League: Suniula thanks 'Crusher' for Sea Eagles break

Andrew Suniula would have been filling his pockets with yen and his face with sushi if Manly league legend Noel 'Crusher' Cleal hadn't landed in Auckland in 2007.

Instead, the 1.86m, 102kg powerhouse will square off against 'The Beast', aka Manu Vatuvei of the New Zealand Warriors, here on Sunday in just his second National Rugby League (NRL) match for the Sea Eagles.

Suniula, who played NPC rugby for Taranaki in 2005-06, was set to play a season in the United States before taking up a contract in Japan. But, by chance, he accepted an offer to play some Bartercard Cup league for the Auckland Lions - "for fun".

"I had a couple of games of league just to fill in some time, and I happened to play a game when the Warriors were playing Manly in Auckland," Suniula recalled.

"After that game 'Crusher' wanted me to come over and give it a crack over here. It was just a few days before I was due to leave (for the US)."

Suniula, 26, still played a few months in Iowa then accepted the Sea Eagles' offer to fly across the Tasman. A stroll down Manly's idyllic main beach and a guided tour, and he was sold.

"That (lifestyle) was one of the factors; apart from the money, in Japan I wasn't looking forward to the sushi too much."

Little more than a year on, he will finally play his first home NRL match for the defending premiers before the adoring home faithful at Brookvale Oval.

Injuries to David Williams and Tony Williams gave Suniula his big break last weekend, but it was a hellish debut on the right wing. A fired-up Bulldogs side, the distraction of Manly's much discussed off-field dramas, and torrential downpours at ANZ Stadium gave Suniula all the wrong memories in a 12-34 defeat.

"The first one's always the nervous one so I'm pretty much glad that one's out of the way. I was pretty happy to make my debut but I probably touched the ball a handful of times.

"Every time we got the ball we'd give it back to them. It was just one of those games, they lifted and we were on a break. The quicker we put it behind us and move on, the better."

Asked about the off-field dramas, which peaked when the NRL banned star fullback Brett Stewart for four weeks after the boozy season launch, Suniula offers the standard club line - "all I'm worried about is football".

He is keen to make amends, and notably it's against the Warriors. As a bonus, he gets to mark one of the world's most devastating attackers, a full 10kg heavier than his own imposing frame.

"That'll be a good challenge. Manu's a good player on his own but we'll be looking through the video and look for some weaknesses to try and exploit. He won't know much about me which is good.

"It'll be pretty special to play the team I used to support, and my first home game."

Suniula's goal is to seal a regular first grade spot this year, and hopefully even catch the attention of the Kiwis selectors.

He always dreamed of a black jersey, but in another code, after his parents shifted to Auckland from their native American Samoa when young Suniula was seven.

From basketball and American football, it was rugby and league every weekend, then the 15-man code only when he started at Kelston Boys' High School. Headmaster, Graham Henry.

"I remember a meeting with him in third form, he encouraged me to pursue rugby. The new sports institute at the school clashed with music and I liked my music, but I think he persuaded me to take the sports institute. It was a good choice.

"It's every young Kiwi's dream when you're playing rugby, you want to be an All Black."

The next year Henry left to become a professional coach, and Suniula played alongside Mils Muliaina, Mose Tuiali'i, Sam Tuitupou and the Lauaki brothers. There were plenty of wins and not many defeats in the first 15, he recalled.

Suniula played club rugby in Auckland and began studying for a sport and recreation degree majoring in exercise science. He played a handful of matches on the wing for Taranaki but felt a Super 14 contract wasn't going to happen.

"I was in the Hurricanes region and it was pretty tough to crack Super 14 from Taranaki. It was time for a change and it worked out well."

That was his decision to seek riches in Japan, before 'Crusher's' timely intervention that day in Auckland. A big few weeks, starting with the Warriors on Sunday, and it may prove to be the best decision he ever made.