Junior Tatola was pouring concrete in the searing heat of a western Sydney summer when he received a phone call offering him a trial with the Rabbitohs.
Having feared that his hopes of an NRL career were over after being cut by Wests Tigers at the end of the 2017 season, the former Junior Kangaroos representative happily traded his shovel and trowel for a $1,000 per week training contract.
The hardest part was telling his uncle and boss Dom Vae, a former Commonwealth cruiserweight boxing champion, that he was quitting but in the 15-months since Tatola has proven himself to be an integral part of the South Sydney forward pack.
“Last year I didn’t really have a club to go to so I was pouring slabs for houses and footpaths and driveways,” Tatola said.
“It was pretty hard work. I would much rather be playing footy than doing concreting so I was stoked to get the call about Souths.
“I was working out west, mainly near Marsden Park, so it was pretty hot because it was in summer. There were some pretty long days. My uncle was actually pretty gutted when I told him I was leaving because he needed workers but at the same time he was happy for me.”
As the only member of the 2016 Junior Kangaroos team - which included the likes of Nathan Cleary, Coen Hess and Curtis Scott - not to have played NRL, Tatola knew that the train and trial contract with Souths was probably his last chance.
He made such an impression that Rabbitohs GM of football Shane Richardson had to rush through a one-year deal with the NRL for Tatola after coach Anthony Seibold selected him in last season’s first-round clash with the Warriors in Perth.
The 22-year-old played all but one NRL match last season and will start in the front row against Manly on Saturday night at Lottoland, despite the return of England international George Burgess from suspension.
“I was just lucky Souths gave me a chance to come here on a train and trial contract,” he said.
"It was just to train for the pre-season and see how you go. If the coaches liked how you trained and how you performed on the field they will pick you up so I just ripped in.
“No one knew me so I had to make a good impression because this was like my last chance. I didn’t have anything at the Tigers so coming here I had to put everything in if I really wanted to make grade and turn this into a career.”
After establishing himself as a regular member of a forward pack boasting the likes of Sam Burgess, John Sutton and Cameron Murray, Tatola was re-signed by the Rabbitohs on another 12-month deal before Wayne Bennett took over as coach.
He again made an impression during the off-season and has been selected by Bennett to start alongside Tom Burgess in the front row for each of Souths' four Telstra Premiership matches under his charge.
“When I first came here I was nervous because Souths had a really good forward pack so I wasn’t sure if I would make the top 30. All I wanted to do was train my arse off and impress the coach,” Tatola said.
“It was the same with Wayne. I had to impress the new coach like I had to with Seibs so I just put my head down and trained hard.
“Wayne has been great. I am learning heaps of him, as all the boys are. The main thing is that we are all working hard for each other and it is showing on the field.”