Fibros to Silvertails: Tragedy and knockbacks driving four Fainu brothers

Manase Fainu still remembers sitting by the hospital bed in his school uniform.

If not every day, then definitely every second one.

His baby sister, Salote, was gasping for air, constantly struggling to breathe.

Her one-year-old body was simply unable to cope. Not with the adult-sized heart pumping out blood.

Or the medication required to treat cardiomegaly, this tiny Fainu often threw up the drugs hidden in her food in an attempt to slow her blood flow.

"I was only eight but I knew what was going on because we just kept visiting her in hospital, it was like that for a couple of months," Manase tells NRL.com.

"And then the day it happened, we found out on the way to the hospital.

"We'd be at school during the day and then go over to the hospital as a whole family.

"But she was very cheeky the whole way through. She'd have this cheeky smile on, we've got a few photos of that cheeky smile, it's a very nice memory to have."

Salote passed away on August 1, 2007.

A week earlier her sister, Sweetie, the youngest of the Fainu clan, was born.

Manase Fainu with his older brother Inoke after representing Tonga, his sister Salote and with his mother Lili after a game for Manly.
Manase Fainu with his older brother Inoke after representing Tonga, his sister Salote and with his mother Lili after a game for Manly. ©Fainu family collection

This is the Fainu family's story. Bonded long before tragedy. 

Forged deep in rugby league's fabled fibros territory.

Now silvertails, all 40-odd of them, with a maroon and white bloodline that will soon put four brothers on Manly's books.

Here come the Fainus

The Fainu boys, led by Manase, are fast making names to remember in footy circles.

But it's the women in their family that drive them. Literally.

"When Salote was born, she was number seven amongst the kids," proud mum Lili says.

"And that was when we couldn't fit in a normal wagon anymore.

"We had to get a bus, this big 14-seater, and she was the reason we had it.

"So when she died, we named it after her and put 'Salote' on the number plate.

"It was an awful day when we had to downsize from the bus, it was such a huge part of a family, you can't help but smile when you think about it."

Lili is the daughter of Tongan migrants, born in New Zealand and transplanted to Guildford in western Sydney at a young age.

When her father died shortly afterwards, her mum Manusiu – otherwise known to all as only "Grandma" – worked four jobs so they could keep their family home.

It's the same house where Manase still returns after each Manly training session, shaking off 5am starts and four-hour round trips to bunk down in the bedroom he still shares with a couple of younger brothers.

Those same siblings Parramatta have pursued, along with Manase, more than once.

The same youngsters Manase went to work at 15 to help provide for.

Sea Eagles hooker Manase Fainu.
Sea Eagles hooker Manase Fainu. ©Grant Trouville/NRL Photos

Cash in hand and the Manly clan

With a small army to feed in Guildford and father Chris rising with the sun to build pallets before doing the school and afternoon sports runs, Manase followed his lead soon enough.

"He left school at such a young age, he went into the workforce with his uncle's concreting business," Lili says.

"He would work for cash in hand to help out where he could to make ends meet. We were poor but we would always try to give our kids the best.

"He was the youngest on the job sites so he would get picked on. 'Go wash the boots, go wash the tools'. It's obviously hard work, outdoors, shovelling all day, but I think it's paid off in what it taught him."

At the same time, Manase was wearing the same Eels colours he grew up supporting, eyeing off their SG Ball under-18 ranks in 2014.

"They told me I would get a spot there, but then it didn't happen and I remember finding out I didn't make it with them," he says.

"John Hopoate coached me and Moses Suli in club footy [for Fairfield United], and that's how I ended up here. He asked me if I wanted to come over and I was keen to give it a crack, so here we are."

Fainu recalls the snub every time he lines up opposite the Blue & Gold.

And when it comes to contracts for younger siblings Sione (19), Samuela (16) and Latu (15).

"Parra offered them a couple of bucks to stay there," Manase grins. "But I didn't forget what they did to me.

"Hopefully they can all stay here at Manly and kick on. I think there's been more clubs calling my manager about them than me.

We've got a few photos of that cheeky smile, it's a very nice memory to have.

Manase Fainu

"They're at a better stage, playing better than me when I was their age."

Sione, a prop, will join Manly's impressive first-grade forward stocks next year, and was just crowned NSW under 18s player of the year after a try, six tackle busts and 164 metres against Queensland in June.

Samuela too is in same mould as Sione in the Sea Eagles' Harold Matthews Cup squad, while young half Latu will join him next year as "the spitting image of Manase".

Sione Fainu with his NSW under 18s award on Monday night.
Sione Fainu with his NSW under 18s award on Monday night. ©Grant Trouville/NRL Photos

It will be a Fainu family affair as usual at Lottoland for Saturday's sudden-death final against Cronulla.

