‘Big T’ and Sam Junior: A rugby dream come true

Photos: J.B Photography

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“Keep your heart open to dreams. For as long as there’s a dream, there is hope,
and as long as there is hope, there is joy in living.”
Unknown

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While the oft-repeated mantra in sport is that it is a ‘results-based business’, every now and then a little slice of humanity creeps along to outweigh the harsh nuts and bolts of a win, loss or draw.

Such was the case in the clash between Sydney University and West Harbour at Uni Oval No.2 a few weeks ago. With a touch over three minutes remaining, and the visitors holding a 40-31 lead, Wests head coach Todd Louden put the call out for replacement Sam Buka to strip off his tracksuit top and prepare for battle. But this wasn’t any tactical manoeuvre intended to lock down a position, bolster a vulnerable part of the field, or even replace an ailing team mate. It was merely the realisation of a dream two inseparable friends had held since they first played footy together as teenagers…

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Rewind six years to the inner west suburbs of Sydney. Living together with a Fijian family are newly arrived league hopefuls, 19-year-old Taqele Naiyaravoro, and 18-year-old Marika Koroibete. Both are on the books of Wests Tigers, both trying to impress enough for that golden ticket to NRL football. But they aren’t alone in their aspirations.

Watching them hone their skills on a daily basis is another 18-year-old, Samuela Buka Talili. Born in Blacktown, ‘Sam’ had been taken back across the sea to imbibe his Fijian roots for a few years before his parents returned to Sydney and hopefully, to better opportunities. But somewhere along the way, he took a wrong turn in life and almost lost himself, as well as those around him.

When he watched with awe at the abilities of Naiyaravoro and Koroibete, he wasn’t just a young Polynesian kid dreaming of making the big time with an oval ball in his hands in either code, he was a confused young man trying to find his place in society, and wishing to put his trust into something concrete that could help him turn his life around for good.

“Dad brought us back to Australia to get a better opportunity in life but things didn’t go the way we planned,” Sam explained to Behind the Ruck. “I felt like no-one accepted me at that point, and I was always very guarded with how people viewed me. I started drinking at a young age, when I wasn’t supposed to be, but alcohol was the only thing that could resolve the state of mind that I was in. When I was drunk, it was the only time that I was in peace.”

And that was just the start of a slippery slope.

“I got into trouble, luckily, not enough to get locked up, but there were a lot of good behaviour bonds,” he admits. “I was also trying to find myself at that time because I didn’t know I was doing anything wrong. But then I got kicked out of the house when I was 15, nearly 16-years-old, and I was homeless for six to eight months. I used to sleep at Central Station without anyone knowing, and it was during winter as well.”

Sam’s time on the streets came to a blessed end when he moved in with his Aunt and Uncle in Campbelltown, and then Glenfield. He also found a girlfriend and confidante, and after getting away from the city for a while to clear his head on the Central Coast, it was to her, and to the sport he loved, that he returned. It proved to be a fruitful decision.

“I came back to Sydney to be with her and because of rugby,” says Sam. “I managed to stay grounded thanks to my girlfriend at that time, and through going out with some friends, and through playing touch rugby, I met Taqele and Marika. That’s when I started asking them if they could help me because I also wanted to play rugby league or union as a way of making a better life.

“So we used to do extras at Yagoona Park with the other Fijian boys, and things went so well that we decided to create a rugby Sevens team out of it. All the boys were spending so much time together during the week, and on Sundays, we would all try to attend the same Christian Mission Fellowship church service in Fairfield. I felt like I belonged because they were from Fiji as well and sometimes, when boys from the islands are away from their family, the best thing for them is to stay tight together.

Sam Buka_Fijian boys early days

Training time with the boys: Marika Koroibete (far left, Taqele Naiyaravoro (kneeling, right) and Sam ‘Junior’ Buka Talili (far right)

“When they started helping me out we got close, and the friendship between Taqele and myself became more like a brotherhood, and I now introduce him to others as my older brother. In the process, I found God as well, and that gave me a bit more inner peace. My Mum had always told me that even if I felt times were hard and people were far away from me, to always remember God. And I think, with that little bit of faith, I managed to overcome every obstacle that I faced, and all the issues that came with them.”

Recognising that Sam hadn’t had the smoothest of pathways in life up to that point, the gentle giant in Naiyaravoro quickly took him under his wing.

