Pulu's emotional return home as NRL star
It's been four years since Leivaha Pulu last spent time with family in Auckland and as he prepares to return home as an NRL player for the first time he knows his fate would have been vastly different had he never left.
In a brave and heartfelt interview with NRL.com, Pulu has opened up about the possibility of visiting his 21-year-old brother George in the Auckland jail where he is currently incarcerated and how he was heading down the same path before he was signed to a football scholarship at famed Keebra Park High School on the Gold Coast as a 16-year-old.
It's been 10 years since a talented but overweight Pulu left behind the Auckland school that told him he would never amount to anything and began his rugby league journey that started on the Gold Coast before taking him to Sydney, France and the Central Coast before this year landing an NRL contract with the Titans.
The Titans will fly into Auckland on Thursday afternoon ahead of their clash with the Warriors on Saturday at Mt Smart Stadium and Pulu hopes his first order of business will be to visit his brother behind bars, grateful he is not sitting alongside him on the other side.
George turned 21 on Wednesday and has recently been moved from the Mount Eden Corrections Facility to a facility on Auckland's north shore, he and Leivaha not having had the opportunity to speak in person for some three years.
"I haven't really talked to him. He's been inside for nearly the whole year now but I'll hopefully get to catch up with him," Pulu told NRL.com.
"There was something going around on Facebook that prison inmates were fighting with each other inside and that. My dad went in a couple of times with him having black eyes and that so it's probably the reason why [he was moved].
"It's pretty full-on but hopefully he does his time and doesn't go back inside again.
"I was lucky enough that I got called to come over [to Australia] at a young age because I reckon if I did stay back in New Zealand I'd be doing what my brother's doing."
Although he has been back to Auckland in recent years it has been in a playing capacity with the Wyong Roos in the NSW Cup competition; fly-in, fly-out missions that left scant opportunity to meet up with loved ones.
Now, at 26 years of age, Pulu returns home a fully-fledged NRL player who is one of only six Titans to have appeared in every game this season.
"It's a pretty humble feeling. It's pretty humbling for myself," Pulu said. "It's been a long time and every time I go back home I go back home as a NSW Cup player but to actually go home as an NRL player, I'm pretty proud of myself to come this far.
"It's hard because that's where everything started for myself so it will be good to go back home and go and see where everything started. How when I was a young kid I used to be walking around the streets at an early age and just to sit back and think... To go back as an NRL player...
"If I do see old friends and that it would be good to bump into them and say hi as an NRL player."
It will be the first of many happy memories that Pulu will forge in Auckland this year with he and his long-time partner Lina to be married in New Zealand later this year.
Lina and their two children flew ahead of Pulu to spend time with family and work on wedding preparations and Pulu's mother Crystal Taylor has been busily corralling family and friends to watch her son play on Saturday.
"My mum's really proud, especially with everything that's happened at home with teachers telling her to tell me to drop out of school and everything else as well," said Pulu, who has been named to start in the second row against the Warriors.
"She's already told all the family and that that I'm coming home. I told her to hang on a bit until I made the team and just wait and see but she was already telling everyone a couple of months before, telling me to get tickets and stuff but I was saying, 'Not yet Mum, I haven't made the team yet. I don't want to jinx it and get injured or not make the team'.
"I heard from my partner last night and she said all the family is happy to see them and the kids grow up pretty fast so my parents were pretty shocked how fast my kids are growing."
As for taking advantage of the bye next weekend and extending his stay in New Zealand, Pulu said there was one very important reason to come back to the Gold Coast.
"Every time us islanders go back home they go back home and put on the weight so it was best for me to come back with my family and concentrate on my job here before anything else," he said like a true professional.