- This is the fifth in a series of Brumby Tales features about the personalities at the Super Rugby club
The first thing you need to know about Vunipola Fifita is the reason why he drove 40,000 kilometres and lost 26 kilograms to reach his Super Rugby dream.
The newest and probably most unknown ACT Brumby was overweight, injured and ready to quit rugby last year. Then he looked into daughter Elenoa's eyes and found his motivation. He says it also saved him from depression.
"That pulled me out of the deep end. I was looking at her one day and said, 'yep. That's it, this is my why. This is why I need to get back into footy and have a good crack'," Fifita said. "That saved me from the dark side."
Fifita, 23, will make his Super Rugby debut when the Brumbies play against the Canterbury Crusaders on Saturday. It would be a daunting challenge for most – playing against a team of All Blacks at a venue the Brumbies haven't won at since 2000.
But Fifita has been down the hard road, and survived. It started when he arrived in Australia seven years ago carrying only a backpack stuffed with two pairs of shorts, two shirts, thongs and traditional Tongan dress.
Every step since has had a layer of intrigue or challenge. Like being able to speak minimal English when he arrived, mainly limited to "yes", "no" and "I'm hungry".
But language wasn't his biggest barrier. Fifita says it took him longer to adjust to sleeping on a bed when he won a rugby scholarship to a prestigious Sydney school after previously sleeping on a mat on the floor in Tonga.
The plush surrounds of Newington College were a long way from his humble roots, where his father, Sunia, was a prison guard and, as part of the job, the family lived on the base and shared their home with murderers and thieves who would work in the house as part of their sentence.
"That was normal to me, but I guess other people think it's a bit strange," Fifita said.
Then there was the time when Fifita blew out to 142 kilograms and injuries threatened to ruin a promising career before it had started.
The hardest pill to swallow, however, was when doctors told Fifita and wife Lute they had just a 30 per cent chance of having children. They say Elenoa was a miracle and now they're expecting the birth of their second child in July.
Becoming a father helped motivate Fifita to get fit again and he joined the Canberra Vikings, which helped him secure a Brumbies contract. To chase his Super Rugby goal, he spent six months driving from Canberra to Sydney and back at least three times per week to juggle family and rugby.
But sympathy? Fifita isn't looking for it and doesn't expect it. He says everything he has been through has taught him to be grateful.
"When I first met Vuni he was at his peak – always happy. Then the injuries came and that played a big role in knocking him around," Lute said.
"He thought he would never comeback. Now he's at the Brumbies and I've seen the biggest change in him. He always tells me he's doing it all for Elenoa, that's his main driver. He wants to push himself for his children.
"But when he was going through the rough patch, he never showed it. I could tell he was the lowest I've ever seen him and I always knew."
Fifita says he biggest eye-opening moment was the birth of Elenoa, who is named after his mother, and added the support of his wife prevented him from a spiral towards depression.
"Lute was there when I really needed help. I don't know if someone else would do what she did for me. When she fell pregnant, that woke me up," Fifita said.
"When I was low, Lute was still there. When he had the baby, it was something for me to strive for.
"There was a time when I didn't want to do anything. I was living with my dad's sister [in Sydney] and I didn't want to play rugby after having surgery on my shoulder.
"I thought after playing for the Australian under-20s that maybe everything would just happen. I expected it rather than working for it and I had to learn the hard way.
"It took my missus and the baby for me to realise you have to work for it and earn it. Every time I see Elenoa it just brings you that positive energy and vibes."
Fifita has definitely earnt his shot against the Crusaders this week. He was called on to the Brumbies bench to be the back-up loosehead prop to James Slipper and will be matched against a front-row full of All Blacks.
But it's a moment he has been looking forward to since he took a chance on a scholarship program and arrived in Australia in 2012.
He turned down an opportunity to go to school in New Zealand in 2011 because his father only wanted him to leave Tonga if he could move to a place surrounded by family.
MOVING TO AUSTRALIA
A year later he got a chance to move to Sydney, where Sunia had brothers and sisters, to attend Newington College, the same school which produced now Brumbies teammate Allan Alaalatoa.
"I still remember the day I first came over here – Australia Day, 2012. I had to sit in front of all of these guys and do interviews in English [to get the scholarship], it was pretty crazy," Fifita said.
"I didn't think I would ever get picked. I was nervous and worried about the new environment and I struggled early. In Tonga I slept on a mat with a blanket and pillow. I went from sleeping on the floor to sleeping on a mattress.
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