“He came over to Marika and I to ask us to train him, as he was about to have an Under 18’s trial game for a league club, and we started to know each other from there,” he recalls. “He didn’t know much about how to play the game but with Marika and myself playing Toyota Cup that year for Wests, he wanted to make it too.”

“He used to come to every single one of my games with Wests to support me, and he would always ask me to train him and ask me for advice on how to play the game. He had a rough background growing up, being passed around from family to family. So when I moved out to an apartment, I took him along and he stayed with me for a couple of years. Since then we have always stuck by each other.”

Spartans Sevens team photo

The Spartans Sevens team, with Taqele (second left) and Sam (kneeling, far right)

Their Sevens team, the Spartans, became a regular fixture on the Australian Sevens circuit, picking up a few plate wins and causing plenty of sleepless nights for their opposition all the way from Noosa and Byron Bay, down to the Central Coast and Kiama. And in 6ft 4in, 123kgs Naiyaravoro, they had a weapon that soon came onto the radar of then New South Wales Waratahs head coach Michael Cheika.

Shifting to union in 2014, ‘Big T’ as he became known, played a role off the bench in the Waratahs’ maiden Super Rugby title in just his first year in the new code, while affiliating himself with Parramatta in the Shute Shield, and the Western Sydney Rams in the NRC in the process. Twenty tries in just twenty-nine games across the three teams impressed Cheika enough to call him up to his inaugural Wallaby squad when he assumed control ahead of the 2015 World Cup, and he made his international debut in September that year against the USA, scoring a try with his first touch.

At the same time Naiyaravoro was making waves in union, Marika Koroibete was doing the same for himself in league. Having joined the Melbourne Storm from Wests Tigers, the flying winger bagged 34 tries in 58 games across two seasons, and played for Fiji in the 2013 Rugby League World Cup. All of which also drew him to the attentions of the ARU, and he soon followed his fellow import to union, signing for the Melbourne Rebels and making a Wallaby debut last year, before he’d even played a game of Super Rugby.

Fardy_Naiyaravoro_Koroibete_Wallabies_2016

Naiyaravoro and Koroibete line up alongside Scott Fardy for the Wallabies ahead of their clash with the Barbarians last year

Having watched them at close quarters in those early years after they first arrived, and trained and played alongside them for Spartans, Sam knew better than most of the talents both players had at their disposal, and the efforts they were putting in to make it in either form of the game. He was convinced they would make the big time.

“I had no doubt in my mind that both of them would do really well,” he says. “If only people would take the time to see what goes on off the field rather than on it, they would be able to see the hard work rugby players put in day-in, day-out. When we were living together, I remember Taqele would get up early around 4am just to go to church or read the bible before he went to training.”

Naturally, Sam didn’t hesitate to join his big ‘brother’ on the cross-code switch either. He followed Naiyaravoro to Parramatta, hoping to improve through the grades to get a chance to run out in 1sts alongside him, but it wasn’t to be. And when Taqele announced he had signed for Glasgow in the Pro 12, and was moving to the other side of the world, that dream became a very distant reality. It was also a test of how far Sam had come as a person.

“I think that would be one of the toughest moments, because when he told me he was thinking of going to Glasgow, I was happy for him but at the same time, I didn’t know what it would be like without him because he’d always been there,” admits Sam. “But I was lucky enough to have just got married, and I think at the time, he felt comfortable to go, knowing that I was going to be ok.

“With him going places with his rugby, that gave me a bit of an easier platform to follow. So, rather than trying to find out things the hard way, it was easier to mimic what he was going through. Life would be very different for me if I hadn’t met Taqele, he showed me the fundamentals of running a family and taught me a lot of basics about life. So when he went to Glasgow for a year, I was able to get the foundations right around my own family.”

When he returned to Sydney, and to the Waratahs in 2016, Naiyaravoro found a friend who had matured, settled down and found peace in both his home and working life. But there was still something missing, an old itch still waiting to be scratched.

“Sam had moved to West Harbour hoping to finally get a chance to play 1st grade,” he explains. “But he also told me it was going to be his last chance at trying to make things happen in the sport. So when I got back from overseas, I went training with him for a couple of weeks and started from box one with him again.

“Every bit of skill there is we worked on it – ball handling, passing, beating defenders and more. It was tough but we got his rugby skills up and after a few weeks of training at Wests he said he was doing really well there and that 1st grade was getting closer to him. So I figured that maybe I would come to West Harbour and we could finally get a chance to play together. The club approached me and they had some really good plans for the future, and it was good to jump on board.”

