Project Paasi paying dividends for Titans
He didn't know it but the first training session of 2015 was the most important of Agnatius Paasi's life.
Having arrived on the Gold Coast prior to Christmas overweight and underdone, Paasi stripped plenty of kilograms in the early stages of the Titans' pre-season having taken the gamble to save any semblance of an NRL career with a modest 'train and trial' contract.
But the big test was how he returned at the start of 2015 and whether the Titans coaching staff saw enough commitment and sacrifice over the Christmas break to warrant issuing the then 23-year-old a second-tier contract.
"We were waiting to see whether he was committed enough to do the Christmas program and what shape he'd come back in," Titans coach Neil Henry told NRL.com.
"If he'd slipped back to putting on some kilos and hadn't done much then he probably wouldn't have been offered a contract."
Twelve months on and the softly-spoken Paasi is talking about taking on more of a leadership role having played a total of 18 NRL games in 2015 (84.9m, 21 tackles per game).
He stormed home to finish fourth in the Titans' player of the year voting and was named man of the match in the Titans' Round 25 win over the finals-bound Dragons where in an 80-minute display he scored a try, ran for 190 metres, made 20 tackles and had five tackle busts, two offloads and a line-break assist.
Despite being the junior of the pair, he has taken former Keebra Park teammate Leivaha Pulu under his wing and has now settled on the Gold Coast with his long-time partner Chloe and his two young sons Manatoa (4) and Agnatius Jnr (4 months).
Paasi has an upgraded NRL contract that takes him through until the end of the 2017 season and says with his encouraging development last season he is ready to adopt more of a leadership role this year.
"I feel more confident," Paasi said. "I was training my heart out [last year] and trying to get that contract and hopefully make the team.
"I was anxious pretty much every day if I was going to make that team and if I'm going to crack it if this was my last shot.
"I feel way better. I came a bit overweight last year but feeling really good about myself and how my weight's going and nutrition wise is going good.
"I still think I'm a rookie and still learning. I guess I'm good on leadership from the older boys and just trying to feed back to the younger boys and try and get up there and become a leader like them."
When told of Paasi's leadership aspirations, Henry said it was another indicator of just how far the former Warriors under-20s premiership winner had come in such a short space of time.
"He is actually quite a good talker. You wouldn't get too much out of him one-on-one but amongst the boys he's very good," Henry said.
"For him to feel that he could impart some leadership on 'Vaha' is great because Leivaha was playing at Wyong last year and is a bit of a late bloomer too. It's comforting to know that there is a young bloke helping out a guy that's a couple of years older.
"[Paasi] was recruited as a back-up and we thought if he was to play two, three or four games in the season you'd think he had progressed quite well. If he'd played half a dozen it would have been a really good year for him.
"But when he came on he started to adapt to playing more minutes and had a bit of power in his game and he's also a thinking footballer. He has some good talk on the field and understands defensively where he should be.
"I've got nothing but praise for him. He really earned his spot and we have high hopes for him."