Hawke's Bay Magpies flanker Solomone Funaki is about to fulfil a lifelong dream.
The Tongan international is one of a raft of Hawke's Bay players the new Super Rugby team Moana Pasifika has named in their inaugural squad so far, along with Lincoln McClutchie, Neria Foma'i and Ereatara Enari.
Funaki said it was always a dream of his to come to New Zealand or Australia and play Super Rugby.
"Growing up in Tonga in the islands, that's the only rugby that we watched," said the 27-year-old from the village of Fanga 'o Pilolevu in capital city Nuku'alofa.
While compatriots like Malakai Fekitoa, Shannon Frizell, and Magpies teammate Folau Fakatava were always on the professional radar, having come to New Zealand on secondary school scholarships, Funaki fought his way to the top from club rugby.
He said that journey, which started in Bay of Plenty in 2015 before he joined the Magpies three years later, has made his successes all the sweeter.
"It's just a dream, it's unreal, I can't explain the feeling," Funaki said.
Another special moment came this year when Funaki was able to tell his father he had been selected for Ikale Tahi, and would be making his international debut against the All Blacks in July.
"You could hear in his voice that he was crying and stuff," Funaki said.
"It made me feel good, that I did something good because the old man always supported me, would go out of his way to support me."
But the dream debut was soured, and not just because Tonga caught a 102-0 hiding from the All Blacks.
Funaki suffered a hand injury early but played on thinking it had only been dislocated.
"(I) went for the scan straight after the game and I saw the broken bones," he said.
It was the same wrist he broke twice in 2019, keeping him to just one NPC appearance over his first two seasons with Hawke's Bay.
Funaki said he was frustrated with the timing of the injury after a breakthrough in 2020 which earned him a short-term training contract with the Highlanders earlier this year.
Discussions with Moana Pasifika about his full-time deal for 2022 had also been progressing during his time in camp with Ikale Tahi.
Funaki went to the doctor ahead of a surgery that would take about two months to recover from, putting him out of a good chunk of the Magpies season.
But a last-minute CT scan revealed the bone had come back together all by itself, and it would continue to heal easily in a cast.
"Four weeks after, I'm back playing. It was a miracle to be honest," Funaki said.
The openside flanker had feared losing the momentum he built in 2020 having made the Hawke's Bay number seven jersey his own in the Championship semifinal and final.
But he started against Otago in round two and has once again been a key contributor as one of the Magpies' many star loose forwards.
Funaki, who was not selected for the Waikato game in a testament to that depth, said 2021 has been an amazing year so far.
"Our team is growing. The boys were talking about how four years ago we started building," he said.
"Seeing it now, competing at that Premiership level and doing well, it's pretty satisfying."
An outstanding campaign in 2020 evidently didn't convince the betting public that the Magpies were the real deal, with the TAB making Hawke's Bay pre-season favourites to be relegated back to the Championship.
"The boys were really keen to test themselves against the best of the best, and we're pulling through," Funaki said.