Westharbour 3rd Grade v Sydney Uni Shute Shield 2017 Rnd 12

Sam in action for 3rd grade against Sydney University – Photo: J.B Photography

However, with Taqele busy trying to lock down a starting spot for the Waratahs, they had to wait until round 12 of this year’s Shute Shield – a bye round for Super Rugby – for the opportunity to realise their dream against Sydney University. But if it wasn’t for Pirates head coach Todd Louden, the chance may never have arisen at all, long before he got to call Sam off the sub’s bench against the Students.

“I was thinking of going to another club to be honest, and I spoke to Todd in pre-season and he told me to give it until Christmas and to see if I liked the culture,” reveals Sam. “I think it was only two weeks after we had that chat, that I asked him ‘Where do I sign the registration form?’ He’s a players coach and more interactive with how things work off the field, and he’s a good person. He really knows how to handle the Island boys, always trying to make things exciting. On our bye week, the week before we beat Uni, we went and played laser skirmish!

“This year, I will complete my first ever rugby season and a lot of that is down to Taqele’s help, and to Todd, to the experience he has brought along and the way the culture is right now at West Harbour – I’ve been enjoying every game. For me, it’s the journey that goes along with it. Everyone would like to win the championship, but it’s hard to change bad habits overnight. West Harbour was known as a team that could win one week and lose the next, but now we’re starting to build some consistency in 1st grade.”

Having already made his long-awaited Shute Shield debut in round one against Randwick, Sam had spent most of the season see-sawing between 2’s and 3’s with the hope of getting another opportunity with the top squad. But when the big day came and ‘Big T’ rolled up ready to take his Pirates bow in the unfamiliar position of outside centre, Sam was listed in 3rd grade. As a result, he played his match, then cheered on 2nd grade, and spent most of 1st grade screaming encouragement to his friend, while getting in the ear of anyone he thought may have some influence in convincing coach Louden that he was the man to bring the best out of their new star.

“I was telling our strength and conditioning guy Shane to send a message to Todd that I should be on the field, because I know exactly how Taqele plays,” he laughs. “I’ve watched his games so many times and trained with him, so I knew exactly what he was trying to create as an outside centre. He tries to consume as many numbers as he can and always look for the offload.”

His exhortations finally paid off.

Naiyaravoro had shown his class, running over 200 metres in the game, offloading at will, and capping off his performance in the 72nd minute by plucking a loose kick out of the air to pound downfield and extend the visitors lead to 40-31. Their defence held firm for another five minutes, although the job was far from done. But Louden finally gave the nod to an ecstatic Buka, who raced on to the left wing position, smiled his way through every second of his time alongside his friend, and duly hugged him with delight at the final whistle as the Pirates recorded what was their second win over Uni in 2017.

“I don’t think there’s many players who play 3rd grade and skip 2nd’s to come on in 1sts as well!” says Sam. “But they were some of the best three minutes of my life I reckon. I’ve always dreamt of playing next to Taqele in a high level of rugby, and to have an opportunity like that, even with a minimum amount of time, was very special to me.”

“We are really close friends and it has been a journey for him to come this far and sharing the field together really was a highlight for me,” confirmed Naiyaravoro. “He’s been working so hard to be where he is today, grinding day-in, day-out at training, and at work to look after his little family. At times he would feel down and discouraged, but I would always be there to pick him back up, so to be playing with him was a dream come true for both of us. That’s why we always call each other brothers, and that’s why it was so close to his heart and mine to be sharing the field.”

Taqele Naiyaravoro_Sam Buka_Wests_2017

At last! Taqele and Sam share the moment in the sheds

It’s all a far cry from the disillusioned young man sleeping rough outside Central Station just a few years ago. But even the darkest of stories can have a happy ending, and for Sam, hard as it was to go through that period of his life, he probably wouldn’t change a thing.

“People in general know me as Sam Buka – I like to tell them that I’m just like the liquor, only sweeter! – and when they meet me now, they see me as a happy, bubbly person. But that was a different story back then because my guard was always up. I think a lot of people would have thought I’d be behind bars for sure, because of how I was. So for me personally, if I didn’t go through those hard phases I wouldn’t have met Taqele, and all the people that have helped me along the way.

“However, most of my family and friends call me Junior, because I’m named after my Dad, and that makes me proud. Despite what happened, I still love my parents because I believe that everything in life happens for a purpose, and everything in life has it’s own time and place. Now I am married to the wonderful Lupe Nau Talili, and we have three kids – two girls and a boy. I am happy.”

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