Agnatius Paasi credits his partner Chloe for keeping his NRL rugby league dream alive only months after he thought it was all over.
The Mangere East Hawks junior couldn’t see a footballing future at the end of last season as he looked back on two battling years with the now-defunct Auckland Vulcans in the New South Wales Cup.
He was convinced his future wasn’t in top-level rugby league but his partner of three years and mother of the couple's two-year-old son Manatoa saw it differently.
“I’d made up my mind to study instead,” he said.
“With the Vulcans not making the top eight (in 2012 and 2013) I thought it was all over.
“It was Chloe who said I should give it one more year.”
The path from there was anything but straightforward, though.
When the Vodafone Warriors started their offseason programme for the 2014 season in November last year, Paasi wasn’t even contracted to the club; he was simply invited to boost the numbers of a squad heavily depleted through players being at the Rugby League World Cup.
But the long story short is the 22-year-old’s life has turned around remarkably in the ensuing months to the point he’ll become Vodafone Warrior No 191 tonight.
Every debut is special but this one is even more poignant.
For one Paasi’s first NRL game is against glamour club Brisbane. Not only that he’ll be making the grade at one of the sporting world’s greatest venues Suncorp Stadium with a crowd of up to 40,000 expected in the cauldron (albeit with a big percentage of them being Vodafone Warriors supporters).
What makes the occasion truly special, though, is the #RiseForAlex Round.
Significantly Paasi will wear the No 16 jersey, the number Alex McKinnon wore when he suffered his horrific injury playing for Newcastle against Melbourne on March 24.
To honour McKinnon many of the game’s biggest names – most of them captains – are wearing No 16 for their teams this weekend. In last night’s opening round Johnathan Thurston (Cowboys), Jarryd Hayne (Parramatta) and Greg Inglis (South Sydney) all played in the number while Paul Gallen would have done so for Cronulla but he was ruled out. Other players who’ll switch their usual number for No 16 this round include Melbourne captain Cameron Smith.
It means Paasi has even more reason to treasure the first NRL jersey he’ll wear, specially-embroidered with his club number (191) and debut details.
There’s more to it, too.
Coming through the Vodafone Warriors’ development system, Paasi graduated to the NYC squad in 2011 making 21 appearances including the 31-30 grand final win over North Queensland.
One of his rivals during the season was none other than Alex McKinnon – then with St George Illawarra – and they also clashed at international level later in the 2011 season when Paasi represented the Junior Kiwis and McKinnon the Junior Kangaroos (captained by Paasi’s current Vodafone Warriors team-mate Chad Townsend). Paasi and McKinnon were both interchange players in a match the Kiwis won 28-16.
Turning 20 in 2011, Paasi wasn’t re-signed by the Vodafone Warriors for 2012 and instead set his sights on proving himself through the second-tier New South Wales Cup competition with the Vulcans (then run on a joint basis between then owner the Auckland Rugby League and the Vodafone Warriors).
Paasi is a product of the famed St Paul’s College rugby league nursery with a little help from another well-established talent factory Keebra Park State High School, which lays claim to developing Benji Marshall and a host of other players.
Paasi had caught the eye of Wests Tigers, resulting in him being involved in the rugby league programme at Keebra Park in 2009. It didn’t last, Paasi returning to St Paul’s in 2010, linking up with the Vodafone Warriors and then on to the NYC.
After impressing in the offseason late last year, Paasi earned a New South Wales Cup contract with the Vodafone Warriors (the club had taken over ownership of the team).
Used mainly in at prop or in the second row but also in the centres, Paasi has featured in 14 of the team’s 16 matches so far scoring three tries. He was used as 18th man by the NRL side for the home match before gaining selection this week.
Of the line-up tonight, fellow Mangere East junior Sebastine Ikahihifo was a 2011 Vodafone Junior Warriors and Junior Kiwis team-mate and Ben Henry was his NYC captain; Paasi has played much of his New South Wales Cup football with Ikahihifo over the last three seasons while centres Dane Nielsen and Konrad Hurrelll, winger David Fusitu'a, standoff Townsend, prop Suaia Matagi and back rowers Henry and Feleti Mateo have also been NSW Cup team-mates as has Solomone Kata who travelled to Brisbane as cover.
Head coach Andrew McFadden said it wasn’t a case of him selecting Paasi this week, rather a case of Paasi picking himself through the weight of his performances.
On Wednesday the Tongan-born forward was presented with his first jersey in front of his team-mates and football staff by his mother Faleono and grandfather – ‘Gramps’ – Tuitu’u.
“It hasn’t been easy but Chloe has kept me going,” said Paasi.
“I’ve also had lots of support from my family and from my church (St Therese Catholic Church in Mangere).”
Last night Paasi went to church in Brisbane with team-mate Suaia Matagi ahead of the biggest match of his rugby league career so far.
The oldest of seven children – he has four brothers and two sisters – Paasi and his family endured tragedy when his uncle Sosaia drowned in Manukau Harbour two years ago.