NAS reflects ahead of milestone game
When most kids were hunting autographs, young Nelson Asofa-Solomona was looking for players to kick the footy.
The giant Storm prop – who will play his 50th NRL match this Saturday against the Raiders – preferred to play games in the park rather than chase selfies.
"To be honest, I don’t look up to a lot of people," he said.
"I was that kid, when I went to Westpac Stadium [in Wellington], I was the one running around the park looking for someone to play with.
"My dad would never take me back to games because I wasn’t watching, so it was a waste of money!"
Asofa-Solomona grew up in the Wellington rugby union scene – his cousin is former All Black prop Neemia Tialata – and got a taste for rugby league after turning out for the Wellington Orcas. When the Storm offered him an opportunity in his teens, it was a big adjustment for himself and his family.
"Coming from rugby union was the hardest thing for me," he said.
"Leaving my home and my mum and dad, especially my dad because we come from such a rugby union family.
"They didn’t want me to come here but they have come around now.
"It took a few years, a few holes in the walls and a few fights but they have definitely come around now," he jokes.
The 21-year-old was earmarked as a big talent early. He came through the Storm development system in his late teenage years, playing for the club's under-20s and made the Junior Kiwis. In July, he re-signed with the Storm until 2019.
Asofa-Solomona stands at two metres tall – six foot seven in the old scale – and stoops slightly as he speaks to the assembled media. He's polite, actively listens to our questions and is comfortable in his skin.
His lack of league experience before he joined the Storm meant no awe-struck moments, and a quicker integration, he says.
"I didn’t watch much league before I came here, so I guess it was good in that I wasn’t star struck.
"I did know who Billy Slater is, everyone knows him in New Zealand, same as Cooper Cronk and Cameron Smith.
"But I guess that helped me as I wasn’t too star struck and allowed me to focus on what I needed to do for the team.
"I had a lot of advice from people like Jason Ryles and another is Andrew Blowers who works in player welfare and used to play for the All Blacks.
"They have a lot of experience and they gave me a lot of tips to approaching my career."
He must have heeded this advice because he's had a superb season. Asofa-Solomona was in line to make his Kiwis debut in May but suffered a hand injury that ruled him out. It still hurts but he took it maturely.
"It was a bit shattering at the time but everything happens for a reason, that’s what I believe," he said.
"That has past and I look forward to this week and if that comes [Kiwi selection] then that’s a bonus."
One of the prop's highlights was surely his rampaging try against the Knights in Round 24. He broke free and sprinted 20 metres before slamming the ball over the line. He flashes a big smile when reminded of it.
"I felt like I was in the air forever," he said.
"It’s pretty rare to get space like that, back in rugby union it was quite common to get into space.
"It felt a bit foreign to me, I haven’t been in space like that for a while, so I’m pretty happy I capitalised on it."
With the Storm primed to have a serious shot at the finals series, perhaps they should give him more ball.
After all, he just wants to play footy in the park.