Fan Favourite Fonua Comes Full Circle
If you've followed Mahe Fonua's progress in the English Super League and Intrust Super Premiership, you won't be surprised by his recent success on the big stage.
It's easy to see, too, why Fonua has developed a cult following which spans across the globe; having become the first Melbourne-raised player to play for the Storm in 2012, the outside back gained sufficient popularity in the southern capital over 50 NRL games, before attracting the same attention at Hull FC in 2016 and 2017. Sporting a trademark mullet and an entertaining, physical style of play, Fonua was a fan favourite long before signing with the Wests Tigers for this season – and the Tigers faithful are already celebrating what has been an astute signing.
Fonua's return to the NRL had not been a straightforward one, with the Tongan representative forced to wear Western Suburbs Magpies colours for the first seven weeks of the competition. It's why his man-of-the-match performance in the Wests Tigers' Round 10 victory at Leichhardt Oval is such a special one.
"I played ISP for the first probably two months, and then got my opportunity against Parramatta – but unfortunately we lost," Fonua tells Channel Nine's NRL Footy Show. "We've come off the back of two losses and we needed a response – I thought tonight was a good win.
"It's a good atmosphere (at Leichhardt), the fans are really close to the sideline. That probably helps us throughout the game, when you hear the fans roaring and cheering and that. It sort of lifts your spirits a bit."
Fonua, who in Round 2 told NSWRL.com.au that his English Super League experience had helped him mature as a person and a player, now appears set to be a mainstay in Ivan Cleary's side. The Tigers coach shifted Fonua from the wing to centre in Thursday night's win, which coincided with a 230-metre, five-tackle-break, three-offload showing against the Cowboys.
"Mahe's one of those guys that sometimes when he gets the ball, both coaches hold their breath," Cleary said. "I guess he's played a bit of both (positions) over the years, but he looked a bit more comfortable there tonight and certainly played his part in that win.
"Back at the Storm he was a good player but there was always an error or two around him, but some guys are like that. Generally speaking I think if you're to ask the opposition whether you'd rather play against him or not, it would probably be not.
"Tonight he did well."
Fonua's rise back into the NRL spotlight is a positive for Tigers fans, and according to Cleary, he won't be the last Magpie to reach the big stage this year.
"I've also said most of the year that we're going to use our whole squad," Cleary said. "We're close to doing it now, but there's a long way to go and I'm still keen for spots to be competitive and blokes to contribute.
"Even guys that haven't played yet – I can see times when they'll be needed."
Of the Tigers' initial 27-man squad named at the start of 2018, just three players are yet to play NRL this season: front-rower JJ Felise, second-rower Chris McQueen and uncapped five-eighth Tyson Gamble, who had previously earned the praises of club veteran Benji Marshall. Both players have been named in the Intrust Super Premiership for the Magpies' clash with the Warriors in Round 10, kicking off from 2.45pm NZST (12.45pm AEST) on Saturday and broadcast live on Fox League and SKY Sport NZ.