It’s not the easiest transition to make.
Every year, the country’s most brightest and promising rugby league talent look to make the step up from the U/20’s Holden Cup program to full-time training and extended NRL squads in the hope of becoming one of first-grade stars they looked up to as a kid.
In 2017, seven Wests Tigers players will look to make that leap.
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Junior Tatola has had plenty of time to think about the season that lies ahead of him.
A foot injury sustained in the opening months of the 2016 season saw the barnstorming prop — ruled out for the remainder of the year— forced to undergo immediate surgery with the goal of returning for the start of pre-season with the extended NRL squad.
Despite a brilliant 18 months that saw the Berala Bears junior win the 2015 Holden Cup Player of the Year Award, and then star in the opening nine rounds of the 2016 season, Tatola was forced to watch from the sidelines as his teammates pressed on for a Holden Cup premiership — eliminated in the second round of the finals by North Queensland.
He would watch his close friends and teammates JJ Felise and Jacob Liddle make their first-grade debuts during the year — determined to achieve that feeling for himself.
To say it was tough probably doesn’t do the situation justice for Tatola.
And while there were understandable moments of frustration, the junior representative forward said the key has been keeping his eyes on the goal of the season that lies ahead.
“It was pretty hard for me when they found the injury,” Tatola reflected.
“To me, it didn’t feel like an injury. I knew I hurt it during a game early in the year, but I didn’t think too much of it. I played on the next game, but it just kept pulling up sore.
“The physios and doctors agreed I should get an MRI, and it showed the main ligament in my foot had been torn, and that was my season right there.
“When they told me that, it was pretty hard.
“It was my first major injury as well, and it took a bit of a toll on me.
“I got lazy with my rehab and started putting on weight, but everyone at Wests Tigers was really helpful and got me training hard to look forward to next season.
“A few of the senior boys came up to me when they heard I was out for the year and told me to keep my head up and look forward to next season. They told me to train hard and remember that there was always another year, and that was really good to hear.
“So, yeah, it’s been a long recovery process but it’s getting there,” he continued.
“I’m just trying to stat fit so that I can start pre-season in the best shape possible.
“Next week I’ll start doing some rehab running on the field, which is a big step.”
While 2016 might read as a season plagued by injury for Tatola, in just nine games and 492 minutes, the 20-year-old showed plenty of promise to take into the year ahead.
The Holden Cup Player’s Player from 2015, Tatola was named co-captain of the team for the first game of the season and took that responsibility in his stride — dominating in Round 1 against the Warriors with a try, 178 metres and 23 tackles in a 26-12 win.
He backed that up next week against the Sea Eagles with a try, 133 metres and 19 tackles in a 34-30 victory at Leichhardt Oval. The week after it was 142 metres.
Averaging just under 55 minutes per game, Tatola would continue his impressive run of form through the opening nine rounds of the year — not once dropping below 100 metres per game, while also adding another two tries and 152 tackles to his tally.
It wasn’t perfect, but it was a great platform to launch the remainder of the season off — only heightened further by his selection in the Junior Kangaroos game in early May.
Playing with an unknown torn ligament in his foot, Tatola’s 32 minutes off the bench saw him add 20 tackles without missing while adding 54 metres from five runs.
Little did he know, however, that game would be his final time on the field all season.
“I was really excited when I got the call for the Kangaroos,” Tatola enthused.
“It was also really exciting for my parents when I told them the news. That even made me more excited, just seeing how excited for me they were about the game.
“It wasn’t something that I was really thinking about, but to make that team and play alongside JJ [Felise] and some great players was a huge boost to my confidence.”
That confidence — although being tested with the injury — remains high for 2017.
“I think the most helpful thing in all of this has been knowing that next season, I would be stepping up into the NRL squad and that I had that to look forward to,” he reflected.
“I just kept telling myself to train hard and to know that It wasn’t going to come easy.
“I knew I was going to be here next year so I wasn’t worried about my future or anything, but in saying that, I didn’t want to fall behind the other guys at all.
“We really have some great depth in the middle with some of the 20’s boys stepping up into the NRL squad now,” he said. “It’s good to train with them and learn from them, but at the same time, it’s good also to have that competition. It’s good to have that fight for spots, and to have some really good young front rowers coming through here.”
Despite seemingly missing so much with the injury, Tatola isn’t complaining.
Instead, his focus is on what lies ahead, rather than the frustrations of the year that’s been.
“I just want to train hard and to the best that I can,” he said.
“Put my head down and train hard, and not make excuses for anything. I think that’s big.
“The coaches have been really good in pushing me to make sure I keep my training going in the off-season so I’m not behind come pre-season, which is really good. They’re just about bring the weight down before pre-season and making sure I’m not behind at all.
“But I just want to be consistent.
“I feel like I haven’t played footy in ages, so I just want to get out there and make sure that I’m looking after myself off the field to help do that in the best way possible.
“I learned a lot this year and I think it’s grown me as a player, so I just want to get back to what I was before the injury and just keep putting my best foot forward every week.
“If I keep doing that, that’ll be the best thing for me.”
MAKING THE LEAP SERIES