Roosters forward Sitili Tupouniua

Almost 12 months ago to the day, the Roosters walked out for kick-off against the Titans wearing black armbands.

A simple show of support for Sitili Tupouniua.

But one that resonates loudly when the rising edge-runner knocks back a host of NRL rivals just this week, re-signing at Bondi for another two years.

This week last year, Tupouniua’s sister Alyssa passed away unexpectedly aged 27, rocking his tight-knit family to its core.

A first-grade debut had been well and truly on the cards, the Roosters big guns were called into Origin duty a day after that game against the Gold Coast.

Tupouniua flew home to Auckland, and had to be pushed onto a plane back to the Roosters and rugby league.

Family has always come first for the 21-year-old, which is why he came back.

"I was back home and I remember seeing the armbands and watching it," Tupouniua says.

"It was a good reminder for me, it was a good show of the love that we have here. It's basically a family that we have at the Roosters and I know we would do it for anyone else.

"I love the culture that we have here, it's a big part of where I am today.

"They've really looked after me and encouraged me through this whole period. It hasn't been easy.

"Alyssa was the one who always pushed me to make the most of my footy. She's always going to be with me.

 
 
 
 
 
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"I know she's smiling down. My family's very proud of me and I know that she would be too.

"But it's been easier because of the club and it means a lot to me. The boys here and the staff too, their support has been huge."

Tupouniua is repaying that support with eye-catching impact from Trent Robinson's bench in 2019, having debuted against Melbourne last June, a month after Alyssa’s death.

It was a similar show of faith that landed him in red, white and blue as a teenager in the first place.

The Warriors have long wanted to bring him home, earlier this month tabling a lucrative offer before Tupouniua re-signed with the Roosters.

They never wanted to lose him as a talented Mt Albert schoolboy, but couldn't get him to turn up to training.

There’s no shortage of distractions growing up around the gangs of Central Auckland.

But Roosters scout Jamie Mathiou saw the same promise at a junior representative carnival in 2013, verbally agreeing to bring the 17-year-old across the ditch before his last game of the day.

"He had a good couple of games and then late in the last game he hurt his shoulder," Mathiou tells NRL.com.

"Before that I'd told his manager we would sign him, and I'd met Sitili too and told him that as well.

"He went down in the last game and ended up having to have a full shoulder reconstruction out of it, but we'd already agreed to sign him and had a handshake on it, so he was on his way and we stood by that.

"All the credit needs to go to the club though, because of the way they've developed him and a lot of their young players that are coming through."

In Tupouniua’s first game on Australian soil, a Ron Massey Cup outing as part of the club’s under-20s squad, he dislocated his shoulder.

Back home he went for another round of surgery, a second reconstruction in as many years.

Staying was the easy option.

But having been converted from rugby by former Bulldogs and Warriors legend Steve Price – "he coached me at school and helped me a lot, kind of got me into rugby league” – Tupouniua was adamant the Roosters were the right fit.

"Moving over by myself, it was tough at the time but I knew that if I wanted to pursue a rugby league career, I knew it was going to be here in Australia," Tupouniua says.

"This is where I could get the best out of myself. I had to come across. It made me grow up a bit, get away from distractions at home.

"I'm grateful to my family. I did get up to no good every now and then.

"But my family kept me on the right path and that was the other reason I wanted to come to Australia, get my focus on footy and away from some of the distractions around me when I was a kid."

Again, family first.

Which is why, a year on from having his world jolted by tragedy, Tupouniua has found a way to keep going – his family on both sides of the ditch.

"There's a responsibility for him there," Robinson says.

"He had to go home when it happened and spend time with his family, and look after himself first. It hurt. Obviously, it was so sudden.

"It's never left him and it never will. But it's a part of the reason he plays the game.

"His family is a really important part of why he plays the way he does. He's got his opportunity, and it offers plenty for him and his family.

"And he knows that, which is why he's so mature as everyone is starting to see."