Run through the Vodafone Warriors’ official 2022 squad and the impact of the Covid pandemic really hits home.
It shows as many as 20 players are yet to experience an NRL appearance for the club on New Zealand soil.
With the Vodafone Warriors’ last 44 matches all played in Australia and the club’s roster changing significantly, the only exceptions are Tohu Harris, Shaun Johnson, Kodi Nikorima, Chanel Harris-Tavita, Adam Pompey, Bunty Afoa, Jazz Tevaga and Josh Curran.
The Covid-enforced absence means Eliesa Katoa has the singular distinction of so far playing his entire NRL career away from home since making his debut in the Vodafone Warriors’ first-round match against Newcastle in 2020. That’s 31 games and counting.
Former Penrith hooker Wayde Egan is up to 38 matches without playing for the club at Mount Smart Stadium while ex-Canberra forward Jack Murchie, the only other 2020 club debutant still in the top squad this season, has a total of 23 appearances as a Vodafone Warrior all played in Australia.
Katoa (22), who had 13 outings in 2020 and 18 last year, actually feels a lot more settled this year even though he and his teammates aren’t yet back in Auckland. So much so he happily calls Redcliffe home.
“Obviously last year we had two different groups in two countries (for preseason) but it was a win for us to be relocated here in Redcliffe,” he said as he eyes his third campaign.
“We've got a lovely place here. We call this home. That's the positive for us. We've known what we're doing unlike the last two years when we were taking it week by week. Now we know because this is our home. It's so good here. I'm living only two minutes away.”
The infectious enthusiasm Tonga-born Katoa brought to the squad in his first season remains, too.
“I'm still buzzing out (about what has happened to me). I was a rugby union player and I never thought I'd be playing NRL, especially for the Warriors. To be here now still playing for the Warriors is still buzzing me out.”
Katoa has put himself in line for a start in the Vodafone Warriors’ first-round clash against St George Illawarra at Sunshine Coast Stadium on March 12.
He was among the most impressive performers in the trial against Melbourne on February 19, now the only selection guide after the cancellation of the Gold Coast hit-out.
“This year I want to stay healthy and stay away from injury so I can play my best footy,” he said.
“I just want to win games with the boys and I know we can do that with all the talent we have.”
While his focus on football hasn’t wavered Katoa has had plenty on his mind since the devastation caused in his homeland by volcanic explosions and flooding in January.
“Mum and my sisters are back in Tonga. Obviously it was a bit scary when it happened,” he said.
“I couldn't contact them for about a week but I finally got in touch with them and they're fine. I miss them every day but this is the big reason for me (being with the Warriors). I do this for them.
“I've got to find a way to help them and playing footy is one way I can do that. Whatever I do and wherever I am I carry them close to my heart and train hard for them every day. To lead the boys out (in the United For Tonga trial) against Melbourne was special.”