In a Melbourne Rebels Super Rugby season overshadowed by uncertainty, Upstart speaks to a group of local rising stars who are keen to keep Melbourne on the rugby map.
The flying fullback/winger, born in Preston to Samoan parents, is a part of the Melbourne Rebels’ development squad having already represented both Samoa and Australia at under-20 level.
Given these achievements it is hard to believe that Tuimalealiifano, who will celebrate his 21st birthday on May 30, almost flippantly made the transition from a self-confessed ‘chubby’ centre half forward at the age of 14 because that’s what his classmates at Cragieburn Secondary College were doing.
“All my mates played Aussie Rules in primary school. Then when I went to high school, everyone was Islander, so I said, ‘Oh you guys don’t play footy? Ok, I’ll just play [rugby] with you guys.’
“I just played with my mates for fun,” he says of his successful conversion.
Tuimalealiifano balanced rugby with athletics and volleyball at high school, the latter of which he played with his church group. He has reluctantly given up volleyball at the suggestion of his Rebels coaches.
Currently, he plays his club rugby at Harlequin in the Dewar Shield, is gaining accreditation to be a personal trainer and works as a lifeguard at the Melbourne Sports and Aquatic Centre.
But Tuimalealiifano’s next goal is to get a full time Super Rugby contract.
— Melbourne Rebels (@MelbourneRebels) July 13, 2014
“I reckon I can. I’ve just got to have a better mind-set,” he said. “Even though the Rebels have got Wallaby wingers here, you can’t just put yourself down. You’ve got to train hard like they do, work on your weaknesses, and hopefully you get better and get picked.”
Tuimalealiifano’s rise is made more impressive when considering that he endured a six-month hiatus from rugby when he was 16 following the passing of his mother.
“My mum was at every single game. Dad was working overtime just for me, just to pay for my rugby stuff.
“When she passed away, I was going to stop rugby … [but] she kind of made me push myself even when she passed away.”
Tuimalealiifano says that his father and people within his church helped him most through the difficult period.
“The first three months I was just being an emotional wreck in school. [I] didn’t listen to anyone.”
“Then my Dad told me, ‘You’ve got to have your friends with you, you’ve got to be with people that are positive.’
“I started going to church a lot, even though I didn’t want to be there. Good people helped me in church, good leaders pushed me through the tough times.”
Once Tuimalealiifano had moved past his grief, he developed a spiritual connection with his mother that ultimately inspired him to continue playing rugby and strive for the highest level.
“I had dreams about her screaming on the sideline with me playing.
“So halfway through the season I came back.
“Before the game, I felt her presence with me, so after that I thought ‘Yeah, she wants me to do this, I’ve just got to stick to it,’ and that brought me here.”
Tuimalealiifano certainly hasn’t taken the well-trodden path to near the top of provincial and international rugby, but he insists that there isn’t much that makes him different from the other players he shares the field with.
“Since she passed away, I just write my mum’s name on my wrist.
“That’s about it.”
Billy Higgins is a second year Bachelor of Media and Communication (Sport Journalism) student at La Trobe University. You can follow him on Twitter here: @Billy_Higgins7.
Philip Panas is a second year Bachelor of Media and Communication (Sport Journalism) student at La Trobe University. You can follow him on Twitter here: @PhilipPanas.