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Pole thriving after taking the path less travelled to NRL

As a New Zealand-born Tongan who was raised in Melbourne and previously played Australian rules, Fonua Pole is a pretty unique prospect in the NRL.

His journey to first grade has been different to most, but the 20-year-old has looked every bit at home since making his NRL debut for the Wests Tigers earlier this month and is now set to play a big role as the club transitions to a new era under Premiership-winning coach Tim Sheens.

The Wellington-born prop got his start in the NRL in arguably the most hostile environment the Wests Tigers will face in 2022, coming off the bench during the Warriors’ homecoming match in round 16 with most of the 26,500 in attendance cheering for the home side.  

“It was unreal for me and one I won’t forget,” Pole told NRL.com.

“It was 100 percent Warriors crowd just screaming at us, I think I got slandered on the sideline a bit and someone was yelling at me that they felt sorry for me and didn’t want me to go on.

Match Highlights: Warriors v Wests Tigers

“I didn’t look at them, but I was laughing!

“Melbourne is home, but the game in Auckland gave me that home feeling too.”

After being scouted by the club while playing for a Combined Affiliated States side at the Australian Schoolboys Championships, Pole joined the Wests Tigers last year and quickly progressed through the SG Ball, Jersey Flegg and NSW Cup competitions.

But had it not been for schedule clashes earlier in his life, there’s a good chance rugby league would never have happened, and Pole would be kicking around a different type of ball right now.  

“Originally mum just wanted to get me out of the house and took me to training for AFL,” Pole said.

“It started to become a bit of an issue because mum didn’t like that in AFL most of the games and trainings were on Sundays, when she always wanted us to go to church.

“I was missing games and trainings and I never played on Sundays.

“So she started taking me to rugby league and from there I pretty much fell in love with it.”

With realistic hopes of a finals berth dashed, the bottom-placed Wests Tigers have turned to blooding a group of new players in recent weeks, with Pole joining the likes of Justin Matamua and Austin Dias as those to have made their debut in July.

Pole playing for Western Suburbs in the NSW Cup.
Pole playing for Western Suburbs in the NSW Cup.

The club’s head of pathways, Matthew Betsey, said it's the beginning of what he hopes will be a long line of graduates from the club’s junior system.

“I really do think that is the case [that we have a great generation coming through], and it hasn’t been by luck, the whole club has really focussed on development in the last few years,” Betsey told NRL.com.

“We are only just starting to see the tip of the iceberg, and it’s not guaranteed they’ll all go on to play NRL. But I do think the long-term benefits of that the club will see over the next few years.

“What we have tried to do is replicate what happens at NRL level through our pathways, so for people like Fonua and Justin it’s made every step up in the pathway easier.

“Justin and Fonua particularly have been exceptional in their first few games.”

Pole meanwhile said he was excited to work under Sheens and club legends Benji Marshall and Robbie Farah next year.

“Knowing what they did for the club, all three of them, they obviously know what it takes to win, so I am real keen to learn off them and hopefully we can turn the club around,” Pole said.

“Benji is someone I used to look up to. I haven’t [met him properly] yet, he came around training and told me I had a good game recently. He seems like a cool bloke who is always having a laugh with the boys.”

Acknowledgement of Country

Wests Tigers respect and honour the Traditional Custodians of the land and pay our respects to their Elders past, present and future. We acknowledge the stories, traditions and living cultures of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples on the lands we meet, gather and play on.

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