Introducing Paula Balekana: The kid with ‘spiders’ on him
Just 10 seconds at Chatswood Oval earlier this season were enough to confirm that Paula Balekana was the real deal. Receiving the ball on his own 10 metre line and a few steps inside the right touchline, the electric Gordon winger stepped his way inside one opposition defender and outside another, before putting on the after-burners to effortlessly jink past two more and hold off a desperate chaser on his way to yet another five-pointer for the Highlanders. He added a second for good measure a few minutes later.
The team on the receiving end that day were Randwick, and despite going on to win the round 16 clash 43-29, the visitors were left under no illusions as to the talent the hot-stepping Balekana had brought to the party. “That kid’s got spiders on him!” pronounced Wicks winger Tom Collins, exhibiting an impressive command of the Aussie vernacular for a guy on a two-month rugby sojourn from Northampton Saints in the English Premiership.
But judging by the manner in which Balekana has blazed a trail to the top of the Shute Shield scoring charts this season, every side he faced must have experienced a severe case of ‘arachnophobia’, such was his ability to evade opposition defences and find the line on a regular basis.
Starting the season with a hat-trick of meat pies at Penrith, he barely missed a beat for the rest of the competition, going on to cross the chalk 22 times – including three hat-tricks in total – and scoring in 15 of his 18 games. He also made the most line breaks (27), the most tackle busts (38) and the second most running metres (309) in the competition, and racked up a try against every other Shute Shield side in the process. So a pretty phenomenal effort all round!
Given it was only the Fijian flyer’s second season in 1st grade, the statistics take on even further resonance. But for the humble 24-year-old, it was all a case of being in the right place at the right time.
“Having the opportunity to score that many tries is a wonderful feeling, but my team mates all played a role in each and every one of them,” he told Behind the Ruck. “It’s easy to put down the ball when the hard work has been done for you. Credit to our backs coach Michael Hayes and the players inside to provide good, quick ball.”
See Balekana’s double against Randwick below.
He can’t really be described as an overnight sensation however, given the fact that he finished as Gordon’s leading points-scorer across all grades in 2016, his first year of Sydney club rugby. A trial game for 4th grade when he first joined the club, led to a start in 2’s when the season kicked-off, and halfway through the year he was promoted to 1st grade, where he naturally racked up six tries.
That combined tally of 28 five-pointers in a season and a half of Shute Shield footy understandably put him on the radar of the Sydney Rays, and Balekana is currently preparing for a chance to take his NRC bow against the Greater Sydney Rams when the Rays kick-off in round two of the new season next weekend.
But while his exploits on the field continue to fast-track him to new levels, it’s all a far cry from his less-than humble beginnings back in Fiji. Given the start he had in life, the fact that he has made it this far at all is a success that cannot be measured against tries, trophies or representative jerseys.
Born in the capital Suva, he grew up in Wainibuku, on the outskirts of the city. But when his father became seriously ill and unable to work, the family were moved to a place called the ‘The Hart’ (The Housing Assistance and Relief Trust), a housing commission providing for the disabled, the aged, and for single parent families, which, in income terms, was what Balekana’s family had now become. He was just 10-years-old.
“Dad was only in his late 30’s when he couldn’t work any longer, he had been a security officer. It was tough seeing him like that,” he recalls. “We had limited income coming in through my Mum, who worked as a house girl for one of the cabinet ministers. I had to help out in some way, and I remember having to carry bags of chicken manure for $5 a day. It would help me get to school and provide lunch money.
“I am the youngest of four children. I had two brothers and a sister, but unfortunately, one of my brothers passed away at only 13 years old. My parents are still living at ‘The Hart’ to this day.”
Faced with such adversity at such a young age, it really is a case of survival of the fittest. And just trying to extricate yourself from that environment and give yourself a chance to lead a better life outside of it, is a greater challenge than anything Balekana will ever face on a footy field.
“It’s tough in Fiji. If your family grew up poor, then most likely you will be poor,” he explains. “And it will take great support systems in terms of investments in solid education and development foundations, to assist in changing the way of life there as we know it.”
Rugby, naturally, offers a way out. To a better quality of life for the individual, and a chance to provide for the families they are forced to leave behind in search of the golden ticket. Where most young rugby players aspire to reach the professional ranks and make a career out of the game they love, and hopefully don their national jersey, Fijian kids, and indeed Samoan, Tongan – all young Polynesians – are using the sport with which they appear to have a God-given talent, in order to improve the lives of those they love. And that is some driving force.
“Like most Fijian boys, I started playing rugby at a very early age with my friends,” says Balekana. “Usually with plastic bottles, flip-flops, or a piece of clothing rolled up as a ball. I then played most of my rugby through school, and in 2012, when I was 19-years-old, I was offered a Rugby Scholarship to attend Kelston Boys High School in Auckland, New Zealand.”
His prodigious try-scoring talents led to further recognition, but just as things appeared to be moving in the right direction towards a professional opportunity, he suffered a setback.
