Wellington-born Nelson Asofa-Solomona sidestepped certain rugby union stardom to join Melbourne Storm, before breaking into the Kiwis Test team in 2017.
The towering tyro played rugby league at junior level for Upper Hutt Tigers, but the Wellington College product had been earmarked for the 15-a-side heights until the Storm recognised Asofa-Solomona’s potential and lured him across the Tasman.
Asofa-Solomona cut his teeth with Melbourne’s under-20s side in 2014 and was blooded in Craig Bellamy’s NRL line-up the following season. The 19-year-old came off the bench 12 times, including both of the club’s finals games. He produced a strong follow-up campaign in 2016 but dislocated his elbow during the playoffs, ruling him out of the Storm’s grand final loss to Cronulla – and a potential end-of-year Kiwis call-up.
But Asofa-Solomona ticked both boxes in 2017, missing just one of Melbourne’s games and starring in the grand final defeat of North Queensland, before featuring in all four matches of New Zealand’s World Cup campaign. He scored a try on Test debut in the Kiwis’ pool victory over Samoa and was later named Kiwis Rookie of the Year.
Establishing himself as a front-row starter for the Storm in 2018, ‘NAS’ was vital cog of their drive to another grand final appearance – a loss to Sydney Roosters – while he played in the mid-season Test against England in Denver. An ankle injury ruled him out of the Kiwis’ post-season campaign.
Asofa-Solomona returned to the New Zealand side for the following year’s mid-season showdown with Mate Ma’a Tonga in Auckland. He was one of the most effective forwards on the field, racking up 125 metres and 30 tackles in 44 minutes off the bench.
The two-metre enforcer’s intimidating physical presence is matched by his aggression and explosive impact on both sides of the ball. Freakishly mobile and athletic for his size, Asofa-Solomona’s ball skills are another dangerous weapon in his arsenal. He passed 100 NRL appearances for the Storm in a stellar 2019 season, and put up career-high tallies for games played (27), average metres (122), average tackles (21.4) and offloads (39), as well as make 70-plus tackle-breaks for the third straight year.
An automatic selection for New Zealand’s end-of-year Test schedule, Asofa-Solomona was ruled out of the clashes with Australia and Great Britain due to an NRL-imposed suspension for an off-field incident.
Asofa-Solomona recovered from that setback in 2020, however, reaching 20 appearances for the fourth straight NRL season (averaging 3.5 tackle-breaks and 120 metres in the process) and starting at lock in the Storm’s grand final victory over the Panthers.