Michael Burgess is a sports writer for the Herald on Sunday.

How league's bad boy lost $1 million but beat his habit of self-destruction

Sione Faumuina doesn't like talking about regrets.

Everyone has them, but the former Warriors star could carry a truckload, that if dwelt upon would become all consuming.

He had the potential to be one of the greatest sporting talents this country has produced, but was instead consumed by alcohol and erratic behaviour. Coaches, teammates, partners, friends - no one could curb his wild ways.

Faumuina has almost nothing to show for a decade as a professional league player, estimating that he had earned more than million dollars in that time.

"I was living from paycheck to paycheck, and most of it went on booze," admits Faumuina. "If I think about what I could have achieved...well it's better that I don't."

Faumuina was the enfant terrible of New Zealand rugby league in the 2000s, one of the bad boys of the sport for most of that decade.

He was supremely talented - on his day he could be one of the most destructive players in the game - and was a key member of the 2003 Warriors outfit that progressed to within one game of the grand final in thrilling fashion.

Faumuina was also good enough to represent his country and also played for the Canberra Raiders and North Queensland Cowboys in the NRL, as well as three English Super League clubs.

But Faumuina had a talent for self-destruction. He was a wild man off the field, never able to curb his excessive drinking habits which would often involve regular multi-day benders.

During his time at the Warriors, it wasn't uncommon for him to be out in Auckland city until 7am or 8am, before taking a taxi straight to the club for morning training.

Faumuina was seen as a walking time bomb. He was involved in several notorious alcohol related incidents, which were splashed across the back pages of major newspapers in New Zealand and Australia.

He left each of his clubs under a cloud, and was lucky to walk away from a car crash in Townsville in 2008, when he rolled his car three times. Faumuina ended up in court facing an assault charge after an incident in a Yorkshire nightclub during his third stint in England, and the final straw was when he turned up legless to a team recovery session.

Faumuina was also in a fiery relationship with former Silver Ferns captain Temepara George, which gained a massive media spotlight at the time.

Now Faumuina has decided to tell his story, in his book The Second Phase, which was published on Friday.

It's a compelling, though sometimes uncomfortable read, brutal in its honesty. Faumuina reaches rock bottom on numerous occasions, starts to get back on track, then plunges into a downward spiral again.

"I had so many chances to turn the corner and go in the right direction," admits Faumuina. "Sometimes I would, for a while, but never for long enough before I would be back into the same pattern again."

"I did some awesome things on the field, in some great games with some great teams. Unfortunately everybody remembers everything else about me, the drinking and all of the bad stuff. I wanted to at least tell my side of the story."

It's one hell of a tale, that doesn't always paint the 35-year-old in a great light. His honesty is as admirable as his lack of insight at the time regrettable.

Warrior Sione Faumuina in a Warriors v Sea Eagles NRL Rugby League match. Photo / NZPA
Warrior Sione Faumuina in a Warriors v Sea Eagles NRL Rugby League match. Photo / NZPA

Faumuina fell into professional league, not following the traditional pathways and development programs. Though he had played both rugby codes throughout his childhood, he excelled at basketball as a teenager, which gave him freakish ball skills, comparable to Sonny Bill Williams. They transferred well to league, when he returned to the sport in 1999 as an 18-year-old

"Things happened really fast," recalls Faumuina. "I played a few games for a mate's club team then was named in the Auckland Under-18 team. From there everything started to happen."

Faumuina was signed up by an agent after starring at the national tournament, then received offers to go to various NRL clubs, eventually accepting Canberra's offer.

"In the space of 12 months I went from playing junior club footy to an NRL team," said Faumuina. "It was probably too fast."

Living in a hostel, a homesick Faumuina turned to alcohol, and in his first year in Canberra soon reached rock bottom.

He hit a schoolboy as he was driving home drunk from a party one morning, and though the student walked away uninjured only tardy police work prevented more serious consequences.

"I was lucky and should have learned a lesson from that," says Faumuina. "But I didn't. It was just one of many indiscretions."

