THREE years and two clubs after he was shown the door by the Newcastle Knights, Kalifa Faifai Loa will return to Ausgrid Stadium tomorrow as a fully fledged Test player when he debuts for New Zealand against Australia.
Faifai Loa arrived in Newcastle in 2008 as a wild-haired teenager from the mean streets of Auckland but feared he had blown his chances of a professional career inside 12 months after a series of off-field misdemeanours. Far from harbouring any ill-feelings towards Knights officials after his inglorious exit, the North Queensland winger said it actually proved to be the making of him as a player.
‘‘I don’t blame them for not re-signing me,’’ Faifai Loa said yesterday. ‘‘They gave me a chance, but three strikes and I was out.
‘‘That’s just footy.
‘‘If you don’t have discipline, no club wants you.’’
Faifai Loa had been recruited by then-Knights coach Brian Smith on the strength of his deeds for New Zealand under-16s.
He proceeded to play five games in Newcastle’s SG Ball (under-18) side and 10 games in the under20s.
But he was unsettled in his new surrounds – ‘‘I was living in all sorts of places, actually’’ – and looks back on those troubled times as a valuable life lesson.
‘‘I was 18, away from home, getting homesick, and to deal with that I was going out a lot,’’ he said.
‘‘After that, I didn’t get re-signed by Newcastle ... everyone has those teenage moments and unfortunately mine was when I moved here.
‘‘You don’t realise how much you miss your family until you move away.
‘‘It was tough.’’
Returning to his homeland, Faifai Loa wondered if his career was over before it had even kicked off.
But when an unexpected lifeline arrived from St George Illawarra he latched onto it, moving in with his cousin Jeremy Smith, who became his role model.
‘‘My cousin Jeremy, he disciplined me,’’ he recalled.
In the Dragons’ 2010 premiership-winning campaign, he played in two NRL games, scoring a brace of tries against Penrith.
That was enough for him to secure a contract with North Queensland, where he established himself last season as a crowd-pleasing strike weapon on the left edge.
In 22 games for the Cowboys, he scored 10 tries, some of them spectacular acrobatic efforts.
When New Zealand’s squad was reduced by the withdrawal of outside backs Manu Vatuvei, Krisnan Inu and Steve Matai, Faifai Loa was thrilled to receive a belated call-up.
Tomorrow the 21-year-old faces a fellow rookie in Knights flyer Akuila Uate, who has played six Tests for his native Fiji but will pull on the green and gold for the first time.
‘‘He’s one of the most scariest, most dangerous wingers there is,’’ he said.
Faifai Loa said he was relaxed but ‘‘pretty excited’’ as he prepared for the biggest game of his career.
And he admitted that of all the venues at which he could graduate to international status, it was somehow fitting it would happen in Newcastle.
‘‘Not getting to re-sign here, and then coming back for my debut Test, is probably a good thing,’’ he said.
‘‘I get to show them what I had.’’