Paasi's puzzling path to the NRL

He's won national schoolboy and under-20s titles, represented the Junior Kiwis and was last year named the Warriors' NSW Cup Player of the Year but a full-time NRL contract remains elusive for Tongan international Agnatius Paasi.

A member of the Keebra Park State High School team that won the Arrive Alive Cup in 2009 – and included the likes of Jordan Kahu and Ben Murdoch-Masila – Paasi is back on the Gold Coast hoping to impress Titans coach Neil Henry enough through the pre-season trials to earn a permanent position after walking away from the Warriors at the end of the 2014 season.

Now 23 years of age, Paasi won the 2011 under-20s title with the Warriors before making his NRL debut last season but when it became clear a full-time contract would remain elusive in New Zealand, Paasi looked abroad.

Ironic then that the first chance he will have to display his abilities in a game situation will come in a trial for the Titans against the Warriors in Toowoomba on February 7 where former teammates will be the latest obstacles in his path to the big time.

With no financial security yet offered playing rugby league and as the father of a young son with partner Chloe, Paasi has struggled to meet the demands of first study then work with the training load of an NRL hopeful and said that the lure of a full-time contract has been mentally draining.

"It was hard. Lots of my family were asking why I didn't get that full-time contract with the Warriors," Paasi told NRL.com. "I had a meeting with the Warriors coach and he told me that I put on seven 'kegs' in the last three games of the year because I thought I wasn't going to play NRL again.

"Because I wasn't going to make another full-time game with them I just worked and ate up and pretty much went downhill from there.

"I wasn't that committed back at 20s. I was studying and couldn't really balance study and playing so I chose study and when the season came around I picked footy, so I didn't really finish study. Couldn't really make up my mind so that's where commitment came in.

"It's like a puzzle, trying to put all the pieces in but I can't really do it because there are obstacles still in the way."

It's not the first time that Paasi has decided to give his footy career one last shot. Twelve months ago he was ready to return to his architecture degree with a view to one day owning his own construction business but heeded the advice of his partner Chloe to persist with his sporting pursuits.

With the fire fuelled, Paasi starred for the Warriors in NSW Cup and was rewarded with a first grade call-up against the Broncos in Round 19 that he and his family imagined would lead to bigger and better things.

"Everyone was happy. Everyone was just excited I guess," he recalled.

"(Warriors coach) Andrew McFadden called me when I got home from training and told me that I was going to play and then I started laughing. I asked him if it was a joke, it was unbelievable.

"I told my missus and her family and then I told my parents and they were very happy, started crying a bit. They were just joyful.

"It was almost to the end of the season that I stopped believing. I felt like [the Warriors' NRL team] had a slim chance to make the top eight, that's when I lost focus, and just focused more to the feeder club, to NSW Cup, because we were in the top eight."

Shopped around to a number of NRL clubs and with only the offer of another trial contract with the Warriors, Paasi got lucky when Rohan Smith was appointed to the Titans coaching staff as an assistant to Neil Henry.

Smith coached Paasi in the Warriors' NSW Cup team last season and says persistence will be key for the skilful forward to finally make his mark.

"He's got a nice set of hands and a pretty good sense for the game and good instincts and he's pretty coachable, he just needs to be persistent and get his opportunity and then make the most of it," Smith said.

"He competes really hard. He's very durable, last year he didn't miss a game but he emptied his tank, he didn't save it up trying to pace himself through a game and he put his body on the line. He tried to make things happen in a game and that eventually forced 'Cappy' (McFadden) to give him a shot in first grade.

"He just needs to be persistent. He's one of those guys that wasn't always destined to be an NRL player. He's one of those players that need to work their way into a position and just keep battling away.

"We're seeing more and more now in the NRL guys who don't necessarily make it straight after under-20s, they chip away it for a couple of years and then get their opportunity. Iggy's right on the brink of an opportunity, he played first grade last year so he knows what it's all about."