Tommy Talau has always understood the weight of his last name. It carries a lasting legacy which has its roots in a one-way ticket to Australia that held his father Willie’s dream of making it as a professional rugby league player.
Appointed vice-captain of the Junior Kiwis in 1995, there was no doubting Willie’s ability. He grew up in the small country town of Hawera on New Zealand’s north coast but that was during the infancy of the New Zealand Warriors as a club, when talent scouting was rare.
It was up to Willie to chase his own dreams and at just 21 years old, his father handed him a one-way ticket to travel across the ditch.
He wouldn’t need to buy a return ticket. Spotted by the Canterbury-Bankstown Bulldogs, he eventually made his first-grade debut in 1998 which marked the start of an accomplished 277-game career in both the NRL and Super League.
Now his son is following in his footsteps. After spending four years in the Bulldogs Junior Rep program, Tommy signed a development contract with Wests Tigers before being promoted to the their top 30 and is expected to make his debut sooner rather than later.
It marks a new chapter away from his father’s old club but Tommy is adamant that all he is focused on is doing him proud.
“That’s all I’ve ever wanted to do growing up (carry his father’s name), so it would mean a lot,” Tommy told nswrl.com.au.
Tommy’s relationship with his father was one built around their mutual love for the game. When the family moved to England, young Tommy trotted out in the depths of the English winter to train, a headgear clasped firmly to his head as a different kind of protection.
“We lived in the UK for about seven years,” Willie said, laughing.
“So, Tommy started his footy over there.
“The young ones played in winter so obviously it’s cold anyway but their training used to be at night and he loved to go.
“The headgear for us wasn’t for protection, it was to keep us warm.
“He was only a tiny lad.”
And when he wasn’t playing, he was watching – his first memory being of his father winning and scoring a try in the Challenge Cup with Willie admitting that school was never really Tommy’s thing. He was a student of the game.
“I used to get games on TV and out of all my boys he would be the only one who would sit there and watch a game with me,” Willie recalled.
“Tommy is very passionate about what he is doing and I’d like to think through that passion he is just feeding off everything that has been given to him and trying his best to learn as much as he can.
“I’m not surprised that he is going to play first grade, I’m surprised how quickly this opportunity has come up.”
It has been a quick jump for Tommy, who only last year guided the Canterbury Bulldogs to a grand-final appearance in the S.G Ball competition.
He was crowned their Player of the Year, scoring nine tries from just as many games playing five-eighth and also earned selection in the NSW Under 18s and Australian Schoolboys squads.
His talent is indisputable but that in itself can only take you so far. The rigours of playing at a professional level demand more – a grit and determination forged not from highlight reels but from work behind the scenes.
“Last year he subluxed a joint just beneath his knee and he played through this injury for most of the year when he should have been taking the time off,” Willie says.
“He did it at school, doing extras he shouldn’t have been doing because it wasn’t part of his training program.
“He just loves footy.”
Those extra hours at Westfields Sports High School in Fairfield were a clear sign that Tommy was willing to persevere like his dad did and wear the family name with pride.
“He was big on working hard,” Tommy says.
“I grew up watching him, I learned pretty much all I know from him.”
His eagerness to learn is what impressed Willie the most during his time coaching junior grades at the Bulldogs.
“Tommy is easy to coach only because he is so enthusiastic,” Willie said.
“It’s just a culmination of his attitude towards learning and his love for the game.”
Many have taken a similar path to Tommy, rising through junior development programs before eventually being rewarded with their first-grade debut. For some that reward comes earlier than it does for others.
Tommy may soon join the likes of Bronson Xerri, Dylan Brown and Xavier Coates as the first of a growing number of NRL players born after the turn of the century but being thrust into the spotlight at such a young age doesn’t always guarantee success.
And while Tommy didn’t have to make a three-hour flight to Australia, the extra hours spent both on the field and in rehab are more than enough proof that he is on the right path.
“Everyone’s got a tale of being a superstar player when they were young but some weren’t prepared to work for it,” Willie admitted.
“It’s a one-percent type of career.
“I’m extremely proud of him, knowing how hard it is to get there.”