Roosters' trash a Cowboys treasure
He's making his NRL debut against last year's runners up on Friday night but in a short space of time Curtis Rona has already experienced the highs and lows that life at the top invariably brings.
A member of the premiership-winning Mackay Cutters in the Intrust Super Cup in 2013, Rona was drafted in for his first taste of the top grade with North Queensland at the Auckland Nines in February and wasted little time proving that he was NRL-worthy.
With around 20 aunties and uncles making the trip up from his home town of Waitara in Taranaki – and another uncle catching the ferry across from Waiheke Island – Rona was the two-try star in the Cowboys' victory over Brisbane in the final, but the triumphant day wasn't without its stresses.
"I had a little bit of a drama at the hotel actually," Rona said of his preparation for day two of the tournament.
"We had tickets for one of my friends who used to live in Perth and now lives in New Zealand and apparently they went walkabout, so I was a bit stressed out about that but I just made sure he got a couple of tickets. Thankfully 'Parrie' (Cowboys football manager Peter Parr) had a couple of spares."
He suffered a broken thumb in that final that put his impressive pre-season progress momentarily on hold but the reality for a kid who was born in New Zealand, moved to Western Australia at eight years of age, was brought across to the Sydney Roosters at the age of 18 and then moved to Townsville as a 20-year-old is that he is unlikely to need too many tickets for his NRL debut at Gosford.
Rather than go back to Kyle Feldt who started the season on the Cowboys right wing, coach Paul Green has opted to give his Rona his shot, his Auckland Nines performance convincing the coach that he can handle the step up in grade.
"He should get a fair bit of confidence out of that tournament. I thought he played really well over there and that was competing against the best in the NRL so he should get some confidence out of that," Green said.
"Curtis is a big guy, he's certainly good in the air and I think he'll do a good job returning kicks for us. He'll really get our sets going well in the early part of the sets for us."
Indeed, NRL fans are lucky to be able to watch him play at all as coming through the rugby union ranks in Western Australia he was identified as such a talent worthy of inclusion in the Western Force academy squad having represented WA in under-15, under-16 and schoolboy level.
Having juggled both rugby union and rugby league for a couple of years, Rona made the full-time commitment to rugby league in 2009 where he played for the Western Reds SG Ball team and was selected to represent the WA under-18s side before signing a three-year deal with the Roosters.
The second Joondalup Giants junior to make it through to the NRL – the first being Lee Te Maari at the Bulldogs – Rona admits that adjusting to life in Sydney was difficult, especially as he left his friends, family and girlfriend 4,000 kilometres behind.
"It was hard at first because I did move to Sydney by myself and I was only 18 so I wasn't really mature enough and I guess I really didn't know any better," Rona explained. "I was pretty much like a roamer, just running around and doing whatever because I really didn't know what was going on because I didn't have any family support and my girlfriend was in Perth.
"Eventually [Jacinta] ended up moving over to Sydney with me and she's with me in North Queensland now."
Despite scoring 16 tries in 22 appearances for the Roosters in the under-20s competition in 2012 and representing the Junior Kiwis at the end of the year, Rona's decision to leave Bondi for Townsville was not about money but merely opportunity.
"I don't think the Roosters wanted me actually," the 21-year-old admits. "I pretty much thank the Cowboys for giving me an opportunity to come up here and play first grade and hopefully develop into a regular NRL player."
It's a remarkable cross-continental journey from obscurity to the limelight of the NRL and Rona is now determined to prove that you can forge a successful career in rugby league, however unlikely your introduction to the game may be.
"I played rugby league when I was 17 or 18 so I was a latecomer into the rugby league," he said. "Not too many people knew who I was because you come through the ranks... A lot of people come through the ranks at 16s, 17s or 18s for Queensland, New South Wales or Australia so I was at the bottom of the pecking order, but thank God that I got an opportunity.
"I thank Him every day."