Ulugia's parting gift to Cowboys
Wayne Ulugia was supposed to be the one.
When North Queensland Cowboys scouts lured him across from the Papakura Sea Eagles in Auckland's tough southern suburbs at just 14 years of age, there were high hopes that this was a youngster of rare talent with a decade or more of first grade ahead of him.
That association came to an end on Thursday when the Cowboys and Ulugia agreed to part ways for repeated breaches of the club's code of conduct but in Jason Taumalolo North Queensland have a lasting legacy from Ulugia's seven years at the club.
With their son battling homesickness, Ulugia's parents, Liva and Adrienne, raised money and organised a trial for a handful of their son's Sea Eagles junior teammates shortly after arriving in Townsville in 2007. Taumalolo came across, wowed Cowboys officials with his raw talent and spent the next two years living under the Ulugia family's roof.
Two weeks prior to that trial, back in New Zealand Taumalolo was asked to choose between a potential career in either rugby league or rugby union and as he eyes a breakout year in 2014 under new coach Paul Green, the 20-year-old admits that the invitation from Liva Ulugia changed the course of his life.
"You could say I was a bit of a troublemaker back in school, pretty much the class clown," Taumalolo told NRL.com. "I got into a bit of trouble out of school, lot of fights and that, but I moved here and I knew I had to change for the better and I guess it paid off.
"We both have different cultures and Wayne's family does things differently from what my family would do. It was just me and Wayne and our families pretty much.
"It was pretty strict living under Wayne's family but I guess that was for the better. I didn't go out partying or anything like other kids would.
"Staying with them helped a lot. We used to train a lot together outside of footy and just try and prepare ourselves in case we do make Toyota Cup and eventually first grade."
Ulugia wasn't at Cowboys headquarters when NRL.com sat down with Taumalolo last week and the club have extended their offer of assistance to help Ulugia work through his personal issues, despite no longer being a member of the NRL squad.
He tragically lost his younger sister to cancer in December 2012 but became a father for the first time late in 2013, shortly after scoring a try in the Cowboys' heartbreaking loss to the Sharks in their Qualifying Final.
"There’s no doubt he has enormous talent as a footballer and we have seen that develop through his time at the Cowboys, but we have a code of conduct that has to be followed," said Cowboys CEO, Peter Jourdain, in a statement released by the club.
“If Wayne wishes, we will continue to help him through this period of his life even though he will no longer be a part of our NRL squad.
“We hope that at some stage in the future he can make a success of his rugby league career.”
As the most capped player since the inception of the National Youth Competition in 2008 with 88 games, there is no questioning Ulugia's ability. He showed the rugby league world just what he was capable of when he scored six tries in four NRL games at the end of the 2013 season.
His hat-trick against the Wests Tigers in Round 26 made him just the 14th Cowboys player to achieve such a feat and Taumalolo said he will always treasure the two NRL games the best mates played alongside each other.
"It was something we looked forward to for a long time," Taumalolo said of playing NRL together for the first time in Round 26. "I think the last time we played together before that was the 2011 [under-20s] Grand Final when we lost to the Warriors.
"It was a dream come true to play together in the NRL, with your best mate."