Family is everything to Newcastle Knights flyer Akuila Uate, so fatherhood was always going to sit well with him.
It’s now six weeks since the Fijian-born winger and his girlfriend Samantha welcomed their first child Tatianna into the world.
And Akuila – or Aku, as he is known in rugby league circles – is lapping it up at his Tingira Heights home.
‘‘I do everything,’’ he beams, when quizzed about the new domestic duties that have come with the role.
‘‘I’m loving it. I change nappies ... I do everything. I’m killing it!’’
Aku credits his childhood experiences in Fiji as the source of his fatherly know-how.
The youngest from a family of four boys and a girl, Aku quickly learned what raising a baby was all about.
‘‘I was there for my sister Asinate when she had her baby,’’ Aku recalls.
‘‘Mum had to go to work, so me and my brothers would stay home and help to look after the baby.
‘‘I was lucky I was brought up in Fiji. I’ve told my missus that if I was raised here [Australia], I would have no idea about how to change a nappy or do all that stuff.’’
Aku admits that Tatianna’s arrival has shaken things up, as babies tend to do.
It can be a challenge, for example, for Aku to juggle his training and playing commitments with the needs of his new family. But he’s up for it.
‘‘I’m doing a lot of babysitting. When I’m not training or playing I love staying at home with my daughter and giving my missus time to sleep,’’ he says.
It’s at this point in our story that opposition wingers in the NRL might be sensing that Aku is mellowing. He now has competing priorities, after all. Opponents might reckon that the inevitable distractions of fatherhood will take the edge off Aku’s rip-and-tear approach to footy.
But they’d be wrong.
In fact, the news for rival clubs is all bad: Aku’s energy levels have gone up a notch.
Tatianna’s birth in January coincided with Aku’s selection in the NRL All Stars team for the match against the Indigenous All Stars on the Gold Coast.
It was a big couple of days for Aku, and he was bouncing off the walls with excitement.
‘‘Becoming a dad has changed everything,’’ Aku says. ‘‘I feel I played better [against the Indigenous All Stars]. I was thinking about my daughter when I was playing, and I got more energy. I was really excited that week,’’ he grins.
Aku scored a try to help the NRL All Stars to a 28-12 win, and his characteristic explosive bursts with the football proved a handful for the defence on every carry, just as pronouncing Aku’s name proved more than a mouthful for NRL All Stars coach Wayne Bennett.
Bennett reportedly couldn’t quite master ‘‘Akuila’’ or ‘‘Aku’’ so instead apparently mashed them together and came up with ‘‘Cuckoo’’.
NRL All Stars halfback Benji Marshall told the Newcastle Herald that the new nickname could stick because Aku was such a funny guy ‘‘... and he’s a bit cuckoo’’.
Aku was aged 16 when he left his home in the remote Fijian island of Lakeba to live with his father, David Uate, and stepmother Julie, at Woy Woy, on the Central Coast.
‘‘I wasn’t going really well at school because I always wanted to come home and go fishing and do things like that,’’ Aku says sheepishly. ‘‘So Dad brought me over here in 2003 to finish high school.’’
Aku attended Brisbane Water Secondary College, Woy Woy, where he became one of the foundation students in the school’s Rugby League Sports Academy.
‘‘It was just fun back then,’’ Aku recalls. ‘‘Mr [Matt] Marker and Mr [Mark] Cribb were teaching me rugby league basics like how to play the ball.’’
Rugby union had been the main football code played in Fiji, although Aku had always had an interest in rugby league and had closely followed the careers of Fijian rugby league stars Noa Nadruku and Lote Tuqiri on TV.
Aku soon followed the lead of his cousins and schoolmates and joined the Woy Woy Roosters under-17s team in the Central Coast rugby league premiership.
Roosters president Grant Pride says Aku made an immediate impression.
‘‘Aku was electrifying. He had blinding speed, and he’s even bigger and faster now,’’ Pride says.
‘‘He was, and is, a tremendous athlete. Some of the things he was doing back then defied belief.’’
Aku proved a fast learner, too, and in 2005 was selected in the Australian Schoolboys squad alongside current Newcastle teammates Jarrod Mullen and Cory Paterson, as well as current NRL stars Darius Boyd (St George Illawarra), David Taylor (South Sydney) and Mitchell Pearce (Sydney Roosters).
Aku has fond memories of his first rugby league games at Woy Woy.
‘‘It was just fun,’’ he says. ‘‘All you did was run and score tries. You got more space than in rugby union. In union you’ve got to ruck and maul, but in league you get to keep the ball for five tackles and you kick it on the last. That’s the fun part about league.
‘‘And I didn’t really get touched back in those days because nobody could catch me,’’ he laughs.
Everything came easily to Aku on the football field. So there was no reason for him to ever doubt that he would make it in the NRL.
‘‘I thought it would be easy getting into the NRL,’’ he says, smiling at his naivety. ‘‘But it’s hard work.’’
As a teenager, Aku had trials with Wests Tigers, Manly and the Sydney Roosters.
‘‘My last trial was with Newcastle, and the only reason I picked Newcastle was because it was fairly close to Woy Woy and only maybe two hours on the train,’’ he says.
