Ofahengaue honours family name
The work ethic on which his family name was literally forged is set to propel giant Broncos youngster Joe Ofahengaue towards an NRL debut in 2015, just six years after he almost quit the game for good.
The 19-year-old front-rower returned to pre-season training on Monday sporting his first tattoo, 'Ofahengaue' proudly etched into his left forearm. It's a name familiar with Australian rugby union fans who were in awe of the exploits of Joe's uncle Willie Ofahengaue for the Wallabies throughout the 1990s but one whose foundation lies in testament at a church in Tonga.
Joe's great grandfather was originally a Kata by name but when he assisted with the construction of a church in Tonga the family name was changed for the generations that followed to uphold.
"Very proud of my last name. Our original last name was Kata and my great grandpa in Tonga, he helped build this church and never had a day off and so when the church was built, the priest gave him a new name, Ofahengaue, which means 'Love to work'," Ofahengaue told NRL.com after a punishing pre-season fitness session in which he powered through shuttle run after shuttle run.
Anyone who saw the New Zealand-born powerhouse in last year's Holden Cup Finals Series will appreciate his willingness to work himself into the ground. In two of the four finals matches in which he played Ofahengaue ran for more than 200 metres, and in the Preliminary Final against the Dragons he racked up 198m.
It's a fitness base that comes from punishing 800 metre time trials with his father in the unrelenting heat of Ipswich west of Brisbane as a teenager and one which already has seasoned NRL players watching on in admiration.
"He's a machine, he goes all day. We got to watch him come through the under-20s and this is his second pre-season with us and he's just a machine and I think he'll be in line to get a run this year," said Broncos back-rower Matt Gillett.
"We had Frankie Molo come up last year and he got his run there and Joey was probably a little unfortunate not to get a run last year when we had a few injuries up front. Definitely this year I think he's going to have a crack at it."
Ofahengaue's willingness to push himself beyond the point of exhaustion as a 14-year-old stemmed from the deterioration of his relationship with his father, Josh.
As his older brother Albert was allowed to head out with his mates on a Friday and Saturday night, Joe longed to be afforded similar freedom and very nearly quit rugby league simply to spite his father.
"As a 13 or 14-year-old I wanted to be like my older brother and hang around all the naughty fellas and [footy] kind of dragged me away from that," he said. "I had bad tension between me and my dad with things at home and to get back at him I wanted to stop [playing].
"I was just thinking like a normal teenager thinking I'm right and then one night it just hit me; I'm wrong, I shouldn't be talking to my dad like that and started to take up footy again.
"This one time when I got suspended at school he was just in tears. He had to raise my two other brothers and my sister, he was going through some custody battles in New Zealand and it just shocked him the way I turned out. And then it just hit me one arvo when I was in my room.
"He gave me the times [to run] and to make him proud again I used to always try and beat it. I slowly beat it and then he slowly sped up the times and it came from that.
"As long as I knew I was making my dad proud and my mum, I just kept going."
As the level-headed young man who stands before you, it is hard to imagine Ofahengaue as the rebellious teen he describes and his Broncos under-20s coach of the past two seasons, Craig Hodges, said the way he carries himself off the field is even more impressive than his exploits on it.
"The first year in the 20s he started three or four games for us in the centres and the first thing that jumped out for me was how selfless he was," Hodges told NRL.com.
"I thought he was the best front-rower in the competition last year and 12 months before that he was playing in the centres. That was never going to be his position but he never whinged about it.
"Every time we needed a job done he did it for us. He's a wonderful young prospect as a footballer but he's a really good young man and that's probably the most pleasing part of it.
"He can speak with a range of different people, from young people to old people to people who just stop us on the way to the ground through to teammates, he's a really high quality young fella."
Coach Wayne Bennett has already suggested to Ofahengaue that he may have to wait until 2016 before he gets that first NRL call-up but like his ancestors before him, Joe is determined to keep working until he makes a name for himself.
"It's a slow process with Wayne, everyone knows that. He said to me 2016 he'd slowly bring me into the NRL but I guess it's just whether I can prove him wrong or not," Ofahengaue said.