An Interview with Rhinos Forward Salesi Tongamoa
In form Atlanta Rhinos forward and USA Rugby league legend, Salesi Tongamoa has announced his retirement. The former USA international will hang up the boots after this Saturdays USARL National Championship against New York in Atlanta. It will be full circle for with the big man ironically playing his first ever game of league for the New York based club. We caught up with Tongamoa to discuss a career that has spanned over a decade, including his introduction to rugby league, career highlights and how this season almost didn’t eventuate for the man known as “The Hammer.
Firstly, let’s go back to the start. When was Salesi Tongamoa’s firstgame of rugby league?
I started playing in 2005. I was up in New York playing Rugby Union for New York Old Blue. They actually got me over to the USA from Tonga. They were able to provide me with a place and a job and the guy who gave me the job owned a rugby league team. The pretty much told me I had to play rugby league (laughs) to pay him back for getting me the job. In my first game of league I actually scored two tries. Considering I had played it before, I was pretty happy with that. I fell in love with game from that moment. It is pretty funny how things work out sometimes, playing my last game against the team I played my first game for.
Fast forward to 2017 with the Rhinos, It nearly all didn’t happen at all for you. After performing strongly at training camp, you advise coaching staff that you are considering retiring before the season. Tell us how that decision came about and what changed your mind?
The camp that we had was very strong. We had a lot of good props who were all fitter and younger than me and I didn’t want them to miss getting a chance. I thought I would be better of mentoring them off the field. I had a discussion with our Coach, Jordon Smedley and told him how I was feeling. He told me he thought that I still had plenty to offer and it would be of more benefit to the younger guys if I lead from the front and mentored them as an on field leader. We made an agreement that I would play, and he wouldn’t pull me out unless one of the guys got the better of me (laughs) thankfully that hasn’t happened and it’s all work out well.
It has turned out to be a good decision with you producing arguably career best form. What do you put that down to?
The team started four years ago and the last couple of years we have done well but last year for example we fell away with injuries. This year has been different. There is just something different about the guys showing up this year. We had a full preseason starting with a camp and then continued which is something we haven’t had. Everyone has just come together, it’s a great culture, and it is like a family. We all have fun together at training and when we step on the field together, we are brothers and fight to the final whistle and that has been evident with some of the battles we have fought this year. It started back in 2014 and now we have built into a championship team and that’s what we are looking like now.
So tell us, with everything going so well, why are you retiring?
A lot of guys get older and suffer injuries, for me it’s not about that. There was one day when I was leaving for training and my little girl came out crying asking “Why am I leaving” and I was like, my daughter is getting older. Life is not all about rugby and I said to myself, you know what? My kids are growing, I want to spend time with them, and there is one day when they will be too old to do that. I am going to stay home and spend time with the kids because one day I will never be able to do that.
I played for an U21 team in Tonga and the A side who wins that tournament gets free tickets to go and play in a tournament in Australia. As I was playing U21 I didn’t think I would have a chance to play A side. I had went back home to normal life and the coach came out and said I should come out to training for the A side and help out as you never know what will happen. I trained hard and I was lucky enough to get the opportunity to go to Australia. We were a little team from the island and played hard and made the final in Aus. There was a coach who spoke with the team after game and said he was bringing three players over to play for his team in Australia. That is what we play for back home, to get an opportunity to go overseas. I was lucky enough to be one of the three. I didn’t think I had a chance when they called me three weeks later and offered me a shot.
There was a catch though! Tell us about that?
I had to fly out the very next day! My mom asked me did I want to go and I was like of course, that’s what you play for. I went out for a season or two and played under Chris Roach who was a flanker for the Wallabies. I learnt a lot. It was there that I was recruited to move to the USA to play in New York for Old Blue.
You have won competitions with both the New Haven Warriors and the Connecticut Wildcats, represented the USA, what is your career highlight?
Definitely pulling on the USA jersey. My favourite game was playing against Tonga, because that is where my parents are from. It was just the hardest game I have ever played in my career. I have never been hit so hard or tried to hit anyone so hard. For me it was an honour thing and if I had the chance, I would do it again.
It has without a doubt been an incredible journey for the Rhinos this season, and everyone who is involved or has been involved at the club always always talk about the “special feel” the club has.What makes itso special and why does the club mean so much to you?
We all have a really close bond. There are a few different cultures in the team but we are all brothers. We have been playing together for a long time now in both league and union and spend plenty of time together off the field which also helps.
When I came in 2014, the club had a family feel from the outset. The imports we had from Australia weren’t just here to play footy and have a holiday which is what I am used to. They were here to build a culture and a club the right way and that was the one focus. There were a couple of years where Smed wasn’t here and we had a good run but there was something missing. He is back this season and with our preparation and his leadership, we have just went to the next level. He has that voice and body language and a coaching style I am used to playing under. We have done everything he has asked and the results speak for themselves, you know. Look where we are now, playing for a national title.
Finally, it is 8:30pm on Saturday and the Atlanta Rhinos have just won their first ever National Championship. How is Salesi Tongamoa feeling?
To be honest I might be in the back of an ambulance (laughs) if I am not in an ambulance, I can tell you now it is going to be the best feeling. There are no words to describe that. It is what every retired guy could ever want, there is nothing better than lifting the trophy in your final game. I will need buckets for all the tears. I will be beyond excited. When all of your hard work and dedication pays off, there is not better feeling.