As seen on rnz.co.nz
29th September 2021
Former New Zealand Warriors rugby league star Motu Tony was 14-years-old when he knew he wanted to play the sport professionally.
The Auckland Warriors were formed in 1995, and for the first time, there was a team he thought looked just like him.
“When the Warriors came into the [Australian Rugby League competition], the Winfield Cup in 1995, I would have been year nine then, but that’s when it sort of hit me like, hey, these guys, you know, some of those guys look like me in terms of being Polynesian or Samoan,” he said.
“They were playing the game every week and getting paid for it, so that’s when it dawned on me that this could be a career.”
The 40-year-old said teachers laughed at the idea of him dreaming of a life as a professional footballer, but for the Samoan Niuean from south Auckland, the goal was already set in stone.
“I understand it now when teachers ask you the question about what do you want to do when you leave school, and you tell them you want to play league, they laugh, they tell you to maybe go to university and do this and do that, but I wasn’t worried because I knew what I wanted to do.”
Five years later, Tony made his debut for the New Zealand Warriors, one of his most treasured memories over a professional playing career that spanned 12 years.
Motu Tony made his debut for the New Zealand Warriors in 2001. Photo: Supplied
“I started playing when I was like six, so that’s 13 years I’d been grinding and working towards this dream and it finally happened,” he said.
“I was terrified at first but then I got excited because I wanted to challenge myself against these guys that I’d seen on TV. Players like Stacey Jones, Jerry Seuseu, Ali Lauiti’iti, these guys were awesome players and I wanted to prove myself to them.”
“And you know, my family, my mum, she probably would have told everyone in Māngere that her son was playing for the Warriors too,” he quipped.
The General Manager of Football and High-Performance at New Zealand Rugby League played 55 games for the Warriors before a short stint at the Brisbane-based Broncos in 2004.
He moved to England where he played for the Castleford Tigers, before playing 100 games for Hull F.C, finishing his career with Wakefield Trinity Wildcats in 2012.
He also played 13 games for the New Zealand Kiwi’s.
Looking back, the former international believes it’s a career that wouldn’t have kicked-off without the rugby league programme at his Auckland-based college, De La Salle.
The 1996 De La Salle First XIII brimmed with NRL talent. Photo: Instagram / Motu Tony
“Playing with those older guys had a massive effect on me,” he said.
“I was playing with older guys who were Junior Kiwis and in the Warriors system, and I got to see first-hand what you had to do to get to that level, but also just how you should be as a person.”
Former Warriors player and team-mate Tai Savea, who drowned while on a fishing trip at Port Waikato in 1998, was especially significant, he added.
“He was the captain of our De La Salle team and he had a massive impact on me and my rugby league career.”
“He was like a big brother and one of those guys who was always critiquing my game, always saying you should be doing this, or you should be training like that… those sort of things were invaluable to my career.”
Despite the absence of a rugby league team since 1999, the school has been a melting-pot for talent, which boasts the likes Jason Taumalolo, Jeff Lima, and Leeson Ah Mau to name a few.
After some help from another De La Salle old-boy and former NRL player, George Carmont, 2021 saw rugby league back on the paddock for the first time in 22 years.
But it came with some challenges.
De La Salle are back on the rugby league seen after 22 years. Photo: Supplied
“It was really difficult and there was a lot of opposition to it, but now that it’s come back I think people can see why we pushed for it and what it’s done for our community here in Māngere,” said Motu Tony.
“A lot of people weren’t aware that De La Salle hadn’t had a team for so long… and it was hard work because we were pretty much starting from scratch again, but it’s been real rewarding to see some progress both on and off the field.”
In their first year back, Carmont helped coach the team to win Auckland’s Senior A Grade Championship.
The victory means they advance to the Premiership grade in 2022, in a pool of prominent rugby league schools including St Paul’s College and Kelston Boys’ High School.
De La Salle’s First XIII were also scheduled to compete in New Zealand Rugby League’s secondary schools competition in late August, but it was cancelled because of Covid-19.
Motu Tony said it was just the beginning and he felt lucky to give back to a programme that heavily impacted his life.
De La Salle College were crowned Auckland’s 2021 Senior A Grade Champions in their return to the scene after 22 years. Photo: Supplied
“How lucky are we to get a chance to give back to the game, but to also hopefully help people in other parts of their lives too.”
“When you can see some of the changes that you’ve observed with some of the boys in your team to where they are now, that’s what makes it all rewarding for us.”