Tonga gets deserved second chance
It certainly won't be the most controversial selection of the new season, nor will it be the slightest bit notable. But when coach Brad Arthur names veteran centre Willie Tonga in the Eels' team to take on the Warriors on Sunday, it will be a huge win for rugby league.
And it's not just because of the back injury that limited him to just a handful of unhappy cameos last season.
"Man, when I was told that I was going to have back surgery, I didn't think I'd play ever again, to be honest," Tonga, 30, told NRL.com.
"I was at a low point in my career - and I've had a few of those. But I thought to myself, 'I'm head strong. And I'm stronger than what a lot of people would know'.
"I've been through the ups and downs. And I knew that if I could get my body right, then everything would take care of itself. And it's looking that way at the moment."
Nor will it be because an old man will have proven over one, solitary summer that the NRL isn't so much a young man's game as it is a professional man's one.
"These younger boys have made me work hard to try and get a spot for Round 1," he continued.
"I've tested myself and I know that I can keep up with these boys. I know what I can do. It's about getting the work done, getting my body right - which I've done - and hopefully I can take it out on the field."
No, Tonga's rebirth will be treated as a personal triumph because another man – good mate Reni Maitua – is also a chance of being named for his 'new' side, the Bulldogs.
Almost seven months have passed since Tonga, who captained the Eels in the Auckland Nines, rushed into Maitua's apartment and saved a man who would later state could no longer face himself.
Just over a year has passed since rugby league was rocked by news of Wests Tigers youngster Mosese Fotuaika tragically taking his own life.
It's almost 10 months to the day too, when the family of another prodigious talent, North Queensland's Alex Elisala, heartbreakingly turned off his life support.
But as the painful memories linger and the questions remain over how the game lost two of its most promising juniors, this week's season-opener is also a reminder of how it also saved one of its own.
Last December, Maitua bravely told his story: how he had reached the lowest of the lows and that, in his eyes, there was no other way out. How, on a night in late August, he had texted his final words for his family and headed home to end his life.
Only for Tonga to intervene with not minutes to spare.
"I feel so terrible because I hurt Willie a lot and I can't imagine how hard it is for him to live with what he saw," Maitua told The Daily Telegraph before Christmas.
"We did talk about it and Willie just wanted to know why I tried to do it. Everyone wants to ask that question.
"You can't answer it until you understand that it's an illness. I used to think of it as a weak option, but really you have no options when you're that sick."
As the days went on, Tonga struggled to come to grips with the realisation that one of his best friends was moments away from taking his own life. He urged Maitua to seek immediate help, but also understood that his former team-mate also needed patience and trust.
So both Maitua and Tonga confided in another ex-teammate in Roosters star Sonny Bill Williams.
"The first week or so, it rattled me a bit and I spoke to Sonny about it. I think it was just myself and Sonny that knew about it within our group of boys," Tonga said.
"And Sonny said 'Look, he's here with us. That's all that matters.' As soon as he said that, and I thought about it and it's true, as long as he's healthy, that's all that matters. I took that on board and he's in a good place at the moment and I'm happy for him."
Maitua returned to where it all began over the summer, signing with the Bulldogs, where the 31-year-old won a premiership with Tonga and Williams in 2004.
He is currently nursing a groin injury that has kept him out of the trials and the Auckland Nines, but is close to a return to the paddock.
Tonga said he was both extremely relieved and immensely proud that his mate was courageous enough to share his struggles with the world.
"It was a relief for me when he came out publicly and told his story because I was obviously one of the only ones that knew about it," Tonga said.
"It was very tough on me personally because I felt that I had to say something. But I needed to keep it confidential, so I had to make sure that I was looking after him every single day, making sure that I was making those calls.
"Now that he came out publicly, it took a massive relief off my shoulders. Everyone knows about it and now they can help him out every way possible."
* Readers seeking support and information about suicide prevention can contact Lifeline on 13 11 14 or Suicide Call Back Service 1300 659 467 or follow LifelineAust OntheLineAus kidshelp beyondblue headspace—aus ReachOut—AUS on Twitter.