Later the same year the club's end of season 'Mad Monday' celebrations lasted five days, before Faumuina hopped on a plane and continued the partying in Auckland.
"I thought I was bullet proof, "says Faumuina. "But really I had no idea and no self-control."

Faumuina's exploits on the booze make your eyes water. He describes nights out where he would have 20 drinks (usually vodka), coupled with as many tequila shots, continuing onto lunchtime the next day.

There were consequences, and so many notorious incidents. He punched former New Zealand Sevens player Allan Bunting at a Whakatane touch tournament in 2004 (an incident he had no recollection of) then continued drinking heavily into the next day, abusing current and former All Blacks present from the sideline.

He was accused of assaulting a fan in downtown Auckland (though the case never went to court) and was totally "out of control" at a Warriors luncheon for club legend Awen Guttenbeil.

Faumuina claims to have only missed only one training session during his four seasons at the Warriors - when a weekend drinking session ended up at Waiheke Island - but was banished from another by the coaching staff, due to his visible intoxication.

Both the Warriors and Cowboys sent him on counselling and Alcoholics Anonymous courses, but he didn't take them seriously, joking in the book that "buying new pairs of Nike Air Jordans was my idea of '12 steps'"

Somehow, he kept on playing some solid football. He was a standout for the Warriors in 2003 and again in 2005, both seasons when he cut back significantly on his partying lifestyle.

That's the enigma of Faumuina; he had a decent career, despite spending most of it off the rails. But he could never break free of the demons, which saw him cut by almost every club he played for.

George isn't named in the book. Instead she is referred to as 'the girl' or 'my girlfriend', with Faumuina simply saying that "Temepara didn't want to be named".

It was a volatile relationship, off and on for five years, with media and public fascination over two sports people at the top of their respective careers.

"It was an experience," says Faumuina now. "She was well loved by everybody so it was hard; being compared to who she was."

The duo had some spectacular public arguments, with the most notable ending with Faumuina smashing her car windscreen with his fist after a drunken tirade in downtown Auckland. On the same night he was accused of assaulting a man beside an ATM machine, though charges were never laid.

Faumuina's life finally changed in 2014, during a conversation with his lawyer. They were discussing access to his first child, after his former partner had left him and moved away.

"She told me it's alcohol or your daughter - which do you love more?", recalls Faumuina. "In my head something finally clicked; it wasn't about me anymore. I found a reason to change, finally. "

That was February 14, 2014 and Faumuina has been sober since - admitting he is "too scared of alcohol" to touch it. Based in Brisbane, he owns a laundromat with his new partner Renay, has a second child (Ella;18 months) and last week was offered a job as a youth facilitator for at risk teenagers.

"It's something I am really passionate about," says Faumuina. "If I can help them avoid some of the mistakes I made..that would be something special."

Faumuina was very much the wrong guy, at the wrong time. He was already fond of alcohol as a teenager, but his move to Canberra plunged him headlong into the NRL's drinking culture. It was his escape, his way to fit in and his crutch through the tough times.

It started a habit - Faumuina recoils at the term alcoholic, but admits there is evidence of "an addiction" - that didn't stop throughout his career.

Incidents on the booze still happen today, as we have seen this year in both rugby and league, but there is much more support around players and their welfare and mental health, particularly for younger sportspeople.

"Life with Sione was like being on a roller coaster," says fellow Kiwi and contemporary David Solomona, who has known Faumuina since he was 16-years-old. He tiptoed the line between absolute stardom and becoming a public failure, and ultimately succumbed to the pressures of it all."

Solomona, who represented the Kiwis and Samoa as well as turning out for five professional clubs, now works for the NRL in their Wellbeing and Education department, a section that didn't exist in the last decade.

"I believe it would have benefited someone like Sione," writes Solomona in the book. "Understanding, educating and supporting our young players from an early age is something we need to learn not just as a sport but as a society. Pressure to succeed, pressure to provide and pressure to change habits ingrained from childhood can lead to many of our youth struggling to cope with life at the best of times, let alone on TV and in newspapers. Let our mistakes guide us, not define us."

- NZ Herald

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