Victoria and NRL have never exactly gone hand-in-hand, even if the Storm have become one of the most successful clubs of the modern era.
In an AFL-dominated state with just one professional rugby league club and a small junior system, seeing local juniors progress into the top grade has been a rarity.
Mahe Fonua, Young Tonumaipea and Richard Kennar are some ‘success stories’ from the Victorian junior system, but as a whole, there haven’t been too many big names come from south of the border.
But in 2023, there are actually more Melbourne-based products who are ready to take the competition by storm – pun intended.
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Manly recruit Kelma Tuilagi and Tigers young gun Fonua Pole both grew up and played junior footy in the Melbourne region, while a Dragons star-in-waiting is set to join a rather small crew this year.
Haele Finau – the oldest of two brothers who have joined St George Illawarra this off-season – has been endorsed heavily from those inside and outside the club, and he is a player that looks destined for big things.
The 22-year-old hooker has been on a train-and-trial deal with the Dragons throughout the pre-season and has his eyes on a top 30 spot and first grade debut in the coming weeks and months.
In an exclusive interview with The Sporting News, Finau opened up on his time in the Storm system as a teenager and young adult, before being forced to relocate to Queensland last year to continue to chase his dream.
“Growing up, I played for the Sunbury Tigers in Melbourne…I moved over from NZ and was coming from a union background,” he said.
“I switched codes to league and Sunbury Tigers was my junior club. I enjoyed it – it’s different, pretty quick, but in saying that I love rugby league more than union.
“It is pretty hard, Melbourne is not really a state where it’s all league – it’s all AFL there.
“After U21s if you’re good enough you will go to the Storm, but if you’re not good enough you have to sacrifice and move interstate to try and chase your dreams.”
Finau enjoyed a strong campaign in QLD Cup last year, scoring eight tries and producing five linebreak assists in 18 games for the Brisbane Tigers.
His transition into the reserve grade system through the Storm was a challenge for the young dummy-half, but one that forced him to become a better player.
During his time with Melbourne, Finau was able to work with the likes of Cameron Smith and Harry Grant, helping him hone his craft in the No.9 jumper.
“I actually got a six-week pre-season with Melbourne Storm and learnt heaps from the boys,” he said.
“Back then it was Cameron Smith before he retired and he was the person I looked up to, especially with me playing hooker. Harry Grant was a big one that I worked with when I was coming up.
“Just changing to Q-Cup and playing for Brisbane Tigers and playing with men was a big thing.
“Playing in that reserve grade, it gives me a little test on what it’s like playing with men and having NRL players coming down as well.”
After spending a large chunk of his formative years in Victoria, the decision for Finau to join the Dragons is not one that came lightly for the rising star.
But the opportunity to continue his rugby league journey alongside his little brother Sione, who has signed a development contract with the Dragons, presented the perfect opportunity.
“The transition moving from Queensland to here has been really good…the bond and the relationships I have built, I have fitted in with the group pretty well,” Finau said.
“Signing with my little brother means a lot. I come from a big family in Melbourne and having my little brother with me pushing me through and helping each other achieve our goals helps.
“It was really important that we moved over together – it helps a lot with training and having that mindset.
“We are all family here at the Dragons and that’s what has helped me have tunnel-vision and get to where I want to achieve. It’s been good to have the Pacific Islander boys here as well – we’ve got a good vibe with the Polynesian boys.
“I love it here, I’m grateful to be here and this is what I have dreamed here to be in an NRL club.”
With the recent retirement of Andrew McCullough, hooker has become a hotly-contested position within the St George Illawarra ranks.
Jacob Liddle has signed on from the Tigers and will likely earn first crack at the role, while the likes of Finau and local junior Conor Muhleisen are both pushing from underneath.
The healthy competition for spots is important for Finau, who has credited Liddle with his easy transition into life at the Dragons.
“Lids has been really helpful,” he told The Sporting News.
“Both of us are coming from different teams and coming into the Dragons, obviously we are playing the same position and he has helped a lot.
“It has been healthy competition there and at the end of the day, we are the same team and we are just helping each other.”
Finau featured in the club’s first trial game against Super League champions St Helens, and while his first grade debut may not come immediately, the desire to crack the Dragons top 30 squad is playing on his mind.
With a few spots left open, Finau is looking to make an impact in the coming weeks in order to force Anthony Griffin and the coaching staff to upgrade his contract and allow him to come one step closer to realising his dream.
“There is a few spots left in the top 30 and it’s just a matter of what I do on and off the field,” he said.
“There are plenty of things that I can improve on – I know it’s not going to come easy, but I know what I need to do. I have spoken to the coaches and they have told me what I’m expected to do and I’m keen to help the team be better.
“I’ve spoken to Woolfy [Ben Woolf] – he is one of the defensive coaches – and that’s one thing he wants me to really improve on. He knows my strengths and my weaknesses…I had a meeting with him and that’s one thing he brought up and I’m really keen to step up that defence.
“Hook has been really good and really nice to me. He is pretty quiet sometimes but every time I want something from him, he will say something. He is real straight-up as well which I like as a coach.
“A debut would be one of the main goals for 2023…I just want to play consistent footy once I get that call-up.”
St George Illawarra will begin their season with a bye in Round 1, before facing the Titans in Round 2.