‘‘I then got a letter from Newcastle saying that I had made the train-on squad.’’
For the next two years, Aku had a crash course on the dedication needed to make it in the NRL. And he almost failed the test.
‘‘I was going to give up,’’ he confesses. ‘‘It was a bit hard for me.
‘‘Every day after school I’d catch the train up to Newcastle for training. Then, after training, I’d catch the 8 o’clock train back. I wouldn’t get home until about 12, and then I’d have to get up in the morning and go to school.’’
Then family kicked in.
‘‘I nearly gave up, but I kept going because I thought it would be good for me and my family,’’ he says.
‘‘I always wanted to play on TV and show my family back home, and here, that I’m playing in the NRL, and to make them happy.’’
Helping them financially has always been part of the plan, too, he says.
Aku’s mother, Loami, is one of his most devoted fans. And that’s saying something, given the cult-like following Aku has earned from some Knights’ die-hards.
‘‘I ring my mother every couple of days. She’s really proud,’’ he says.
‘‘When I first came over here my cousins got me into the Woy Woy Roosters. My family’s support has always been there ... all the way to where I am now.
‘‘And now my daughter comes first.’’
Family is everything.
Rugby league commentators talk about the value of a ‘‘personality player’’ – a rare bird who puts bums on seats as much through his playing style and skill as his genuine connection with fans, both on and off the field.
It’s a mantle that Aku embraces.
‘‘I love the fans,’’ he says. ‘‘And Newcastle fans are just the best, I reckon.’’
Before and after games Aku makes a point of seeking out the club’s supporters to raise their spirits.
‘‘I love going around and giving them hugs and making them feel happy,’’ he says.
There are NRL players who give the impression that fans must sometimes be endured. These are the players who rank fans marginally above journalists as a necessary evil in the game.
But Aku sees things differently.
‘‘Some players, when they lose, they go straight off the field to the sheds,’’ Aku says. ‘‘But even when we lose at home, I love going around to the fans and making them feel better. So whether we win or lose at home, I always thank the fans.’’
Aku says Newcastle supporters have been loyal to him from the very beginning, and he will never forget it.
‘‘When I was playing in the Knights juniors, the same people who were watching me then are the same people I see now at the games,’’ Aku says.
‘‘They’ve been there for me since the juniors with the Knights. I remember all the ‘nannies’. They’ve been there for me since the SG Ball [under-18s competition], the [Jersey] Flegg [under 20s] and Premier League, and now I’m playing first grade.
‘‘I never stop thinking of them every single weekend we play at home. They are just the greatest supporters in rugby league, I reckon.’’
But even Aku might have to set some limits when it comes to embracing his people. He admits that when he’s now walking around the streets of Newcastle he may reluctantly have to put a cap on the time he spends interacting with fans – at least when he’s out with Sam and Tatianna.
‘‘My missus reckons that when we go to the shops now we can’t take the baby any more,’’ Aku says.
The problem is that once fans approach Aku for a chat, he’s often in for the long haul. And mother and baby can only be kept waiting for so long.
‘‘People do come up for a chat. And it’s great. I can’t say ‘no’ and walk away,’’ he says.
Aku is acutely aware that expectations are high for him this year.
He was, after all, the leading tryscorer (with 21 tries) in the NRL last season, and was named the Dally M winger of the year.
He has started season 2011 with a standout performance in the All Stars game, and has been named in NSW coach Ricky Stuart’s Blues-in-waiting squad.
Pundits are already talking about him as a likely NSW and possible Australian representative.
Knights legend Andrew Johns has described Aku as a ‘‘freak’’, and at the NRL season launch last week the world’s best player, Benji Marshall, tipped Aku to become the next NRL superstar.
Aku seems slightly embarrassed when asked about the plaudits. But he’s not biting.
‘‘I haven’t set any big goals,’’ he says, matter-of-factly.
‘‘I don’t think about rep football at the moment. If I can improve every weekend, with all of the little things, then some rep football might come.
‘‘I just want to win more games and play better than I did last year.’’
Aku says Knights coach Rick Stone and his staff are working hard on the winger’s defence.
‘‘I’ve got to keep working on my ‘D’,’’ he says. ‘‘I worked on it last year, too. I’m getting better, but I’ve got more to learn, and I want to improve.’’
Similarly, big-picture matters such as life after football aren’t something that Aku concerns himself with. At least not now.
‘‘I was into hospitality when I was at school in year 10 and year 11,’’ he says, thinking out loud as he considers some possible career options after football.
‘‘And I worked at Central Coast Leagues Club [Gosford] for a month helping in the kitchen and serving.
‘‘But I don’t really have an idea about what I’ll do [after football]. I just think about now. I just need to do my best now.
‘‘If I keep working hard and keep improving as I go, you never know ... But I’m going to enjoy my football now, and after that, whatever happens happens.’’
■ The Newcastle Knights kick off their Telstra Premiership campaign against Penrith at Centrebet Stadium, Penrith, tomorrow at 3pm. The Knights’ first home game is in round four against St George Illawarra at Ausgrid Stadium (formerly EnergyAustralia Stadium) on Sunday, April 3, at 2pm.