Nati Relishes Second Chance
Phil Nati regrets pulling the pin early on his first foray into rugby league in Australia, but the former Rockcote Canterbury Bulls star is determined to make the most of his second opportunity across the ditch with the Central Queensland Capras.
A New Zealand Under-18s Merit team selection in 2008, the Halswell Hornets junior was snapped up by the Parramatta Eels and featured for the club’s NYC Under-20s squad in 2010, alongside the likes of future NRL stars Ryan Morgan, Peni Terepo, Pat O’Hanlon and Ken Sio.
But like so many other young New Zealanders and Pacific Islanders, Nati left the Sydney pressure-cooker to return home.
“It was mainly due to personal issues … a real lack of confidence and a lack of support there,” Nati says. “If I had another chance to do it again I would have really stuck it out, been persistent and stayed on the bus.
“That’s what it really came down to, it’s really important for young boys to have that support there to pick them up when they’re down and to make sure they stay on the bus, (because then) you’re pretty much in the system.
“You’ve just got to stay in there and train really hard because you never know when the door will open.”
ROAD TO ROCKY
The back-row workhorse’s second coming as a semi-professional footballer came on the back of his best season on New Zealand soil. Nati starred for Celebration Lions in the CRL premiership, before retaining his spot in the Rockcote Canterbury Bulls side.
After scoring a sensational double in the win over Wellington and crossing again in a superb victory over Akarana, the 25-year-old was selected in the New Zealand Residents side and named the Rockcote Canterbury Bulls’ Most Outstanding Player of 2016.
“It was the perfect segue to come back over,” he says. “I’d been telling myself for a couple of years that if I make the New Zealand Residents, that would be my ticket back over to Australia – and thankfully it all fell into place, and now I’m over here living what I was dreaming of doing.”
As they say, it’s all about who you know, and a handy connection saw Nati link up with the Rockhampton-based Capras in the InTrust Super Cup, effectively just one level below the NRL.
“It was me seeking an opportunity, and fortunately Corey Watkinson from the Celebration Lions had (Capras coach) Kim (Williams) as one of his close contacts. They began the conversation, and before you knew it I was over early-December.”
Rockhampton is central Queensland’s main centre, with a population of around 80,000. Unsurprisingly, it’s hot – with average temperatures over 30 degrees through the summer months – but it’s also isolated, a seven-hour drive north of Brisbane and four hours south of Mackay.
Nati’s new base, along with the increased level of rugby league, has presented its share of challenges for someone of the South Island-bred variety.
“It’s a whole different contrast (to Christchurch) with the weather, and where it is in Queensland itself, so it’s been pretty intense and I’m happy pre-season’s all done and we’re getting into games,” the Auckland-born son of Samoan parents admits.
“It’s what I expected – three to four trainings per week, and quite high intensity. The level and speed of the rugby league is a lot higher than back home.
“(But) in our team, there’s a lot of Polynesian boys, and that’s made the move just that little bit easier. We’re heading into autumn so that’s all good – the weather hasn’t been as hot as it was earlier in the summer.
“Rockhampton is like a small township, so they’re really proud of their Capras team. We do get a bit of a crowd, and they really support the boys and they want to see them do good. It’s a mad, crazy rugby league community. You go to every high school and there’s football posts everywhere. (Rugby league) is pretty much the number one sport in Central Queensland.
“Just the resources and the knowledge the coaching staff have, it’s a step above back home – (I’m) not taking anything away from what’s happening in Canterbury, it’s just the nature of having such a professional outfit like the NRL above us, all that knowledge filters through.”
A familiar face has made the radical transition smoother, with fellow former Hornets and Rockcote Canterbury Bulls gun Ken Tofilau joining the Capras after a couple of seasons in the Newcastle Knights’ lower grades.
“Ken’s really good and we’ve helped each other off the field, and (it’s good) just knowing we’re both from Christchurch and there’s that support network to talk to each other after training or away from training,” Nati says.
“I’m really stoked for him – he’s come down from Newcastle, and he was unlucky not to make the top 25 squad there. Everyone’s got really big wraps on him here, he’s quite electrifying on the wing.”
MAKING A DIFFERENCE
Despite the increased time commitment a contract with an InTrust Super Cup club demands, Nati has continued on with his highly-valued work in the community.
