Among all the new players on show in round one of the NRL, Warriors rookie Eliesa Katoa is surely the most unlikely debutant.

The 20-year-old had never played league until last year, and growing up in Tonga the sport didn't really come across his radar.

But Katoa is part of the Warriors' squad for the round one match against the Newcastle Knights today (5pm NZT), completing a remarkable sequence of events.

"I never imagined that this would be happening," Katoa told the Weekend Herald. "I never thought of a life playing league, I didn't know the rules ... didn't know how to play it."


Indeed, as a child, Katoa probably never imagined a life outside Tonga.

He was raised in Hihifo, a small village of a few hundred people among the islands of the Ha'apai group, a 12-hour ferry ride from the capital Nuku'alofa.

Katoa, the second youngest of four children, enjoyed a typical Island life; plenty of sport, as well as helping with the family's crops, pigs and chickens.

But everything changed when Katoa's father died eight years ago, when he was 12.

"I was the one that back at home I didn't want to leave my mum's side, I always wanted to stay with her," said Katoa. "But then my Dad passed in 2012, and that was hard because my Mum didn't have a job back then. She was looking after us, taking us to school.

"[My father] was the main provider for us as a family. But when he passed away my mum doesn't have a job so I was like, where are we going to get our food from? So I wanted to help my family."

Warriors rookie Eliesa Katoa, ahead of the start of a new NRL rugby league season. Photo / Photosport
Warriors rookie Eliesa Katoa, ahead of the start of a new NRL rugby league season. Photo / Photosport

The death provided extra impetus to stoke his sporting dreams, and Katoa made age group national rugby teams from the age of 14.

On a subsequent tour with the Tonga Under-16 team in 2017, Katoa was offered a scholarship by Tamaki College.


"I told my mum, I can't stay with you any more, I have to do something so I can help you," recalled Katoa. "That is what motivated me to come all the way here."

But the transition from idyllic Island life to the big smoke wasn't easy.

"It was challenging but my mindset was to help my mum and I would whatever it takes," said Katoa. "I wanted to do everything I could to learn English, but it was hard. But with the rugby boys, if they mocked me at school I would smash them on the field and that's what stopped them from mocking me."

Katoa was a standout at blindside flanker or No 8, and by the end of 2018 attracted interest from Super Rugby franchises and the Warriors, eventually opting for the NRL.

He joined the Warriors' development programme but injuries stymied his progress and he didn't make his Jersey Flegg debut until round 12 last year.

However a strong pre-season campaign heading into 2020 forced coach Stephen Kearney's hand.


"I knew he was a big lad and he moves well but what I saw in the pre-season far exceeded what I had expected," said Kearney. "[Especially] the way he goes about wanting to learn [and] his intent when he trains. He's pretty raw in league but you wouldn't think so.

"That's credit to him, as he has taken on all the information that the coaches have given him. I've been super impressed. Without putting any pressure on the kid — I've seen a few kids — [but] he's a good one."

Considering his age, Katoa had taken an impressive, systematic approach to making the leap to first grade.

"At the start of the pre-season I sat down and said to myself 'Every training session I have to be better than the day before, I always want to be better'," said Katoa.

"My goal was to play NRL. I thought if the older boys can do it, why can't I do it?"

Picking up a contract among the Warriors' top 30 has also helped change lives back in Tonga.


"I am always sending money to my family back home," said Katoa. "I don't really need that much here, so I ask them to tell me what they need."

Katoa will face some hard heads in the Knights pack, including rep players such as David Klemmer, Daniel Saifiti and Aidan Guerra.

Throw in the intimidating atmosphere created by the fervent Newcastle support and it's a big task for Katoa, but Kearney has confidence in the rookie.

"I don't think that is going to faze him," said Kearney. "I'll have a chat to him about keeping things nice and simple, some key focuses in attack and defence and that's all he needs to worry about. He'll be fine. He's good enough to be able to navigate his way around that."