Gould's most reluctant Panther
When Phil Gould went on a summer spending spree in 2012, among his many recruits was a teenager Ivan Cleary remembers was as raw as anyone he'd ever seen.
"You don't know much about kids coming from the Western Australian SG Ball team," Cleary says. "And it was at that point, 2012, we were signing everybody. We were signing all sorts of people from all sorts of areas. A lot of them sight unseen. And Waqa came pretty green."
And he also came fairly reluctantly, too.
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No matter how many times Waqa Blake tried to walk away from rugby league, someone just found a way to bring him back. When his dad got a job in the mines in 2007, the Fijian flyer had no choice but to shelve his dreams and move to Perth with his family.
"At first I was filthy. I was playing league here and I was going pretty well. At least I thought I did well. I'm from St George area, lived in Carlton and I played for Brighton Seagulls at junior level," he told NRL.com.
The cross-country shift was only the beginning of half a decade for Blake in the rugby league purgatory of Western Australia. His promising footy career was seemingly over before it even began.
"I ended up playing union, but I wasn't really getting anywhere with union either," he recalled.
But with his academic grades also rapidly falling in 2012, Blake unwillingly heeded the advice of his school teacher and looked to get back into the NRL system through Western Australia's pathways.
The problem with that, Blake explained, was that playing for the WA Reds was about as appealing as an overnight shift alongside his dad literally at the coalface.
"I was just playing union and then one of the teachers in school told me to give the WA Reds a go. That was for SG ball, and I just thought to myself that I didn't really want to," he said.
"I didn't really like the look of them, because I'd seen what they were like the previous years and I didn't want to play for a team that loses every week.
"I thought I'd give it a go but my heart wasn't really there. So I just gave it a go, and it worked out for me. Played all the games – we lost every one of them. We weren't a good team."
Blake was in such a rut, that not even an invitation from Penrith scout Jim Jones could dissuade him from what he believed was an inevitable career alongside his dad.
"I was stoked that someone actually wanted me to come over and play with them, to trial for them. Mum was like, 'Yeah, I really think you should do it'," he said.
"But at the time, I was more distracted with friends. Being young, you just want to stay with friends and family. You want to live young. I kind of thought at the time: If I was to move over now, I might lose everything. I had no friends there. I'd never even been out to Penrith. I had no one."
And that was when his grandmother Filimiana gave him an ultimatum.
"See, I wasn't very bright in school. It wasn't that I was bad, I just wasn't motivated. My grades weren't good. I just passed year 12," he said.
"She looked at me, and she said: 'I know you really want to do something with your life. Just put your heart into footy.'"
But even when Blake half-heartedly took his grandmother's advice and made Penrith's Holden Cup squad, he still harboured thoughts of returning home.
"I got homesick, badly, in my first year of under-20s. There were times I wanted to get up and quit and leave, especially when I wasn't making the starting team. I didn't debut until Round 8," he remembered.
"At the time, we did have a good team. The depth in our team was crazy. That year we won 20s comp and I played in the centres in the grand final.
"Mum and dad, they said the same thing as grandma. They all said: 'Don't quit. Don't go kicking stones. Just go out there and play even if you don't make it.'
"Slowly I got my opportunity, each time I just made sure I put my head down, made sure I didn't kick stones."
His hard work – combined with his natural athletic abilities – earned him an emotional first grade debut last week, one that grandmother Filimiana was unable to attend after passing away due to kidney failure last year.
"I think about her every time I run out. I always believed that she's always with me, walking with me wherever I go, helping me make the right decisions," he said.
"When I ran out, I looked back at how she was the one telling me to go. I remember being 50-50. If it wasn't for her, I'd probably be back home in Perth being lazy and doing nothing."
His first outing ended in defeat, but coach Ivan Cleary said he noticed a palpable excitement amongst the home crowd whenever his rookie touched the ball.
"He's still got a way to go, a long way to go, in terms of being the finished product," Cleary prefaced.
"But even the other night in his first game... just some of his touches, you can actually feel the crowd get excited. When that happens, you know you get someone special.
"When he's surging onto the ball, he's just got that natural aggression and power. Sometimes you see guys like that and they're moving a bit quicker than everyone else sometimes.
"He loves the game, he's confident in himself. He's pretty smart, football-wise. He's coming along nicely and he's had a few injuries deter his development, so there's still a long way to go. It's very exciting actually over the next few years, seeing what he can deliver."