“I’m currently working as a youth worker, doing something similar to what I was doing back at home. I’m really fortunate – some of the boys struggle to find employment and luckily enough I only had to wait a month and I landed a gig working alongside the Queensland Police, helping disengaged youths.
“It keeps me busy, keeps my sanity levels at a balance, not thinking about footy all the time and giving me another purpose.”
Nati gave an insight into the challenges facing communities in central Queensland, revealing there are some stark differences but also many similarities to youth and families he assisted in Christchurch.
“In terms of the Indigenous community, they’ve got their own issues going on over here and there’s a lot of different agencies and youth organisations trying to rectify that, but (there’s also) just small things like boys being disengaged from their homes, their families and schools,” he explains.
“But it’s very similar (to Christchurch) in that there’s still a strong Pakeha contingent of families that go under the radar, so their kids are struggling as well. They’re not just your Indigenous families, but also regular Australians finding it tough. The mining industry has taken its toll with a few mines shutting down, so there’s some of those families doing it tough out there.
“And I’m finding the same issues here are the same issues we have back at home in a social context.”
ONE LAST SHOT AT THE BIG TIME
The Capras are a feeder team for the Gold Coast Titans, which provides a clear pathway to a potential NRL call-up for Nati, Tofilau and their teammates.
Nati, who makes his Capras debut against PNG Hunters on Saturday night, sees his Queensland sojourn as more than just a one-season proposition, with his Christchurch-based partner set to join him in Rockhampton in April.
“The goal is two years, to secure another 12 months (for 2018) and to really stamp my authority next year. Because it’s all about that teething process, getting back into the training and the speed of the game over here.
“And if I can have a genuinely good pre-season next year, I can give it the best shot I’ve got.”
Nati hasn’t dared to dream too far beyond that from a footballing perspective, but he realises the opportunities that could come his way if he builds on the stellar form that made him one of the standouts of the domestic New Zealand representative scene last year.
The remarkable mature-age rookie success stories of Auckland-born Titans back-rower Leivaha Pulu (26) and Roosters forward Eloni Vunakece (29) in 2016 illustrates that age is no barrier to belatedly breaking into the NRL if ability and attitude are up to the mark.
“I’m keeping open to anything, but it’s all about ticking the boxes right now and trusting the process.
“If an opportunity came up with the association the Capras have with the Titans, I’d definitely look into it. I don’t have many years left in the legs for footy – about five or six – but if I really apply myself, who knows.”
RED AND BLACK TAKEOVER
It has been a big challenge over the past two decades for Christchurch-based rugby league talent to find their way into the NRL and second-tier competition system. But the tide seems to be turning, with six Canterbury juniors – Nati and Tofilau (CQ Capras), Nathan Saumalu, former Kiwi Setaimata Sa (both Mackay Cutters), Sheldon Pitama and Rulon Nutira (both Redcliffe Dolphins) – set to feature in the InTrust Super Cup.
Meanwhile, Rockcote Canterbury Bulls halfback Tevin Arona has picked up a contract with the Warriors’ InTrust Super Premiership (NSW Cup) team for 2017.
Nati says the calibre of players running around in Canterbury is finally starting to get recognition and respect from clubs in higher grades.
“I think that (the NZRL Premiership) competition being televised last year really exposed good players,” Nati contends.
“Two weeks ago we went up to play against Mackay, and Setaimata Sa and Nathan Saumalu were playing there. I’ve also been in close contact with Tevin, and he’s doing good things up at the Warriors.
“The next crop of boys they’ve got coming through and the coaching they’ve got there, if the New Zealand Rugby League continues to broadcast those games, it’s just going to expose more and more Canterbury talent.”
Nati also has a huge wrap on the direction rugby league in Canterbury is headed with the right people in charge of developing promising players and building the game back up to its former glory in the region.
“With (Rockcote Canterbury Bulls coach) Andrew Auimatagi there, he understands the concepts of new-age coaching, and with that experience as a PE teacher, that’s just going to continue to grow.
“We just need to keep the young boys in rugby league. We’ve got enough of an experienced older bunch of boys there, it’s just about maintaining that new talent coming through. Just nurturing them so we have a strong Canterbury Bulls side for the next couple of years.”
WILL EVANS – CANTERBURY RUGBY LEAGUE