Rugby League World writer Nigel Wiskar finds out how Atelea Vea defied the odds to forge a top-level Rugby League career…
Atelea Vea is on a mission to make the most of his Rugby League career – after being told as a teenager he would never play again.
Vea leaves relegated London Broncos shortly to start a two-year deal at St Helens.
With that comes a chance to prove himself at the business end of the table but as a youngster at West Tigers that opportunity seemed lights years away.
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He says: “I was playing for the Cubs side at Tigers and picked up a couple of bad injuries, both at the same time.
“It was my shoulder and my ankle and it put me out for a while,” Vea recalled.
“I had to get surgery to fix them and it was half and half whether I could get them fixed or play on.
“Then the doctor took a look and said I’d never play again and told me to hang up my boots. That was quite scary and quite a reality check.”
Vea’s parents are Tongan and he was born in Sydney’s Kogorah, deep in St George territory and close to their Jubilee Oval ground.
“I played from the age of four – that’s what you do if you’re from there. You go to school and play Rugby League.”
Not quite. He also played union as a flanker after a switch to Waverley College and made the 2004 New South Wales schoolboys side.
He said: “We played union on Saturdays and Sundays but I’d always been brought up playing League midweek so that was a bit strange.
“I actually had to stop playing League for a year because my school found out I was playing both and they didn’t want me going back and forth.”
He watched boyhood League pals enjoy more immediate success, the likes of Blake Green and Jason Nightingale, and appeared to have missed his chance in the NRL before a freak chance came for him at Cronulla Sharks.
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“I watched my friends come through which was a bit frustrating for me,” he said.
“I was working in a bottle shop at the time, a liquor store, and I thought to myself ‘this isn’t for me’ so I eventually got myself right with my injuries and joined a local team in the Cronulla area.”
Vea was distinctive in those days by wearing a bright blue head guard, a legacy of his union past and also to keep his long hair in check.
He was big mates with Sam Moa at the time, the former Hull FC prop now smashing it up for Sydney Roosters and New Zealand.
“I was real close with Sam, we crossed paths at Tigers and he ended up going to the Sharks,” Vea explained. “We used to work together for a friend of his. Sam had this car called the Beast and we’d rush to our different training after work.
“One day the reserve grade coach at Sharks left, the new coach came in and organised a trial game. He said we need a back rower, we need a lock.
“I was standing around watching and got a game, purely from hanging out with Sam. From there I got in the team and somehow we won all our games in our final half of the year.
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“I had Blake Green in the halves and he pretty much put me on the map.”
Vea’s softly spoken, polite and charming – typical of many of the islanders playing this brutal game. I’d call him cuddly but he’d probably pull off my arms and shove me up a tree.
We talk while he’s suspended for Broncos’ clash with Saints and we’re interrupted when two kids from St Albans Centurions approach asking him to sign their ball. Relaxed, he asks them how they got on in their latest game.
We’re soon interrupted again when new boss Nathan Brown walks past, flashes a mischievous smile and the pair agree to chat in weeks to come.
“I remember Browny running around as a player,” Vea says once Brown is out of earshot. “I was a St George fan and he had the blond locks, sharp little hooker. I remember him coaching there too, in the days when the Dragons had Trent Barrett.
“We’ve got mutual friends but it’s a strange one… how do you tell someone you sort of know them when you actually don’t?
“He’s a pretty laid back character but maybe after the first week’s training at Saints I won’t be saying that!”
After just eight games for Cronulla, Vea played 11 at Melbourne Storm where he was coached by Craig Bellamy and in the same orbit as the holy trinity of Billy Slater, Cameron Smith and Cooper Cronk.
He said: “Bellyache was awesome. He’d never try to change anything but he’d have his style and as long as you gave your all for the team he was pretty cool.
“If you didn’t practice it on the field you wouldn’t do it on the pitch and that was something I took away from Melbourne – training how you want to play.
“And it was simply awesome playing with those three, so much talent.”
After Storm he finally got to play for the team he’d supported as a child. Just three games at St George but clearly a big deal.
He said: “I got the player of the year award for the Cutters, their feeder team, but it was tough trying to crack into that first team. I was always on the fringe, one spot out.
“Then I think I got a kick up the bum one week from Paul McGregor, who’s now the head coach, and my attitude changed.”
He’s played three games for Tonga, one game against New Zealand and defeats in the 2009 Pacific Cup to Fiji and a semi-final thrashing by hosts Papua New Guinea where he scored a try in a 44-14 defeat.
Broncos coach Joey Grima worked with Vea at the Sharks and St George and saw enough in the 27-year-old to give him a chance in Super League.
“When I stepped off the plane in London it was an opportunity and I wanted to make the most of it,” Vea said.
“I’ve learned more in the last couple of months about myself, about footy and life. I’ve learned more in an unsuccessful season here than everywhere else put together which is a massive call.”
I tell him he seems to play the game with a smile on his face.
“Yeah, maybe. It’s important to enjoy your footy. I was the young kid in the middle of the park and now I’m the old bloke.
“Some of the kids say ‘how old are you?’ ‘cause I’m so laid back.
“But I still want to be better, be the best. My goal in footy was always to see how far I could go so when it’s over I can say I did my best.”
Grima wishes ‘Tils’ well in his move to Saints.
He said: “Lovely bloke and I’m pleased for him. I’d never stand in the way of a player trying to better himself and he deserves this.”
Before we part I ask Vea to tell me something about himself no-one knows.
A long pause then: “No great secrets. I’m family orientated; it’s a massive part of my life.
“I’ve got a girlfriend Caitlin who’s a teacher back home and she’s looking to come over to London.
“That’s me away from footy – family, barbecue, beach. That’s where you’ll find me, just relaxing. That’s me.”