'I was embarrassed to tell my family'

'I was embarrassed to tell my family'

He has emerged from what he refers to as his "dark place" to earn a two-year contract extension at the Broncos but 21-year-old front-rower Joe Ofahengaue admitted he was embarrassed to tell his family why he wasn't playing first grade as he struggled through his second NRL season in 2016.

‌When Wayne Bennett returned to Red Hill prior to the 2015 season he told a then 19-year-old Ofahengaue that he wasn't yet ready for first grade but injuries to the likes of James Gavet and Josh McGuire provided an opportunity that he parlayed into 14 NRL appearances including a finals series that culminated with the 2015 Grand Final.

He played in 12 of the first 13 games of the 2016 season but as he struggled through some personal issues off the field found it harder and harder to maintain his place in the 17, not featuring after Round 21 as the Broncos finished two wins from a second straight grand final appearance.

Now a month shy of his 22nd birthday, Ofahengaue will play his 41st game for the club in Friday night's clash with the Eels in Sydney and told NRL.com that by missing out on selection last year he learned a valuable lesson that he will carry forward.

"In 2015 I think we had three major injuries to our forward pack and that slotted me in the team and every week being in the team I think I let it get to me a bit, living in the hype," Ofahengaue said.

"I was supposed to be doing my job and learning my trade in the team and it got to me in 2016.

"Obviously I lost my spot and I just wasn't prepared to have all that pressure on me trying to get my spot back instead of trying to just find form. I got it all mixed up.

"The hardest thing was telling my family why I wasn't in the team. Letting my mum and my dad down and especially all my cousins and stuff back home in New Zealand.

"It was kind of embarrassing for me. I thought I was ready for NRL last year and I let it all get to me and lost my spot and couldn't get back in the side.

"I just fell into a dark place and couldn't get out. I was going through some stuff off the field that I couldn't handle and this year I just put it all behind me.

"I've found a balance this year and hopefully it can stay that way."

The dreaded second-year syndrome has claimed plenty of players for the past 100 years and comes about not as a result of the game getting harder but the manifestation of internal and external pressures that are inadvertently placed on young players.

Expectations change and more is expected and it can become too much to process for maturing young men caught up in the whirlwind of professional sport.

"It's extremely hard," says Broncos half Ben Hunt on the expectation on young players.

"Some of those guys that come out and have a really big rookie year, everyone expects them to go to another level the year after and if it doesn't happen then they get a bit down on themselves and lose a bit of confidence.

"It's a credit to Joe. He went back to Queensland Cup, he took his medicine and got better and he's back.

"In 2015 he had a pretty good year and fell away a bit after that but I know he's put on a little bit of weight now, he's gotten bigger up top and he's just a genuine front-rower now.

"He runs the ball hard and works really hard in defence and that's all we want him to do."

With a tough lesson learnt Ofahengaue is now determined to soak up as much experience from players such as Sam Thaiday and Adam Blair while he still can so that he can one day develop into a leader at the club.

"Looking back now I learnt a big lesson. Having the older players around here just makes everything a bit easier," said the Tongan representative.

"Having a good bunch of boys around me like 'Blairy', Sammy and Tevita [Pangai] coming off the bench with me, they've really helped me out this year.

"Things like having a chat on the side whenever you need to. The best thing that I can do as a younger player is to take it all on board while they're still here.

"I'm happy at the moment. I'm just happy where the club is and happy where I am at the moment.

"Hopefully I can stay high in spirit and do my job to the best I can for the team."