Fotuaika's inspiring story of triumph over adversity

For a front-rower to make his NRL debut at just 18 is naturally a special story.

But to unveil what Gold Coast prop Moeaki Fotuaika has pushed himself through to achieve that goal is one of the most heart-warming and rewarding stories the Telstra Premiership will provide in 2018.

Fotuaika is the younger brother of Mosese Fotuaika, who tragically took his life in February 2013 after a gym injury when he was on the verge of his NRL debut with Wests Tigers. That was the same month Moeaki arrived at Keebra Park High School with the aim of emulating his older sibling.

"Mo", who debuted against Canberra last weekend and this Saturday lines up alongside fellow teenager Alexander Brimson against premiers Melbourne in Suncorp Stadium's double-header, has done more than that.

Along the way, he has pushed aside barriers and made his own career break through sheer hard work and a strong yet respectful "refuse-to-lose" attitude.

The barriers include leaving home at 3am to catch a 4.15am train three mornings a week for the 90-minute trip to attend Keebra's gym sessions and skipping school some days, and many others during school holidays, doing 14-hour days fruit picking with his father to help the family make ends meet.

Gold Coast prop Moeaki Fotuaika.
Gold Coast prop Moeaki Fotuaika. ©Keegan Carroll/NRL Photos

At the end of Year 12 in 2016, after playing off the bench in the shadows of Keebra's celebrated props Payne Haas and Thomas Mikaele and getting limited minutes to shine, most of his mates had already been offered NRL contracts.

Yet, despite being unwanted if not unnoticed, he made sure he celebrated his mates' good fortune and masked his own disappointment.

The story has been told about the day he turned up at a Titans' under-20s open trial, when they thought he was 17 but was actually 16, and he was the best player on the park.

What wasn't known until later was Mo was on a train at 5am to get there on time.

He played off the interchange bench in the first-round under 20 clash with Sydney Roosters. After playing 50 minutes straight, he never came off the bench again. Five times he played the whole 80 minutes in the front row.

By round eight he'd gone from unknown triallist to a Junior Kiwi. At season's end, he and Brimson were joint players of the year and the Titans had asked him to sign a two-year deal as a "development player" which meant training with the NRL side up to Christmas.

On his first day at training with the Titans, they did a drill they call "king of the ring", a wrestling-strength test that involves players starting on their knees and try to get their opponent on their back. The winner progresses to the next round until there are just two players left.

Few players knew who big 17-year-old was.

That wasn't the case after going through five rounds and coming up against skipper Ryan James to be the last man standing.

"It was our first week of training and I thought 'I can't let a 17-year-old beat me'," recalls James.

"He just wouldn't give up and did me. And that's been his attitude ever since.

"Whatever gets thrown in front of him as the next challenge, he determined to handle it. That's why I was confident he'd be okay playing NRL."

Six weeks into pre-season, new coach Garth Brennan signed him to a four-year deal. So good was he in the Intrust Super Cup, he has been added to the top 30 squad.

Moeaki, one of 10 siblings who moved with their parents to the outskirts of Ipswich from Gisborne in New Zealand the previous year to give Mosese and brother Feao (a Brisbane-league rugby player) their best opportunity in rugby league or union. Mosese was 15, and Moeaki just eight.

In the same way he seems to confront everything in his life, when Mosese died his little brother kept any pain quiet. Along with his incredible resilience, work ethic and ability to seemingly handle anything thrown in front of him.

After he emulated Mosese by winning a national schoolboys title with Keebra Park in 2016 (Mosese won a final in 2009 and lost one in 2010), Moeaki was lost in the backwash of the hype around Keebra's starting props who were Australian Schoolboys already signed to the NRL - Haas with the Broncos and Mikaele with the Tigers.

It was a tip from Titans under-20s player Kobe Tararo that was the catalyst for Mo's extraordinary rise from anonymity to the NRL in 18 months.

Titans under-20s coach Ben Woolf, who had taught Moeaki at Keebra in 2013, had asked his players to let him know if they had any mates they felt were worthy of attending an invitation only open trial. Tararo mentioned Fotuaiki.

Woolf had assumed the big prop, who was playing with Souths Logan under-18s, had been snapped up by Wests Tigers. He wasted no time in bypassing the under-18 Mal Meninga Cup trials and placing Moeaki with his Holden Cup boys, although the player himself thought he was there for the 18s.

The next week Woolf travelled to meet Mo and his father at a netball carnival in Ipswich where Mo's sister was paying and signed him to a basic two-year deal.

He has excelled at every step since.

"He just wanted to play; it wasn't about the money for them, just the opportunity to play and show what he can do," said Woolf, now the Tweed Heads Seagulls coach in Queensland's Intrust Super Cup who blooded Moeaki in senior football this season.

"And his mum and dad were very cautious about sending him away; they wanted to keep him close to family and close to people close to him. That's where they felt Mosese went wrong; he didn't have the support close by when he was in Sydney when he needed it.

"On day-one at training in the under-20s system, he stood out because he is so tough, so competitive and works so hard.

"He wasn't the fittest guy there but worked the hardest in everything we did.

"You'd put him in the wrestling or conditioning drills, he out-compete everyone in our squad. We had some senior tough boys who had a couple of years with us, and they couldn't go with him.

"From the conditioning staff to the players, everyone loved him from day dot because he is such a quiet, humble kid.

"It's an astronomical rise when you think of where he came and now be in the Titans top 30 and playing NRL at 18.

"But he's one of those kids who has an awesome ability to jump up and deal with it."

Gold Coast-based player agent Nash Dawson was another who was at that October 2016 open trial.

A client of his who played that day, Saxon Paulo, asked him a favour: could he look at a mate play and maybe help him out if he went okay.

Unlike hundreds with lesser ability than Mo, he didn't have a manager.

"It was the best favour I ever did for someone," said Dawson.

"A couple of weeks later I became his agent and he's just a pleasure to represent, as are his family.

"And no matter what he has achieved, or will achieve, he is so humble and insists that the hard work of his family is recognised as much as his.

"Someone would pick him up at 3am when they lived at Lowood [west of Ipswich] to get him onto the train line to get to Keebra at 6.30 and he'll never forget that."

It's a pity his Tongan-born parents had to return to New Zealand last year but they are heartened by the fact he has a sister, brother plus aunties and uncles around him still.

Because his welfare, as much as what NRL success he has, is important to them. And making them proud, is vital to him.

If you need help, call Lifeline on 13114