Sene-Lefao leaves bucks night for Test team
It's been quite a year for Manly Sea Eagles forward Jesse Sene-Lefao.
The 24-year-old New Zealand-born Penrith junior of Samoan heritage left his family nest and headed to Sydney's northern beaches in search of an opportunity to play first grade ahead of the 2013 season.
Heading into 2014, having played just two NRL games in his debut year, the club was suddenly looking skinny up front following the departures of no fewer than five NRL props; Sene-Lefao's humble goal was to feature in five top-grade games.
Fast forward six months and the rangy utility forward featured in no fewer than 25 of Manly's 26 games; he made his Test debut for his beloved Toa Samoa in the mid-season Pacific test and mid-year he signed a two-year contract extension that will keep him on Sydney's northern beaches until at least the end of 2017.
With a few other players putting their hands up, Sene-Lefao was curiously overlooked for Samoa's end of year Four Nations squad – a berth they qualified for partly through his efforts in helping them to a win over Fiji in that Pacific Test.
So Sene-Lefao went ahead with plans to get married. Organised a bucks weekend. Then, on the first evening of three days of celebrating, he got a phone call.
Suaia Matagi has been called into the Kiwis squad. Pack your bags. Join the boys in Samoa.
Sene-Lefao pulled the pin on his bucks weekend and his mates celebrated it without him as he jumped on a plane to Samoa.
"It was 11pm and I was on my bucks," Sene-Lefao recalls.
"When the team came out on Tuesday I found out it that I didn’t make it. Then the boys organised the bucks for Thursday, Friday, Saturday.
"We were out on Thursday and I found out at 11 o'clock at night that I was called into the squad and I needed to catch a plane on Friday afternoon.
"So I told the boys and I had 19 boys partying for me... I was on the plane while they were partying for me!" he laughs.
A couple of weeks prior, Sene-Lefao sat down with NRL.com in the sheds at Allianz Stadium after the Bulldogs had ended his side's season in a golden point heartbreaker, and revealed his humble 2014 goals.
"There are a lot of positives I can take out of this year. I played more than five games, that was my goal at the beginning of the year, so there are a lot of positives but obviously next year I want to take the team forward and make the GF," he said at the time.
He may not have been expecting to make his Test debut in 2014 but he concedes it was definitely a career goal.
"I've always wanted to do the Toa Samoa haka. That was another goal that I've ticked off. It's more a proud moment for my family, my culture, just representing Samoa itself," he says.
At that point he had no guarantees over getting the call for the Four Nations, but he was hopeful. Which brings us to this week.
"[The Samoan team] had training on Thursday, obviously I wasn’t there. I joined the squad at the airport so I didn’t even have any Somoa kit, I was in plain clothes while everyone was in Samoa kit," Sene-Lefao told seaeagles.com.au.
"I told [Samoa coach Matt Parish] I was available and my wedding was before the game started, so the only thing I’d be missing is a bit of the camp and... training before the first match. My understanding was Suaia Matagi was called into the New Zealand squad, so that’s why I thought I got called in."
Sene-Lefao says he has loved spending time back in Samoa, embracing the culture, and trying to raise the country's self-belief through succeeding at a high level sport.
"When we go to schools our message is to keep them on the toes and striving for the best. They ask questions about how we made it and we tell them it wasn’t easy – we don’t just go straight to the top and play for Samoa, it starts back at school.
"You’ve got to listen and set goals for yourself you’ve got to push yourself to the limits and then if you tick all the boxes you can control then obviously you get your goal at the end."
He says the trip back has been an eye-opening experience, seeing how his extended family lives. "We are really fortunate to have all the facilities and the stuff they don’t have," he says.
He hopes to make the 17 for each of Samoa's games and says he will embrace any opportunity that comes his way with open arms.
"If I do get in there I want to make a difference and represent my family and my culture.
"There are a lot of people here that are gonna support us and I know we’ve got a lot of support everywhere. We’ve been doubted a lot [but] as a team we want to win.
"We want to prove to everyone we are not just a trial match, we’re actually going to give it a go and that’s what I'm excited about.
"There are a lot of people that have a lot of doubt in us and the way we trained has just been crazy; we’re looking good, we’re sharp, we’re tight, we’re like a family – we are playing with our brothers."
Sene-Lefao still has to race back to Sydney in time for Saturday's wedding, prior to meeting back up with his teammates in camp on Sunday – before hopefully getting the chance to make his country proud in Toa Samoa's Four Nations opener against England in Brisbane on October 25.