Pauli Tuala: The best player you’ve never heard of

By Sam Ryan

He’s the NRC poster boy most of you have never heard of.

Plucked from playing park rugby in the Illawarra last year to join the NSW Country Eagles, Pauli Tuala represents everything that is right about Australia’s third tier competition.

At 29, the former NSW Country Cockatoo was given his first opportunity to play professional rugby in last year’s NRC and he didn’t disappoint, helping the Eagles earn a semi final berth in their inaugural season.

“Pauli was brilliant last year. We knew he had plenty of talent but it was hard to gauge how that would hold up in a new environment,” Eagles coach Darren Coleman told Rugby News.

“From the first day he joined the program he really embraced it and did his best to learn from the guys around him and he ended up being one of our most consistent performers last season,” the coach added.

Tuala admitted the NRC wasn’t on his radar when news of the new competition leaked early last year and said he was planning on hanging up the boots at the end of the 2014 club season.

However after a standout year with the NSW Country Cockatoos, his plans quickly changed.

“When Darren came to training at Cockatoos camp last year all the boys just thought it was a gee up, they were just there to show their faces,” he said.

“Then Eli (Sinoti) and I got picked up and it was a massive surprise.”

With just over two weeks to prepare for their inaugural season, Tuala was thrown in the deep end, joining some of Australian rugby’s most experienced players in a star-studded Eagles forward pack.

“I was pretty stand offish at the start. I went from playing part footy in Wollongong to training with Steve Hoiles and Chappo (Mitch Chapman),” he said.

“They were your teammates but they were also Waratahs and Wallabies so it was pretty nice to play with them.”

After impressing from the bench in the opening rounds, Tuala quickly became Coleman’s ‘super-sub’, consistently making an impact at the back end of the match in a number of positions.

“We had a fair few guys coming off the back of pretty lengthy Super Rugby and Shute Shield seasons, so having Pauli there to cover a number of different roles was important and really added to the success we had last year,” Coleman said.

“Then he got a chance to start down in Canberra in what was a pretty important match for us, and up against a heap of Super Rugby players he caused a number of turnovers that ended up winning us the game.”

However off the field things weren’t as peachy, with Tuala forced to take three months off work to chase his dream.

Some un-contracted players are paid as little as $400 for an entire NRC season, making Tuala and his young families commitment all the more impressive.

“Financially we had just got back on track and then I got picked again this year,” he said.

“I spoke to my wife about it and she was a little hesitant, but it’s one of those things, I’m turning 30 this year and not getting any younger so it was hard to say no to.”

The Eagles lost a host of big name stars ahead of the 2015 season – Steve Holies, Mitch Chapman, Matt Carraro, Paddy Dellit, Sam Windsor and Josh Mann-Rea to name a few – forcing Tuala into somewhat of a leadership role this season.

Although he seemed uncomfortable by the suggestion, he said he was enjoying training and competing alongside young guns Will Miller and Mark Baldwin for a starting spot in the Eagles backrow.

“Baldwin plays like Pocock, he’s hard on the ball, good ball runner and loves to tackle and Will Miller, he’s just a mad dog, he hits anything that moves so I’m picking stuff of both of those guys each week.”

Whilst Tuala admits the NRC may be the highest level of rugby he plays, the opportunity to help his younger teammates further their budding careers is something he’ll cherish forever.

“Will and I always joke about how two guys from Illawarra are playing in this competition and I pick his brain about stuff all the time, so if I can help him or Mark in anyway, it would be pretty special.”