The Waratahs have had one of their most gruelling preseasons in recent times, but you won’t hear Lalakai Foketi complaining.
The 23-year-old played Super Rugby for the Rebels in 2014, signed from Shute Shield club Manly after playing Australian Schoolboys and U20s, and came in with plenty of high hopes.
Though he made his Super Rugby debut in that season, he played just 12 minutes all year, before being released.
“Going to Melbourne when I was 18, I didn’t know what to do – it was my first time living out of home and I was like a little kid in a candy store, being in a Super Rugby team that early,” he said.
“I took it for granted a little bit, so to come back and to go do the hard years, play club rugby in New Zealand, play Mitre 10 it just made me appreciate it a whole lot more.”
A season in France and three with the Bay of Plenty in New Zealand’s Mitre 10 Cup have come and gone since then, but he will finally be able to add to that tally, with a whole new outlook on rugby.
“I left when I was 19 to go over there (to France), that time it wasn’t the right time and it didn’t take long for me to realise that,” he said.
“To play with the likes of Joe Rokocoko, it was really awesome but I wanted to come back to NSW and I felt like I had a lot more to give in Super Rugby.”
Four years on, Foketi’s outlook is far different than it was when he found himself there the first time around, and it’s paying off.
“Coming straight out of school, making 20s. making Super Rugby, you get to training and some days you go ,’oh, we’ve got a hard day,’ or ,’We’ve got fitness today’, and stuff like that.
“Then all of a sudden it’s gone, you’re working a job, you have a 9-to-5 and you go straight to club rugby.
“It makes you appreciate it a lot more.
“I love waking up early, going to training and just doing whatever we have to do that day.
“I just soak it in because going through that phase and (being in) that stage where I am now it’s just made me realise that it can go at any second.
Foketi’s 9-to-5 was a teacher’s aid job at Bay of Plenty school Papamoa College, exploring another of his life’s ambitions.
“I loved it (helping kids) but at the same time in the back of my head I wanted to play full time footy,” he said.
“We had a big room, so it was 50 kids.
“I had some days where I thought, ‘I don’t want to be a teacher,’ but I have a passion for teaching and helping kids.
“Once I have some spare time I’ll ask around and see what I can do (with the Waratahs) because it’s a passion of mine and I really want to do it.”
Foketi never gave up on a second Super Rugby opportunity in his time in New Zealand a desire only enhanced as he watched some of his former U20s teammates including Allan Alaalatoa, Tolu Latu and Sean McMahon go on to make their international marks.
“To leave and to watch them go well was really awesome to see but also made me really want to come back and be there with them,” he said.
He hasn’t put a foot wrong since arriving at Waratahs training, forcing his way into the starting 13 spot, ahead of Curtis Rona, his self-assuredness catching the eye coaches and teammates alike, including flyhalf Bernard Foley.
“I think he’s just a really smart, natural footy player and really likes the enjoyment of the game, in terms of wants to get his hands on the ball, wants to be involved,” Foley said.
“We saw that in his impact in the last trial against the Rebels, how much of an impact he had coming off the bench and just putting himself in the game.
“A lot of people, especially of his age, coming into this environment might remove themselves but he’s really confident and he’s really impressed me.”
The Waratahs take on the Stormers on Saturday February 24, kicking off at 7:45pm AEDT. Buy tickets here.