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Legend Q&A: Tony Puletua

As one half of the famous 'Hair Bears' that helped the Panthers win the 2003 premiership, after taking the wooden spoon just two years earlier, Tony Puletua was a sight to behold.

He and Joe Galuvao struck fear into opposition defensive lines with their wild and bushy locks flowing freely as they rattled off 11 tries between them that season.

Puletua was a one-club player with all 211 first-grade games with the Panthers, but a dual international with 22 Tests for New Zealand and seven for Samoa. 

Legend Q & A: Tony Puletua

As a key member of Penrith’s last premiership winning team, you must be excited by this year’s Panthers team and what they have been able to achieve. Do you see comparisons with the 2003 team?

I just see so many comparisons. When you match player for player, we had a very similar style of players in those positions as the current team have.

It just seems that they've got something special going on at the moment within their group, which is very similar to what we had.

I know that there are a lot of critics out there waiting for them to fall, so it is so important that they stick within their group and don't listen to any outside noise.

We knew that it was all about our focus as a group and knowing what your role was or what you had to bring to the team. It was just all about us and I can see that with the team now. They are unbelievable to watch.

Some people have been saying Viliame Kikau reminds them of you. What do you think of Kikau as a player?

I love watching that guy play. He is probably my favourite player in the game at the moment. It is just the way he plays and the intensity he plays with. He brings so much to the team.

He is an amazing player and an amazing talent. It's great to hear that people say he is like me but he has got a lot of things over me.

You made your first-grade debuts while still at school. This was in the 1997 season, when the competition was split. What was it like to get the call up for Penrith by Royce Simmons while attending John Paull II College, Marayong, and what do you recall of the Super League war?

Obviously it was an amazing feeling to still be at school and playing first grade. I had always planned to be playing first grade by the time I was around 27 - that is what I used to talk about, so the opportunity came a lot sooner than I had expected.

Because it was the Super League season there was a lot of travelling, even for the junior teams, so it wasn’t too daunting for me to fly to Perth. I remember a calmness about the approach to the game and I just couldn’t wait to get out there and play.

I was 17 and playing for my local club so I didn’t really have any say about the whole Super League thing. I was a Penrith junior and that is what competition they were in.

I didn’t really understand the extent of the wars that were going on at the time between the ARL and the Super League. For me, I was just doing my HSC and playing for Penrith.

Tony Puletua takes on the Broncos
Tony Puletua takes on the Broncos ©NRL Photos

You were born in Auckland to Samoan parents and moved to Australia at 11 years-of-age. What was it like growing up with your brother Frank, who also played for the Panthers and Rabbitohs?

The picture of Australia in my head back then was of beaches, kangaroos and the Outback. We moved in with my cousins at Tregear until we found our own place at Mt Druitt.

There was mum and dad and the five of us kids, living with our cousins in a three or four-bedroom house. One of my cousins was Junior Moors, who played for Penrith, Wests Tigers and the Storm.

Over time I came to love the place and I just remember having so much fun growing up as a kid. We used to play a lot of basketball and if it wasn’t basketball it was footy. It was always one of the two.

Had you played league in New Zealand before you moved to Australia?

I played for New Lynn Staggs and I made the Auckland rep team in 1990 before we travelled over. Lesley Vainikolo was in that team, and he is the only one I can remember who made it as well.

When I was playing in New Zealand I was mainly in the backs but I didn’t play centres much in Australia. Coming through the Penrith system I just played second-row or front-row and in first grade Royce started me in the front-row and then I went back to the second-row.

It was only 12 months later that you made your Test debut for New Zealand as a 19 year-old forward and you played at the 2000 World Cup in the UK. What were those experiences like?

I would have made my debut at 18 in the 1998 ANZAC Test but after the selection we played a game that weekend and I injured my knee so I couldn’t play. Later in the year I went on my first New Zealand tour and played a couple of Tests here in Australia.

At the World Cup I was one of the young guys in the team, along with Ali Lauiti'iti and Lesley Vainikolo. It was a great experience just to be able to take the field with so many great players like Tonie Carroll, Nigel and Joe Vagana, Ruben Wiki and Stephen Kearney.

