My rugby league journey started when I was 12 years old, down in New South Wales, where I played for Cootamundra for one year, and then we moved to Cherbourg. And that’s when I really learnt how to play the game.
I guess it’s kinda funny, ‘cause Steve Renouf was the reason that I started playing, and for me to be able to work alongside him now with Deadly Choices, I still get a buzz out of that, I still feel like a little kid like when I first met him all those years ago.
I played my juniors in Cherbourg and then moved down to Parramatta when I was 17 and played there and made my State of Origin debut when I was 20.
That was a rollercoaster year in 2004, everything happened so quickly and I don’t remember much about the game, but, I can remember walking out the tunnel and it was at Suncorp and just being lined up ready to run out and I could just see the back of Lockyer’s jersey – Darren Lockyer, number 6 – and I just remember thinking, ‘wow, this is really happening’.
I was only 20 years old, and I think for sure, that’s one of the biggest highlights for me, playing at Suncorp, packed stadium, making your debut and I was lucky enough to score a try.
Everything just worked out perfect that night and we won that game.
But I had a tough five years after that with injuries and stuff like that, so I was fortunate to get back in there 2009, ‘10, ‘11 and was part of that dynasty that Mal created.
It’s been a blessing to be able to put this jersey on ... and the people that you meet along the way. I couldn’t be more grateful for this opportunity.
When people ask me about the ‘Tonga’ call the team would use after that game in 2011, it makes me feel quite uncomfortable to be honest, it makes me feel uncomfortable.
The game where it came from, I remember at half-time – ‘cause I knew I had done my shoulder and Gilly came out and said, ‘it’s just a burner’ and I said ‘no, it’s not – I know’, he says ‘can you make it to half-time?’ and I made it to half-time.
We were in the dressing sheds, myself, Mal and the doc – and he goes ‘if you keep playing – potentially it’s a reconstruction and you are out for the year’, and Locky walks in, gives me one look and I go – ‘strap it up, let’s go again’.
‘Cause I looked at the bench as well and I think we had some forwards and Coops and I; although I know he’d be able to fill in wherever, but I was like, there’s no one who really plays centre and Johnno and Darius were outside of me and I said ‘I am going to strap it up, but you are going to have to look after me’, ‘cause I was marking up against Mark Gasnier and he’s like a nightmare when you are fit.
But I felt – just that one look from Locky and Mal made me want to play on and I felt that anyone would do that if you were wearing that Queensland jersey.
And then I remember Ricky Stuart, ‘cause he was the coach of NSW at the time and ended up being my coach at Parramatta the following year, said to me, ‘you playing on won Queensland that series’, and that’s a big wrap from him and then to have that ‘Tonga’ call – that’s very humbling, definitely.
I didn’t know about it until a couple of years later, but it makes me uncomfortable, but at the same time it’s an honour, it really is.
People ask ‘why would you do it?’ and ‘why would you put your body though that?’, but he gave me that one look and he’s one of the players I looked up to and ... Mal, he gave me chances that I shouldn’t have been given through things that have happened off the field and there’s no way I could have let them down and I am glad that we won that game and the boys won that series.
As for favourite Origin moments, there’s so many ... wow, when Matty Bowen took that intercept, that was crazy, or when NSW were up in ‘06 and a pass went to ground and then Darren picked it up and went in under the posts. It starts the dynasty.
It’s just crazy and when you are behind the goal posts – we only had a couple minutes to go – and I am panicking when we are behind, and we had Cam, Bill, Johnno, Darren Lockyer and they are like ‘boys we have been here before, we have been here before’ and they were always able to turn it around.
I am getting goosebumps talking about it – there’s so many moments, but those two have stuck out.
Origin is like a religion, everybody, the whole state when it comes to Origin is locked in. I love it.Willie Tonga FOG #145
When I hear people – they say about that game, they bring that game up, and I say ‘how do you still remember that?’ that was eight, nine years ago, it’s like – I don’t know – you are a Queenslander, then you understand, do you know what I mean?
When I speak to guys like Willie Mason, he’s jealous of that – NSW don’t have that, they don’t care if you have played for NSW, but up here, if you have played one Origin.
I forget that – when people just come up to me randomly on the street and they bring that game up, it’s usually that game they bring up and one; I’m like, ‘how to you remember that?’ but two, it’s just one of those things that any Queenslander would do if you are wearing that jersey – you would do anything.
Origin was a highlight for me.
Everything I’ve been through, it’s all a learning curve – I don’t feel that I would be the person I am now if I didn’t go through that – it sounds like a cliché, but it’s true.
I am thankful for the opportunities that people have given me after the mishaps off the field.
We have all made mistakes and I am not ashamed to put my hand up and say I was wrong there – I have definitely learnt from it.
The role that I am in now is really rewarding. A lot of the kids don’t know who I am now, but I go to the older guys and it’s the same, until you tell them you have played Origin, they are not really engaged, when they hear you have played Origin, they are all plugged in to what I have to say, which I find cool as well.
Being in this role with Deadly Choices, being able to put smiles on people’s faces and going out there and meeting new people and engaging in the community – it’s awesome.
I just want to encourage anyone – whether its sports, academics, arts – whatever they want to be – it’s possible.
A lot of people say this as well and it sounds cliché, but I know that if I can make it from where I have been, if you’re fully focused, your dreams can come true.