Melbourne's next breakout star
It may have taken all 200 centimetres and 115 kilograms but if not for rampaging front-rower Nelson Asofa-Solomona’s inspirational man-of-the-match performance, the ladder-topping Melbourne Storm might not have managed to repel a mighty Warriors side on Tuesday night.
The Storm trailed 6-0 midway through the first half before Asofa-Solomona made his presence felt immediately, and as a player labelled as the next big thing – literally and metaphorically – it’s a matter of time before the interchange forward becomes a full-time force in the NRL.
Asofa-Solomona was a sudden impact off the bench for Melbourne as he barraged his way over the try-line from 10 metres out to level the scores and ignite the Storm for the rest of the match. He made the most of his 45 minutes on the field, with a scintillating display of what the future holds for the talented 21-year-old, making 26 tackles, breaking four tackles, one line break and one line-break assist in running for 88 metres along with his pivotal try.
"Nelson’s got so much ability, it’s really not funny. He could be anything he wanted," Melbourne captain Cameron Smith said after his sides classy 20-14 victory to climb to the top of the table.
Targeted as a potential New Zealand All Black after growing up playing rugby union, Asofa-Solomona decided to stay in Victoria this season as he maintains his development as a rising superstar. As with any emerging youngster, consistency is always a challenge.
"The hardest or greatest challenge for him is to play the way he did tonight every week," Smith added in his assessment of Asofa-Solomona.
"He’s probably had this match circled for a while and he’s wanted to put in a big performance but if you want to be an elite player and you to be one of the best elite players in the comp, you need to do that every week. We’re very happy with what he’s produced tonight but we need to see that from him every week."
Smith recognises Asofa-Solomona’s freakish ability, the same way he recognised his opportunity to set up the bulldozing forward on his way to the try line.
"I can’t remember [the try] exactly. I just remember 'Smits' (Smith) giving me the eyebrow and I knew it was on," Asofa-Solomona revealed. "It’s the second time I’ve got the eyebrows from him.
"I love getting the ball off him, he’s a great player and great role model for us young guys."
Immensely talented on the field, Asofa-Solomona admits it’s his mental and off-field preparation that has plagued his past inconsistent efforts.
"For me, like a lot of the boys, it’s you versus you," Asofa-Solomona said. "I feel like I’m my biggest opponent – and that’s eating wise and all the off-field stuff.
"Preparation was different for me this week. I found something that worked for me and I stuck to it.
"I struggle with my weight; I’ve struggled with my weight for the past couple of years. I just ate well, hydrated and slept well – all the one-per centers Craig wants."
With starting prop Jordan McLean departing for North Queensland next season, there’s a sense this is Asofa-Solomona’s chance to claim a permanent spot in the Storm’s run-on side.
"[The opportunity to replace McLean] has been thrown up but for myself, just having the opportunity to play even off the bench doesn’t worry me," Asofa-Solomona said. "But with Jordan leaving next year, that’s something in the back of my mind. I don’t really focus on whoever’s leaving. I just focus on my role and what I can bring to the team which is energy off the bench or whether I’m starting.
"I had a great performance [on Tuesday night] but for me it’s about being consistent now and continuing the Storm’s baseline of hard work and consistency.
"Having a good performance is great but playing well for the rest of the season would be better."
Recruited to Melbourne as a 15-year-old, Asofa-Solomona is already a key member of the club’s next generation following the imminent ending of the Storm’s legendary Big Three era.
Often compared to Sonny Bill Williams, the similarly-gifted forward wants to carve out his own journey in his career.
"At the end of the day, I just want to be Nelson and leave the legacy I want to leave for myself. I have a lot of respect for [Sonny Bill Williams] but I just want to be myself," Asofa-Solomona said.
For now, he’s ready to represent his Samoan heritage in the side’s international fixture against Tonga next week should he be selected.
Regardless of how it unfolds, with promising signs on the horizon, good things are bound to come – and it may even raise captain Smith’s eyebrows yet again.