I remember how disappointing it was to lose the final at Old Trafford after such a great lead-up for us. It was quite close until the last quarter and Australia just piled on try after try.

Looking back at the 2003 NRL grand final

Let’s cut to the chase, tell us how you and Joe Galuvao became the Hair Bears?

Me and Joe played Junior Kiwis together in 1997. He was the fullback. We kept in touch and when Joe signed to play with Penrith in 2003 we just hit it off. We built a special bond and both worked as hard as we could just to try to make a difference for our team.   

The Hair Bears thing was weird. We never really spoke about the hair. At the back end of the 2002 season, for some reason I hadn’t cut my hair for a while and I just thought I would let it go and see what happens.

I went on the tour later in the year with the Kiwis and we toured all around the UK, then when I came back for the 2003 pre-season and got to the training complex I noted Joey had been growing his hair as well.

One of us just said, 'Are you growing your hair? I'm growing my hair too' and then we just thought we would let it go and see what happens. That’s how the hair thing all came about.

We never really spoke about it, we never really planned anything. It was just that he decided to grow his hair at the same time I did and I hadn’t seen him for a couple of months. It was about the same length at the time and we just thought it was funny.

The Panthers came 12th in 2002 but in 2003 you won the grand final under John Lang. What was the reason for such a huge shift in fortunes?

The season that I learned and grew the most in, and I am sure it was the same for everyone else in our team, was 2002. In 2002, we actually didn’t play that bad and I know it doesn’t say that on the ladder but in nearly every single game we were competing right until the end and there were so many games we were in front and lost in the last few minutes or seconds.

One half of the 'Hair Bears' Tony Puletua
One half of the 'Hair Bears' Tony Puletua ©NRL Photos

It was such a painful year because we felt we could do something special in 2002 but it just wasn’t happening for us.

So 2003 was very similar to 2002 but we were getting the results and coming out on top in games. We had to learn and go through the hard times in 2002 and 2003 was the pay-off.

After that success in 2003, the Panthers haven’t been to another grand final. Why do you think the team wasn’t able to repeat that effort again?

I think there were a lot of changes, with players leaving and staff leaving as well. We had such a young team at the time. It was a hard act to follow but we got to the game before the grand final in 2004 when we lost to the Bulldogs.

I don’t know whether our approach was different in 2004 but in 2003 I think we were a lot hungrier to get that success. In 2004 there was almost a feeling that it was just going to happen for us instead of us grabbing it and doing everything that we could to try and get to the grand final again.

The Dogs were on a massive roll at the time and Willie Mason was playing out of his skin but if you look right across their team, they had Sonny Bill Williams on the bench. He was only a young guy then but that shows they had an unbelievable team that went on to win it that year.

We had a lot of good battles with them over those years but after 2004 it just started slipping further away from us and in 2005 I tore my pec so I was out for the entire season.

It was a tough year and it just rolled into 2006 and 2007 and before we knew it we were in a rebuilding stage.

Almost a decade before Jason Taumalolo and Andrew Fifita put Tonga on the map at the 2017 World Cup, you and some other players switched allegiances to Samoa. What did it mean to you to represent Samoa at the 2008 World Cup and would you like to see some big name players do the same thing at next year’s tournament?

Myself, Nigel Vagana, Ali Lauiti’iti, my brother Frank and a number of players who were involved with the Kiwis at the time just got together and spoke about how this was our opportunity to cross over to Samoa and finally do what we had always wanted to do so we all made the switch.

It was such an honour for me to represent my country and my people – my parents and my family.

To see that a lot of the top players in the NRL now are eligible to play for Samoa, the potential is exciting. Just at Penrith you have got Jarome Luia, Stephen Crichton, Spencer Leniu and Moses Leota.

One player who I think has really come on this season is Jaydn Su’A at Souths. He is a special talent.

Then you have got Josh Papalii and it would be great to see Roger Tuivasa-Sheck play for Samoa. I think that would be one of the biggest things that could happen for Samoa rugby league to have someone of the calibre of Roger play.