Cousin Haumole Olakau'atu has been named to make his NRL debut after shovelling the same concrete as Manase all those years ago, while around 40 members of the extended family, led by Grandma, will pack into the Fulton-Menzies Stand.

But when Parramatta came knocking again late last year for Manase, it was Manly's prodigal son Des Hasler that kept the Fainus in maroon and white.

Manase Fainu and Moses Suli.
Manase Fainu and Moses Suli. ©Gregg Porteous/NRL Photos

The Hasler effect: 10 times the player, six kilos less

Fainu's eye-catching rise led to Wests Tigers and Parramatta coming in hard for him last October as the Sea Eagles sorted out Hasler's return to the club.

"My manager [Mario Tartak] told me I had a few offers from other clubs and there was more money on offer from them," Fainu says.

"But he wanted me to stay at Manly. I said 'why's that?'

"And he said Des Hasler was looking like being coach here. And he said 'Des will make you 10 times better as a footballer'. I took that on board and decided to stay here at Manly.

"I'd love to play my whole career here now, everything about it, the coaching staff, players, the fans, I love all of it."

Even the pre-season riot act Hasler read out to he and Suli within a few weeks of taking charge of the childhood mates.

"I was weighing 98 at the time, he told me to lose a couple of kilos, I went down to 92 by the time the season started," Fainu says.

Promising young Sea Eagles players Lehi Hopoate, Jake Fulton and Latu Fainu with coach Des Hasler.
Promising young Sea Eagles players Lehi Hopoate, Jake Fulton and Latu Fainu with coach Des Hasler. ©seaeagles.com.au

Suli meanwhile dropped 12 kilos through personalised "floggings" overseen by veteran trainer Don Singe.

"The first couple of weeks we'd be weighing in, and Dessie would be into us. 'What's he eating?' 'You make sure he's right'."

'He could have been deported'

Weekly weigh-ins and coaching changes are small fry in the grand scheme of things for Fainu.

And always will be when he casts back to those hospital bed vigils and the cheeky little sister behind them.

So too his brushes with the wrong side of the law.

Within a week of Manly's disastrous 2018 season coming to a close, Fainu exited Fairfield Local Court well aware just how close he had come to trashing his career.

He had been given a good behaviour bond after pleading guilty to filming a sex act with a young woman without her consent in April.

Fainu deleted the recording in front of her soon after when she asked him to, before a complaint was made at Granville Police Station two days later.

He escaped conviction in September. But for five months Lili feared the worst.

Manase Fainu scores a try for Manly against Penrith in his rookie season last year.
Manase Fainu scores a try for Manly against Penrith in his rookie season last year. ©Gregg Porteous/NRL Photos

"It hurt me like nothing else," she says.

"When Manase got in trouble, I was thinking 'is this the end of it already?' He's chased that career for so long, but could it be that he makes it and it gets thrown away by that?

"I had anxiety, I wasn't sleeping. I tried to keep it from him but I think he knew.

"Because he's a New Zealander through his passport, one of the things we were told was that if he was charged, he could have been deported by his descent even though he was born in Australia.

"I wasn't coping with that. I couldn't sleep, I would cry every night."

Again the Fainus rallied. And Manase's clean record, co-operation and remorse was taken into account by the courts.

"He took responsibility straight away for what he did, being in that spotlight and realising what he had done," Lili says.

"Who he had hurt and done wrong by, and then what he had put at risk. It pulled him back and I think he's settled down very quickly from it."

'She's always with us'

Fainu has since settled into first grade like it's his second home, to the point Manly will farewell his great mate and "teacher" Api Koroisau to Penrith at season's end, confident Fainu can shoulder the No.9 duties full-time.

When Salote passed away 12 years ago, he and older brother Inoke helped "carry us as a family".

"They were always ironing school clothes, matching up socks and putting them in the kids' shoes for the next day," Lili recalls.

The Fainu family home dressed up to support Manase before his international debut for Tonga.
The Fainu family home dressed up to support Manase before his international debut for Tonga. ©Fainu family collection

Manase recently helped Inoke – who has completed a two-year Mormon mission – purchase an apartment in Parramatta.

The rest of the Fainus remain in the Guildford family home, and Manase has no intention of moving out anytime soon.

He and his small army of supporters plan to be making those four-hour round trips to Manly for some time yet.

When I play footy, it's for me and for my family.

Manase Fainu

And with them all the way, cheeky little Salote, and that signature Fainu smile.

"I still think about her every day, before every game, she's there with me," Manase says.

"I like to think she's proud of me, of all of us. When I play footy, it's for me and for my family."