We caught up with former North Queensland Toyota Cowboys centre Willie Tonga to talk about his playing career and what he's up to now.
The 39-year-old spent time with the Parramatta Eels, Canterbury Bankstown Bulldogs, North Queensland Cowboys, Catalans Dragons, Leigh Centurtions and Bradford Bulls.
Tonga made 212 first grade appearences between the NRL and English Super League, as well as eight matches for Queensland and 12 for Australia.
1) You grew up in and started playing rugby league in Cootamundra. How old were you when you started playing and what made you want to play?
I was 12 when I first started playing. I just started because that’s what my mates were doing at the time and I fell in love with the game straight away.
2) You made your NRL debut for the Parramatta Eels in 2002 as a 19-year-old. How did you find out you’d be making your debut and what do you remember about that match?
I was told at the start of the week by Brian Smith that I’d be playing in place of Jamie Lyon, who was on State of Origin duties. We were playing the Roosters at the Sydney Football Stadium and I remember I wasn’t nervous until I ran out and saw Brad Fittler and Brett Mullins. I was a massive fan of Brett Mullins and the Raiders growing up in Canberra. The nerves didn’t hit me until I saw those two run out.
3) At your first season at the Bulldogs you won a Premiership, was named Centre of the Year and made your Origin and Australian debuts. What was that season like?
It was a whirlwind type of year. I went into that season just trying to cement a spot in first grade. A grand final wasn’t even on my radar. That’s not something you even think about when you are just trying to get a permanent spot. I remember at the start of the year I sat down with Mark O'Meley and he said ‘We are going to win the comp this year.' I realised that that was the mindset of a first grader. They go into the season thinking about grand finals whereas I was just happy to be playing first grade.
4) How did you find out you’d be making your Origin debut and what do you remember about the experience?
I remember getting called up because Justin Hodges got suspended the week before. I got a phone call that I’d be in camp but I wasn’t going to be playing because they still had Paul Bowman and Brent Tate. I saw Tatey at the start of the camp but he didn’t pass his medicals. I remember the first training session there was just myself and Paul Bowman. Nobody told me I was playing. I just had to figure it out myself that I was the only other centre there. I remember being in the tunnel at Suncorp and looking up and seeing the back of Darren Lockyer’s jersey and that’s when it hit me that I’m going to be playing State of Origin.
5) You joined the Cowboys ahead of the 2009 season. Why did you decide to make the move up north and what are your lasting memories of your time in North Queensland?
I was at the Bulldogs at the time and was struggling with a lot of injuries. I had just come off a shoulder reconstruction and prior to that I’d had three or four knee surgeries. I thought I needed a change. I made my Origin and International debut in 2004 and then I hadn’t played for five years. In my head, I thought the only way I was going to be able to play back at that level is if I moved away and play outside of Johnathan Thurston. At the time him and Matty Bowen were the best combination in the competition. I thought for me to take my game to the level I needed it to get to, I had to move up to Townsville and play outside of those two. I loved everything about being up in North Queensland. The people, the fans and playing outside of JT and Matty Bowen week in and week out.
6) After a couple of years with Parramatta, you made the move to the English Super League. What was that experience like?
I had a lot of injuries over there as well, including knee injuries, a broken jaw and a bicep too. It wasn’t the best experience playing-wise, but it was good to live in a different country. It’s something I never thought that I would do, especially as a young kid. To be able to go over and experience another country while playing the game that I loved, it was great.
7) What have you been up to since retiring at the end of 2017?
I moved to Sydney not knowing where my career was going to go. I landed a job at KARI, which is an Indigenous foster care agency. After a year there I was approached by Deadly Choices to join them. I wanted to move back to Queensland to be closer to family so I took the job. I’ve been working with them for three and a half years and I love what I do. I can’t imagine doing anything else. I love going out into the community and helping Indigenous people. It’s so rewarding. I have also done a little bit of one-on-one coaching through Chris Lynn’s organisation ‘Playbook’.