Gangs, grief and fighting all played their part in Tui Lolohea’s life growing up in a tough part of Auckland.
The fact he is here, pulling the strings in Super League, is testament to his strength of mind and resilience. The 24-year-old can now look back on last season with a degree of fondness – but, as ever, his was a bumpy road to happiness. Salford Red Devils were denied the perfect ending to 2019 – but there is still a hint of Hollywood about Lolohea’s leading role in that magical story.
What started hellishly at Headingley came to an agonising close at Old Trafford – but throw in some historic wins for Tonga on the international stage and a season to forget eventually became one to remember.
Were it not for rugby league there’s a fair chance Lolohea would be in prison, where many of his childhood friends have ended up.
But it soon becomes clear from speaking to the softly-spoken Tongan that his dad, Paul, played a pivotal role in providing a different path for him.
“Just to realise where you’ve come from and to see where you are now – you get a better appreciation of your life,” said Lolohea, who has also played in the NRL for Wests Tigers.
“My dad was a bit of a gang member – people knew who he was, so they would look after me. “But he made big sacrifices to put me in the position I am in now. “It was definitely hard for him – for both of us – but we got there.” The Lolohea’s lived in one of the rougher streets in one of Auckland’s rougher neighbourhoods.
Canal Street in Avondale provides the name for the local gang, the ‘Thugs of Canal’. Theirs is a long history of violence and intimidation.
Lolohea’s mother passed away when he was one, so it was left to his father to keep his son – who admits he was “badly behaved and always fighting” – on the straight and narrow.
Paul would work nights as a security guard, before driving his son to early morning practices and catching up on his sleep in the car.
So when it all started going wrong at Leeds Rhinos at the beginning of last season, Lolohea was able to keep a sense of perspective.
That said, he still struggles to put his finger on why or how that squad failed to fire – but it soon became apparent that he was seen as part of the problem.
Seventeen games into his three-year Rhinos deal, he found out in the media that he was to be swapped for Robert Lui. His future lay at Salford Red Devils.
“That’s what got me [worst],” Lolohea said. “Hearing about it through the media was the hardest part. “I didn’t really have much of a say – there were a couple of options I had to choose from, and it was made clear to me that if I were to stay at Leeds, I wouldn’t get much game time. “Salford was best option. There’s no point in staying around if you’re not wanted.
“I look back at it now and it was probably the best move for me.
“It’s not how I expected it to go, but it ended up working out well.
“In the end I think 2019 was special for me – it had the lowest point of my career and then I finished it with the highest.
“Making the Grand Final pretty much summed up my year.”
It got even more special in the close season, with international wins for his beloved Tonga against GB Lions and Australia.
The focus now switches firmly back to domestic matters, and on reproducing the form for Salford Red Devils which made them the neutrals’ favourite side in Super League last season.
In a repeat of last season’s Grand Final, their campaign opens next Friday against St Helens, now coached by his former Tonga mentor Kristian Woolf.
He said: “He’s not Tongan – but he bought into our culture.
“I think that’s why the people of Tonga bow down to him and treat him like a king.”
Lolohea is amongst a host of Australian and New Zealand players to have switched national allegiances to Tonga.
Two legends of the game, Jason Taumalolo and Andrew Fifita, have also chosen to represent their parental heritage rather than birthplace.
“There was a lot of sacrifice in the players’ decision to come and play for Tonga,” added Lolohea.
“Money is a big part of the game and players gave that up to play for them.
“The more we keep winning, the more we’ll grow.”
The very real prospect of more glory for Tonga at next year’s world cup is clearly a motivation for Lolohea, who comes into 2020 with plenty still to prove.
But might this be the season that his abundant potential gets realised?
The words, ‘Talent gets you far in life but hard work gets you further’ sit front and centre of his Instagram biography. Lolohea’s has been some story so far. By Warren Holmes
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