“You’ll never be a real first grade player until you’ve played 50 games.”
Those were the words spoken to the then 20-year-old Tim Simona after he made his first-grade debut for Wests Tigers against Newcastle back in in Round 13, 2011.
49 NRL games later, the Auckland-born centre remembers the conversation vividly.
“There’s probably two conversations that I guess stick out to me the most,” he reflected.
“I remember before my debut back when I was in the ranks at the under-20’s, Sheensy [Tim Sheens] got like 40 of the young players into a meeting and told us that out of everyone in the room, there was only going to be one or two of us that would play grade.
“And I can just remember sitting there thinking I wanted to be that one.
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“So when I did make my debut, the coaching staff told me that until I played 50 games, I couldn’t consider myself to have made it as a first-grade player.
“Looking back, I think that was really good to make me realise that just because I’d played a game of NRL or whatever, I hadn’t made it. And I guess now, playing my 50th game this weekend, I’m just hoping that there’s many more games to come.”
Finishing as the Club’s top try-scorer in his first proper season of first-grade in 2013 — scoring 12 tries in 17 matches — Simona has quickly established himself as one of the most potent centres in the game, with a myriad of spectacular tries on the left edge.
After making his international Test debut for Samoa at the end of 2014, the 23-year-old carried that strong form into the current season, with six try-assists, three tries and a lethal combination with veteran winger Pat Richards already this year.
And yet, despite all of that and being on the verge of his 50th first-grade match against the Penrith Panthers on Sunday, Simona knows he’s far from “made it” in the NRL.
“I definitely know that I’m there yet,” he enthused. “You’ve never really there.
“I mean, I guess I’ve made my little achievements in those 50 games — making the Samoa team and things like that — but there’s a lot more to come.
“My main goal is to reach 200 first-grade games.
“The average of what a player actually gets to when he plays first-grade isn’t all that high, so the focus is to play first-grade for a good 10 years of my life.
“Definitely playing for New Zealand as well is a big goal of mine.
“It’s always been my dream since I was a kid to represent the black and white, so hopefully that isn’t too far away for me if I keep playing well.”
While there’s certainly plenty of obvious physical changes Simona has experienced since starting in the NRL four years ago — adding close to 10kg and moving from the wing to the centres for starters — the Balmain junior says the biggest change he’s seen in himself is the understanding of what’s expected from him as a player and a leader.
“Watching back at when I first came into the NRL, I think I looked really young.
“I acted pretty young then too, so I guess I’ve become more mature in the past few years.
“There’s a lot of young guys coming up in the ranks here with some serious talent, and I feel that I can nurture them and kind of show a little bit of what I’ve learned and how I’ve changed both myself and my game in the 50 games so far of my career.”