‘Stevie Wonder could’ve picked him’
He is the $4000 bargain buy from the working class Logan suburb of Inala, rated by Brisbane insiders among the most dedicated trainers they have seen in 20 years.
On Thursday night, Broncos sensation Tesi Niu will make the most daunting of NRL debuts against premiers the Roosters at Suncorp Stadium, but for the 18-year-old, it has been a mission five years in the making.
It explains why Niu would stretch in his lounge room from the age of 13.
Why Niu trained every day during the NRL's 67-day suspension because of coronavirus.
Why Niu had a photo taken with his idol, fellow Inala product Anthony Milford, when the Broncos pivot first joined the Broncos in 2014.
Why the Broncos young gun used to train seven days a week as a 16-year-old, until Brisbane feeder-club Souths Logan discovered he was pushing himself to breaking point doing extras on his days off.
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NRL super coach Wayne Bennett had a famous line for a generation of teenage Broncos hopefuls - hard work beats talent when talent fails to work hard.
Fortunately for Broncos coach Anthony Seibold, he has inherited a player who possesses both.
"Kurt Richards (Broncos assistant coach) said Tesi in one season did an extra 360 training sessions outside what they wanted players to do in 12 months," says Seibold, himself stunned at the statistic.
"That's an extra session per day. Tesi was in our EPD (Elite Player Development) program at the time. He has a fantastic work ethic. He has had to work really hard to get to this level.
"There's a great photo of Tesi when he was 12, turning 13, and 'Milf' was having his first pre-season here at the end of 2014.
"The guys (Broncos teammates) are really fond of Tesi because of his work ethic and attitude.
"We don't expect him to come on, shoot the lights out and be the best player on the field. We just want him to do his job for the team. We have great trust and belief in him."
Niu will start off the bench in the No.14 utility role, but he has carved out a reputation as a lethal fullback or centre with the speed, fast footwork and tackle-busting strength to destroy defensive lines.
The first cousin of Broncos back-row hulk David Fifita, Niu clearly possesses the DNA to play NRL.
Last year, he scored two tries in 11 minutes to inspire Souths Logan's stunning 24-16 boilover of Redcliffe in the Intrust Super Cup. The Dolphins were defending premiers. Niu was just 17 years old.
Five months later, Niu made his senior Test debut in Tonga's 14-6 upset of Great Britain after teammates such as Jason Taumalolo demanded his selection and offered to pay his airfare to New Zealand.
Like all NRL clubs, the Broncos often spend months doing due diligence on a potential recruit. It took just five minutes to convince legendary Broncos scout Brian "Pinky" Edwards that Niu was a special talent.
"I remember saying to Pete Nolan, the Broncos head of football, I have found this kid called Tesi Niu," recalls Edwards, who also spotted Milford and Josh Papalii as teenagers in the Logan nursery.
"I told Pete that Tesi is about to turn 15 and I'm keen to sign him to the Broncos.
"So Pete Nolan comes to a game. He watches Tesi pass the ball twice and says, 'Jesus, just sign him Pinky'. He then turned around and drove home."
Niu was placed at Marsden State High, the famous league school that has produced a raft of NRL stars, including Cameron Smith and Israel Folau.
To assist him in his journey, Edwards enlisted the help of Milford to mentor Niu.
The pair both hail from Inala and have Polynesian heritage. Physically, they look like twins at Broncos training. Niu stands 177cm and weighs 90kg. Milford is 177cm and 92kg.
"When Anthony first came to the Broncos, I asked him if he could be Tesi's role model. Anthony grew up in Inala and Tesi idolised him," Edwards said.
"When Tesi first met Anthony, I said you guys will play NRL together one day. Tesi looked at me and said 'that's a good joke Pinky', but I always felt it could happen and it has.
"Milf has been incredible for Tesi. If Tesi played on a Friday night at Brandon Park at 7pm, Anthony would get there at 6.59pm, stand behind a tree, watch Tesi play and walk straight out.
"Other times, Milf would sit in his car and watch Tesi. Then in the days after, Milf would call Tesi and give him feedback on how he was going.
"The Marsden program has been outstanding for Tesi, and Anthony has played a great part in his development.
"Tesi trained virtually every day during the coronavirus period. I've seen thousands of kids over the years and you wonder how badly do they want to play NRL.
"Tesi wants it badly."
Niu's coach last year at Souths Logan, Jon Buchanan, says the flashy utility back's determination will ensure he succeeds.
"I am so excited for him. Stevie Wonder could have picked that Tesi was going to be a good footballer," he said.
"In 20 years of coaching, he is among the top five most dedicated kids I have ever seen.
"He has all the skills but he just has a focus beyond most players. He knows what he wants to be and that's a week-in, week-out NRL player. He is prepared to make the sacrifices most 18 and 19-year-olds won't make.
"Tesi won't be overawed by the occasion (against the Roosters). The good ones always handle the step up in company."
Originally published as 'Stevie Wonder could've picked him'