Otago pair chase NRL dream across Ditch

Otago Whalers rugby league player Thomas McKenzie trains with the Norths Devils club in Australia...
Otago Whalers rugby league player Thomas McKenzie trains with the Norths Devils club in Australia. PHOTO: SUPPLIED
From Otago to the NRL — why not? Sports editor Hayden Meikle tracks down two rugby league players who are pursuing that dream.

Thomas McKenzie and Tonga Nau are the latest examples of proof you do not have to be from a rugby league stronghold to forge a career in the sport.

The Otago Whalers pair are both in Australia and training with National Rugby League feeder clubs.

Nau, the hooker with the all-action game, is in Melbourne with the Victoria Thunderbolts, who have a link with the NRL powerhouse Storm.

Aggressive forward McKenzie, a country boy from Edendale, is in Queensland with the Norths Devils, a well-established club that links with the Brisbane Broncos.

McKenzie (21) said a lifelong dream all came together quite quickly.

‘‘It’s something I’ve been actively pursuing,’’ he told the Otago Daily Times from Brisbane this week.

‘‘So I was sort of emailing various clubs and some people were helping me out.

‘‘Through various connections, Norths came to the table and said they were keen, and I had a Zoom call with the coach.

‘‘A couple of weeks went by and then he offered a contract for the year. I jumped at it straight away.

‘‘It’s something I’ve always wanted to do — get over to Australia and test myself.

McKenzie, a second-rower by trade, had his first preseason game for the Devils on Saturday.

It is a busy life with four training sessions each week fitted in around a full-time job working for a removals company.

‘‘It’s pretty full-on. I’m learning how to balance all my commitments.

‘‘Getting to bed early has been a big one, ha ha.’’

A bonus for McKenzie has been living with a Gore family, the Hetarakas, now living on the south side of Brisbane.

‘‘They’ve been super helpful. They’re a great family to live with, and it’s good to have that connection here.’’

Tonga Nau made a big splash for the Whalers in 2021 and is now based in Melbourne. PHOTO: PETER...
Tonga Nau made a big splash for the Whalers in 2021 and is now based in Melbourne. PHOTO: PETER MCINTOSH
As for that scorching Queensland sun?

‘‘It’s always hot eh. Too hot for my ginger skin, anyway.’’

McKenzie was schooled at St Peter’s College, where he captained the First XV in his final year and was an ODT Class Act recipient.

The passionate South Sydney Rabbitohs fan is naturally missing home but said he was focused on chasing the rugby league dream.

‘‘I think about home a lot. I miss my family, and all my mates in Dunedin.

‘‘At the same time, I’m here for a reason. It’s a new challenge in my life, and I have to jump in and give it a go.

‘‘These next two years are sort of the make-it-or-break-it years.

‘‘I need to just go hard, impress the right people and prove I’m capable of playing over here.’’

Tonga Nau (20), one of the stars for their Whalers in their memorable charge to the New Zealand Rugby League Championship title last year, has been in Melbourne for about a month.

The transplanted Aucklander is living with a cousin while he trains with the Thunderbolts, who are part of the New South Wales Jersey Flegg competition for under-21 players.

‘‘I don’t know a lot about their history or anything,’’ Nau said.

‘‘But it’s one of the pathways into the Storm system and they play up in the Sydney competition.’’

It is a full-on life for the youngster.

He holds down a full-time job — he was helping lay asphalt on a steamy Victorian day when he spoke to the Otago Daily Times — with an early start and a 2.30pm finish so he can race home, wolf down some tucker and get to training.

Steve Martin
Steve Martin

The Thunderbolts train four times a week, and Nau does his own physical sessions on other days.

‘‘Training is a lot different over here,’’ he said.

‘‘We’re learning lots of technical stuff, which is good, and just getting into the habit of learning all the things that go into league over here.’’

Nau is also hoping to arrange distance learning through the University of Otago, where he has about six more papers to complete to get a sociology degree.

He will be pleased to get a qualification under his belt — but the priority for now has to be chasing every league player’s dream.

‘‘I’d love to be able to crack the NRL.

‘‘For me, this is a huge stepping stone. I’m away from home, out of my comfort zone, and just following this dream.

‘‘It’s really exciting — a huge opportunity. I just want to get cracking into it and see how I go.’’

For Steve Martin, following the progress of both McKenzie and Nau adds to the sense rugby league is making progress in the South.

League was a distant second in a battle with rugby union for a century, but the Southern Zone Rugby League general manager said both sports could now be seen as providing a pathway.

‘‘It shows there’s an opportunity to aspire to play at a high level in rugby league,’’ Martin said.

‘‘We’ve battled for a number of years to continue to promote those opportunities versus the rugby union opportunities, so players have a definite choice.’’

Martin highlighted the precedent set by Rory Ferguson, who was a rugby star at John McGlashan College before being recruited by the Brisbane Broncos in 2016.

Ferguson has been forging a solid career in the Queensland Cup for the Souths Logan Magpies.

‘‘In Rory’s case, it was the catalyst for a number of young players playing age group rugby league for Otago,’’ Martin said.

‘‘We’ve had some good younger players come into senior ranks with the Whalers, and they’re starting to get some benefits in terms of opportunities overseas.’’

The Whalers had a breakthrough win over Canterbury last year and went on to win the second-tier national title.

That was another sign rugby league was on an upward swing in the South, Martin said.

‘‘It’s been three or four years in the making to get to this point.

‘‘Most of those guys played rugby throughout the winter, but their accumulation of knowledge and understanding of rugby league has led to the point where they’re able to be hugely competitive.’’

hayden.meikle@odt.co.nz

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