FEW footballers have rolled the dice and taken gambles quite like Penrith’s Eto Nabuli.
Just two years ago, the gentle giant was carrying bags in hotel foyers in Fiji. Then after a chance meeting with two league legends, he ran the gauntlet, threw himself into the eye of a hurricane and left his home and family to take up a sport he’d never played before.
And now, with his time at the Panthers likely drawing to a close, he’s preparing to do it again. His ascension from the foyer of the InterContinental to footballing prominence, though, has been one he’ll never forget.
“I’ve been blessed, to come from far and play rugby league. I always wanted to do the best in my life and rugby league has been a big part of it,” Nabuli says.
“[Coming to Australia] it was the first time I played in my life and I really appreciated it.
“When [Andrew Johns and Brad Fittler] first saw me, I was working in the hotel. They saw me and asked me if I played rugby league and I told them I only played union.
“When they told me they wanted me to come to Australia, I got in the car and travelled with my girlfriend to get a visa. I was getting calls asking how it was going and all I could say was, ‘Yeah, it’s a hurricane. I’m still in Suva.’ All the roads were closed, the police were out… it was pretty dangerous. It took days to get there and finish all the work.”
Nabuli’s manager George Christodoulou knows all too well what his client has given up to be in Australia, playing for Penrith in the VB NSW Cup.
“He’s got a young baby back in Fiji with his partner. He’s sacrificed a lot to be here,” Christodoulou says. “His baby was born at the end of last year and he missed the first part of her life. He’s seen her once and it’s got to him a lot … he’s come to make a better life for himself and for his family.
“When he first came, the Christmas-New Year break (in 2012-2013), I said to come and stay with us, that I’d help him settle in and show him around. He just became part of the family, my kids call him their brother and he calls us mum and dad. He’s just a great kid – he’s so much more than another client to me.
“He’s a good story. Freddy and Joey said when they were in Fiji, ‘We’ll take you to the park to see what you’ve got’. They started putting up bombs and Joey’s passing him balls and putting in grubbers and he’s swallowing everything. They were just blown away by his ability.
“Freddy rang Gus Gould, said ‘You probably think I’m crazy but I’m in Fiji and you’ve got to sign this porter’. Gus, being Gus, likes a punt and everyone else thought Freddy was crazy. Gus rang me and brought him over to Australia and he got here just before New Year two years ago. That pre-season was his first taste of league, the first time he’d played the game. He scored 30 tries last year in the [VB NSW Cup].”
Christodoulou feels it’s sheer bad luck that cost his client a shot at his NRL dream, with a move to Perth now the most likely option.
“He had a big pre-season this year, got up to 111kg, got over to the Auckland and played pretty well, but he blew his knee out on the first day of the Nines but he didn’t tell anyone because he’d been earmarked to debut in the NRL for round one,” Christodoulou says.
“The second day of the Nines he played on and that night Matt Moylan, who he was rooming with, saw his knee swell to the size of a basketball and called the doc. He’d blown his medial and was out for eight or nine weeks, missed the start of the season and the rest is history.
“He’ll be leaving Penrith but he’s tossing up whether to go the Dragons or take up a really good two-year offer with the Western Force… I think he’ll be going to the Force.”
Nabuli, though, with a title on the line, just wants to finish his time in the black strip as strongly as possible.
“I’ve been blessed. I had no idea [Fittler and Johns] were going to see me. I was working,” Nabuli beams.
“I’m really thankful for the opportunity, to build a better life for myself and my family.
“I’d love to get that premiership in the NSW Cup this year, to help Penrith win the title. Hopefully there’s another two games ahead (with the National Championship]. I’ll do my best because there’ll be people watching.”
When a kick goes to his corner this Sunday afternoon, expect Nabuli, who gets married in Fiji a week after the grand final, to rise above the pack and take a chance in his quest for glory. He always has taken risks – and, as his still-unfolding footballing journey shows, he always will.
Catch Eto and his Panthers teammates in action this Sunday at Allianz Stadium when they take on the Newcastle Knights.
This feature can also be found in this weekend's Grand Final edition of Rugby League News which will be available for just $5 at Allianz Stadium.
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