AJ Carr - Wrexham


Most of us take Rugby League pretty seriously. Some of us say Rugby League is our life.


Wests Tigers and USA hooker Joel Luani says our game may well have saved his life.


It's been a big year for the youngster, who made his first grade debut against Parramatta in Round 22, another of the "generation next" to have their careers accelerated by the injury crises which cruelled Wests Tigers' premiership chances in 2013.


Luani is now a key player in Team USA's fairytale run in the World Cup, having knocked off the Cook Islands and hosts Wales in Group D.


The Tomahawks will almost certainly face Australia in a quarter final, defying tournament organisers expectations of Wales hosting the Kangaroos in a marquee fixture.


It hasn't all been a dream come true for Luani, he's experienced personal tragedy which might have derailed not only his career, but his life. Wests Tigers and Rugby League gave him something to focus on.


"There's been dark times in my past," said Luani. "I lost my father and my grandma within two months of each other. They were big supporters for me.


"It's been tough, but my mum and brother are hanging strong. I've got a good girlfriend back home, Sarah, who looks after me."


Luani, as with the Club in general, was rocked by the loss of fellow Holden Cup star Mosese Fotuaika at the beginning of the year.


"Losing Moses was a hard thing at the start of the year," said Luani.


"I'll never forget the relationship I had with him. It's something I carry with me."


Luani has come through that tough period, and now speaks with an air of maturity and self awareness more usually recognisable in an older man.


The Americans have built a wonderful team atmosphere in the short weeks they have been together, with Luani well a part of the "playing for the boys" culture.


But a lot of this is about his family. Representing them on the world stage is something he is very proud of.


"It's a massive deal," said Luani. "My family has done everything for me.


"My family has been unreal, all my support systems have been incredible.


"All of my good mates are really supportive. It makes my life a lot easier when all I've got to think about is football."


All of the young Wests Tigers stars representing their countries at the World Cup have spoken of the increased confidence they've gained in being a part of their national set up.


Luani is no different. America are not flush with so many of the stars of the NRL and Super League as other nations and have had to play a highly controlled, professional style of football.


The hooker says he's learned a lot to bring back to Wests Tigers.


"Being one of the younger guys in this squad I think I've learnt to be composed and play for a full 80 minutes," said Luani.


"That's what the experienced guys have brought into this side.


"I've picked up a boat load of confidence. I know I'll be more confident and ready to speak up.


"To just play with a lot of passion and a lot of heart, that's all you can do. If you give it your all, the result will look after itself."


Rugby League fans talk of wanting more than anything to have their players to give their all and play with heart.


In Luani, Wests Tigers fans more than get their wish. He owes the game a hell of a lot.


For him, Rugby League really could be "his life".


"There's not a whole lot else that I can do really," said Luani. "Football has always been a thing since I was little.


"I've loved every second of it.


"I love the game and it's brought me joy and lots of happiness. It's made me a better person.


"It's everything."


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