Sacrifices Worthwhile As Arona Chases NRL Dream
The Rockcote Canterbury Bulls had a familiar face amongst their support crew for Sunday’s NZRL National Premiership opener against Counties Manukau.
Tevin Arona, the Bulls’ halfback star during their 2015-16 campaigns, is now based in Auckland as part of the Warriors’ InTrust Super Premiership squad. But he utilised a rare weekend off to come and support his former teammates – and if he had his way, he would have pulled on a jumper and a pair of boots and run out onto AMI Stadium.
“I got to do a speech and hand out the jerseys, so I was really honoured to be able to be part of the team in a way,” Arona said.
“I’d have loved to be out there, I’m passionate about the Canterbury Bulls and I loved playing for them.”
But the 22-year-old is sacrificing much more to chase his professional rugby league dream than just the opportunity to represent his home province and mesmerise opposition defences on a weekly basis at club level alongside his Hornby Panthers mates.
Arona has a three-year-old son, Tiane-James, and living in Auckland means their time together is limited during footy season.
“It is very hard, that’s the one hardest thing – but he’s my motivation as well,” he explains.
“I come back every time I get the chance, every bye week, when I was injured I came straight back and in the off-season I come straight back to see him.
“I try and spend every minute with him while I can and try and get him up (to Auckland) with me sometimes.
“Everything I do is for him.
“He’s a good wee boy, he’s real special and I can’t wait till he grows up and maybe he can come play some footy and that can be our thing.”
But the opportunity that came Arona’s way with the Warriors – one he thought he may never get again – is worth the heartache. The playmaker spent two years in the Canberra Raiders’ NYC system as a teenager, but being so far away from Tiane-James, who was then just an infant, saw him return to Christchurch.
It has made him doubly determined to make the most of his second bite at NRL stardom – and Arona is loving every minute of it.
“It’s been unbelievable – I can’t explain it.
“I’ve learnt so much in this year, more than I’ve ever learnt. It’s been an unreal experience training and playing with a few NRL players. I’ve just soaked it all up and tried to do as well as I can up there.
“I didn’t know how my career was going to go after coming home from Canberra, I just had to keep working hard and play my best football. Through that I got another opportunity to go to an NRL club, so I definitely won’t be taking it for granted.
“My end goal is to try and debut in the NRL, and if I can do that I think it’s job accomplished.”
Arona debuted for the Rockcote Canterbury Bulls on his 20th birthday during the 2015 National Premiership, and went on to earn New Zealand Residents selection that season and in 2016.
Light on his feet and possessing blinding speed, silky ball skills, composure and vision – plus the liberal dose of cheeky spirit every good halfback needs – it’s not hard to see how Arona picked up a trial contract with the Warriors last summer, parlaying that into a fulltime gig at the club.
But Arona’s humility and thirst to improve are the personal qualities that shine through most when talking about his experience in Auckland. He has been like the proverbial sponge gleaning tips from experienced halves Shaun Johnson, Kieran Foran and Mason Lino this year.
“I’ve watched them a lot during training and trained against them. You see them on TV, but you don’t realise how good they actually are.
“I’ve learnt a lot off them and they’ve sort of taken me under their wing and showed me a few things. I’m just learning as I go and trying to get to their standard.”
Arona confirms the ISP – effectively the reserve grade competition for NSW-based NRL clubs, plus the Warriors – is a big step up from the standard of football he has encountered at Under-20s level in Australia and domestically in New Zealand.
“It’s way, way different. More so the speed. Even in the national (NZ) comp and premier (club) level, it’s a lot of contact, but a lot slower. In ISP it’s the same contact, (but) maybe twice as fast.
“I’ve loved playing in that comp and it’s been a real eye-opener for me.
“There’s only so much you can do by yourself, and training with those guys and under those trainers, you realise how well they do with their fitness and their strength and conditioning.
“I was a bit behind at the start and I just worked as hard as I could, and I feel comfortable now. The only way is up and I’m just going to try and get in even better shape next year.”
Arona’s debut season in the ISP was certainly far from smooth sailing, however.
In Round 5 against Blacktown Workers Sea Eagles, the livewire was stretchered off Mt Smart Stadium with a broken leg and torn ankle ligaments, putting his entire campaign – and the chance of a lifetime – in limbo.
“I’ve never had a long-term injury like that, I didn’t know how tough it would be mentally,” Arona winced.
“Seeing the boys go out training and I’m stuck in the gym all day every day…I just worked really, really hard. I did whatever the physio told me to do, and luckily I came back quite quick, only four months.
“I’ve been enjoying my time up there, especially with everything you get and the resources you get, I’ve been taking advantage of that.
“Everything’s healed up nicely, I just need to work on getting my speed back now.”
After successfully recovering from the injury setback, Arona was in and out of the Warriors’ ISP line-up during the latter rounds as the team stormed to a second-placed finish at the end of the regular season.
That exposed him to another tricky aspect of being a fringe player chasing the professional dream – being seconded to a club side, Point Chevalier Pirates, when he wasn’t required in the ISP. But Arona turned that challenge into a positive as well.
“I didn’t get to play (for Point Chevalier) earlier in the year, but after I came back from my injury I got a few games for them.
“Awesome club, famous club, been to five grand finals in the last five years so even in that team I learnt a lot.
“I was going up and down between ISP and Point Chev, and just doing whatever it takes really.
“The first week I was back (from injury) I played Saturday for Point Chev, then Sunday I got the call-up that I was playing for ISP, so it was a sore body – but that’s the life of a fringe player.
“You have to take that and that’s the only way to go forward is to take your opportunities, so I’m just trying to do that at the moment.”
Meanwhile, Arona is hoping to have an extension for 2018 sorted with the Warriors in the near future.
“I’ve loved my time at the club and I just want to have a good, strong year without any injuries. Hopefully I get the chance to go back to the Warriors, it’s been an awesome time.”
The Warriors’ ISP campaign ended courtesy of a gallant preliminary final loss to Wyong Roos at the same time Arona was cheering the Bulls on from the sideline last Sunday.
He provided an insight to the club’s elite squad, revealing the Warriors showed little sign of the strain of another disappointing NRL campaign.
“It’s still a really good atmosphere,” Arona said.
“I was surprised with how the year went, they just got unlucky with a few tight games that didn’t go their way then they got struck with injuries.
“Our (ISP) team kept a strong culture through the whole year – sometimes you don’t even get all your players until the captain’s run. I think our team did really well to come second, it’s a tough comp.
“I’m very interested to see how the Warriors’ first grade team goes next year because I think we’ve got a few good buys and we’re starting to shape up for a good year.”
And if Arona’s dedication and rugby league education continue on their current trajectory, young Tiane-James may just get to see his dad play an integral role in the Warriors’ belated NRL resurgence.