“I went on to represent Waitemata Under 21’s and was awarded top try scorer for the season, and I also made the Auckland Sevens squad in 2012. Then in 2013, I returned to Fiji to await a new offer from an agent in New Zealand, but unfortunately that promise of a playing contract fell through. So in 2014 I made my debut for Northland, a provincial side playing in the national competition in Fiji, and I kept on training hard and hoped for another opportunity.”
A tour of Australia with a Fijian Sevens side in early 2016 endeared the then 23-year-old Balekana with the ‘Lucky Country’, so much so that he decided to stay. Laying down his roots in Sydney, a couple of friends recommended the Gordon club to him, and the dream of professional footy – and beyond – was back on. And seeing the progress of some childhood friends was just the motivation he needed to try and succeed.
“I came here to pursue my rugby and through that, start a new life,” he affirms. “The opportunity to play professional rugby is a big factor, and hopefully through that I can also build a career once my rugby is over. Masivesi Dakuwaqa is a great example of athletes shooting through from very poor beginnings. He and I were very good friends, he also grew up at ‘The Hart’, and he went on to win a Gold Medal for Fiji at the Rio Olympics in Sevens and is now playing for Canberra Raiders in the NRL.
“When I got here I also found out that Marika Koroibete and Sefanaia Naivalu, who were my team mates whilst we attended Nasinu Secondary School back in Suva, were going to make the Wallabies training squad. My goal is to play for Australia and I realised that dream wasn’t far off. If they can make it, so can I.”
Fast-forward two seasons and Balekana’s influence on Gordon since his arrival has been apparent. A 10th place finish in this year’s Shute Shield only indicates a semblance of improvement from their 11th spot on the ladder in 2016, but a closer look at their numbers offers plenty of reasons for optimism for a team still knitting together under the tutelage of first-year head coach Mark Philp.
They won six games compared to just two the previous year, scored a whopping 221 more points and earned 15 bonus points, the 5th highest number across all 12 sides. While the defence will be an obvious priority for 2018, that ability to score almost 30 points a game is a handy weapon to have, and is a by-product of the Highlanders’ attacking ethos this season, built upon the handling skills, running lines and finishing prowess of Balekana and an influx of fellow Pacific Island talent.
“I think the Polynesian boys have brought their own style of footy, especially big Tala [Moli] with his runs,” observes Balekana. “Pat ‘the Postman’ Toeta (so called because he always delivers!) is a very creative player with plenty of confidence; Vilimone Turagarua is a former Fiji Warriors player, he is class; and Sy Tevita is a makeshift inside centre – he is a halfback but turns out every week to stamp his name in the midfield.
“We’ve made huge progress from last year and have been competitive throughout the club. This year we had two grade teams in the finals, and Mark Philp has done a great job with all four grades. It’s down to a combination of his leadership and quality players coming through.”
Perhaps most importantly, he has settled quickly into his new environment and made friends.
“I enjoy playing rugby with everyone, but I’ve made lifelong friendships in the short time I’ve been at Gordon,” he says. “I’m grateful for club rugby, it’s given me this window of opportunity, so anytime I get to play for Gordon, I will.”
That window of opportunity looms large, as preparation for the Sydney Rays ramps up in intensity ahead of their first match of 2017 a week on Sunday up at Pittwater Rugby Park, against the Greater Sydney Rams. Watching how Balekana transitions to the next level, and whether he can cause just as many headaches for defences, will be fascinating. He’s just looking forward to mixing it with some of Australia’s finest.
“I understand it will be a step up from club rugby, so I will need to put time in to improve in the coming weeks,” he concedes. “My form has been good over the last couple of seasons, but I think there is still improvement in terms of game knowledge. But it is a great opportunity for me, I’m very excited and really looking forward to playing with and against some Super Rugby players. I think this is the best time for me to show my very best and try to get a professional contract.”
It also means that the labouring gig that fills his time outside of rugby – and allows him to send some much-needed dollars back to his family – will have to go on hold if necessary. “I’ve got to focus on my rugby and I’m going to take a day off if I have to!”
And talking of family, no doubt pencilled into the diary ahead of all the other Rays games is a return to Fiji on October 28th, to take on the newest addition to the NRC competition, the Fijian Drua. Named after the traditional Fijian canoe, the Drua will provide some familiar faces for Balekana if he gets the chance to play against them, in his home town of Suva.
“I know most of the boys, two of them are former class mates at school, one is a flanker and one on the wing. If I get the chance to start against them it’ll be fantastic,” he beams. “It would be a wonderful feeling to play in front of my friends back home, and especially my family – including my father. But I’m just excited to represent the Sydney Rays, and hopefully I can do well.”
From the kid who was forced to carry bags of chicken manure just to have enough money to get to school and feed himself, to the highest try-scorer in the Shute Shield and a shot at the big time in the NRC. Now that would be some kind of homecoming.
Vanuinui vinaka Paula.
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Courtesy of The Blaze Agency