Enjoyed union more
I was born at Auburn Hospital and grew up nearby at Lidcombe, but we also moved home to Guildford and then Granville during my primary and high school years.
My dad, Tevita, and mum, Loni, moved here from Tonga for a better life and I became the second youngest of seven kids – all boys. I think mum kept trying because she wanted a girl, but it didn’t happen so she had to give up eventually!
My first name is Tevita as well, but my middle name is Junior and that’s what everyone ended up calling me. I like it.
I started playing footy for the Berala Bears, out near Lidcombe, but I was playing rugby union as well. Union on Saturdays, league on Sundays. I actually enjoyed union more, but when it came to the time I had to pick one over the other I chose league.
Dad had a big say in that. I was going to Holy Cross College at Ryde. One of my older brothers got a scholarship there and the rest of us followed. It’s a well-known league school and Dad thought because of that I should stick with league. I’m glad I did.
We were still living at Granville and it wasn’t easy getting to school. Some days we’d get a bus to Parramatta and another one from there to Ryde, or other days a train from Granville to Strathfield, another one from Strathfield to West Ryde and then a bus from there to school.
When I started playing junior reps for Balmain we’d train at Leichhardt and that would mean some very long days. We’d get a couple of buses from school to near there, then after training a bus to Petersham, another one to Strathfield and then a train. Some nights we’d get home about 9pm.
All the Tatola boys played footy, but a couple had to give it away because of injuries. One of my older brothers, Fosio, plays rugby for the Manly Marlins in the Shute Shield. My little brother, Mateo, plays Jersey Flegg for the Bulldogs.
I was an inside centre playing union, but I was always in the forwards playing league. I went from second-row to prop in my last year of under-20s at the Tigers.
I don’t know what happened at the Tigers. I was co-captain of the under-20s in 2016 and played NSW Cup the following year, but after that I just didn’t hear anything from them.
My uncle gave me a job concreting and maybe I’d still be doing that if Souths hadn’t come along. I’m lucky Seibs saw something in me.
Getting to know WAYNE
I don’t think Wayne knew much about me before he arrived at the Rabbitohs.
The first time he took training we said ‘hello’ and shook hands. I introduced myself as Junior and that was pretty much it. I don’t know if he knew my full name.
But I must’ve done the right thing in his eyes at pre-season training, because he picked me to make my starting debut in round one against the Roosters and I’ve kept that spot ever since.
We were in the dressing-room after a field session at the start of the week and he said, ‘Big fellow, I’m going to be starting you this week’. I thought, ‘Whoa’. I was shocked and stoked at the same time.
He said, ‘I just want you to play simple footy. I don’t want you to think too much out there. Just run hard, work hard in defence and compete in everything. Don’t over-complicate it, don’t overthink it’.
They had me on speaker and I broke down and cried. Dad broke down, mum broke down, we were all crying. Happy tears. They were telling me how proud they were.
It was the best advice because it just narrowed my focus and that’s what you want when it’s a big occasion like that was for me. He knew I hadn’t been a starter at Souths, so he wanted to make it easier for me. Start strong, have my break and come back on for my second stint. Simple.
Wayne and I are getting to know each other better all the time. Leading up to our game against the Panthers on the Anzac Day weekend, he gave a speech to the boys on captain’s run morning about what it was like to be an Australian at a time like that.
He sort of picked me out and said that even though I wasn’t originally from here I understood it and that we were all as one, and I’m thinking, ‘Hang on, I was born here!’ I had a little smile to myself.
I didn’t want to interrupt Wayne’s speech, so I quietly went up to him afterwards and explained I was born here. We had a laugh about it. He’s a very approachable person and I know he’s going to be great for me – in footy and learning about life as well. I’m already seeing the results in my game.
The thing is, sometimes I did overthink things on the field and make a mistake because of that. I needed to just be myself and play footy. It was like, even though he’d only seen a bit of me at training and in the trials, he’d already picked that.
I guess it’s just one of the many reasons why he’s been so successful.