really helped my game – obviously it helped a hell of a lot, actually.

“He was always saying to me that I could make it in the NRL if I trained hard. He’s been a major factor in getting me to the Roosters.”

Moa says the experience of playing Super League in Europe – so far from his home and his family and friends – drove him to play his best football, and ultimately return to Sydney.

“The first year was an eye-opener and my partner and I got to do a lot of travelling in the off-season and it was beneficial because we hadn’t seen that part of the world,” Moa, signed to the Roosters on a two-year deal, says.

“[Partner Jill and I] went all over Germany, up and down Italy, Austria, Greek Islands… that’s what we planned initially and the one year turned into four. It was hard because we were missing home. It was hard because I wanted to come back to the NRL – it was always a goal of mine – and it came good at the end of last year when I started to play some good footy.

“I wanted to play one more year there after my first year, to get a decent deal when I came back here, and I just got kind of stuck and comfortable there and stayed there one or two years too long. It’s worked out well though and it’s shaped me into a better player.”

Moa, though, always had the necessary skill and pedigree to be a top-notch NRL player. He was schooled in one of Australian rugby league’s great talent nurseries, alongside a raft of other stars but, as he openly admits, his professionalism and dedication was lacking in his early years. Now he’s fitter, trimmer – 15 kilograms trimmer, in fact – and more dedicated.

“I finished my last two years [of school] at the Gold Coast on a footy scholarship at Keebra Park,” says Auckland-bred Moa, a candidate for a New Zealand call-up for the Canberra Test on April 19.

“I lived and played with Benji. We all played on the same high school team. Me, Benji, Rangi Chase... Greg Eastwood was there. Our rivals were Wavell which has all the Storm boys – Greg Inglis, Sika Manu, Adam Blair, Sam Tagataese... we were the two best teams. We played each other all the time, but they had the wood over us.

“[I’m about] 15 or 16 kilos different [since 2008]. I’ve just trained harder and changed my diet! I’ve cut down on my carb intake and the sweets and fast foods I used to eat – not to say I’m an angel because I still pig-out every now and then – but it’s more about knowing what certain nutrients different foods bring and what they offer you… and staying away from the crap foods! I’m avoiding potatoes, white bread, rice and all those things I grew up on coming from a Polynesian family. Now it’s about sweet potato, vegies and good meats – my girlfriend’s a really good cook.”

Fellow Roosters front-rower Jared Waerea-Hargreaves is ecstatic with Fitzgibbon’s poaching efforts, and that Moa’s been given another chance to prove himself in the NRL.

“He’s my partner in crime,” Waerea-Hargreaves says. “He’s surprised everyone, to be honest with you – I think he’s even surprised himself. As soon as it was game time he switched it on and he had a point to prove – that’s he’s come back from the UK not just to fill a spot but to cement a spot. I’m happy he’s my partner, he’s a great bloke off the field and he’s definitely damaging on it.”

Moa will receive plenty of compliments from commentators and fans in the coming weeks as he continues to make a name for himself, but the man himself is just focussed on making up for lost time.

“I’ve got a shorter window of time, I’m a late bloomer but the body hasn’t been knocked up too bad,” Moa, now 26, says when asked of his future.

“Hopefully [my body] can hold up a few more years... We’ve got a star-studded pack and a whole team and I’m just working hard to consolidate my position and contribute to the team as best I can.

“I just want to be known as someone who played hard and never took a backward step and just made the most of my God-given talents.”