How COVID Gave Talakai Game Stopping A Second Chance

Just two years after being told the Sharks couldn’t fit him into their top 30 squad, Siosifa Talakai is being hailed as a bummer for NSW in Origin II – but he may not have had the chance as the COVID-19 pandemic’ t stopped the game in 2020.

It is well documented that Talakai was a star in junior representative teams for South Sydney before making his NRL debut as an 18-year-old center in 2016 before his career declined at a dramatic rate.

However, he nearly missed a second chance at the Sharks after the club had to choose between him and Royce Hunt for their remaining top 30 place at the start of the 2020 season.

Talakai worked as a garbo while playing for Newtown in 2019 after a stint with Penrith failed to bring a second chance in the NRL, but then Cronulla coach John Morris knew first hand of Talakai’s potential and was offered a train-and-trial contract .

Siosifa Talakai will play for Newtown in 2019.
©NRL Photos

For 20 weeks leading up to the start of the Telstra 2020 Premiership, Talakai trained alongside Hunt, who was also trying to rekindle his NRL dream after waiting three years in the wings in Canberra.

The pair, who earned $1,000 a week for their efforts, convinced both Morris and the Sharks coaching staff that they were worthy of an NRL contract – but the club had only one spot left in their 30-man roster and offered it hunt.

“I was nasty for Sifa because it was out of me and him for that last top 30 spot and we had trained together and become good friends,” Hunt said.

“I just thought ‘this sucks’ because he and I were in this together when we came. We had both tried well, he was a good player and I knew how hard he had worked.

“That was the week before COVID hit, so he probably owes COVID in a funny way. The comp stopped and when we came back six weeks later, a few players had left, so Sifa was in the top 30.”

After initially signing a $60,000-per-year development contract, Talakai was unable to play first-class until mid-season, but the NRL removed the restriction when competition resumed on May 28, 2020 to provide clubs with a larger pool of play.

After the Sharks lost their first game to the Wests Tigers, Morris called up Hunt and Talakai for the fourth round match against North Queensland and the 25-year-old has never looked back.

“I first saw Sifa play in the 2015 big SG final, I oversaw our trails and Cronulla played Souths Sydney,” said Morris. “He was exactly the way he is now – powerful, dynamic and difficult to handle.

Siosifa Talakai will get off the couch on Sunday night for his Origin debut.

Siosifa Talakai will get off the couch on Sunday night for his Origin debut.
©NRL Photos

“Sifa had a really good year at Newtown in 2019, so in the run-up to the 2020 season we offered him a full-time train and trial contract. At the time, we had all kinds of problems with the salary cap, so we couldn’t afford to bring in someone at the top.

“We really had to go for diamonds with the rough type players and the two we got were Royce and Sifa. One of them turned out to be a State of Origin player and the other played for the Maori All Stars.

“We only had one place to get into the squad and both were excellent in preparation.

“Sifa absolutely trained the house, he absolutely killed it and I knew he would have a good year, but I gave the place to Royce because we needed middles.

The new Blues on the block for Game II of the Ampol State of Origin series.

The new Blues on the block for Game II of the Ampol State of Origin series.
©NRL Photos

“We had the back row covered pretty well, so we could only offer him a development contract.

“At that stage, players with development contracts could not play NRL until round 10, so if COVID didn’t come, we may not have seen the best of Sifa Talakai.

“But ever since he got his chance, he hasn’t played a match in the reserve class and he was always one of the first to be picked every week because you could put him in the middle, put him in the back row, could put him in the middle and he just goes all day long. He has a huge engine.”

After winning the club’s Tommy Bishop player award in 2020, Talakai was re-signed until the end of the 2023 season and Cronulla GM of football Darren Mooney said the Sharks were keen to extend his contract.

“We are just so proud of him at the club for all he has accomplished and I think he will be a real asset to NSW on Sunday,” said Mooney. “He’s recently played 50 NRL games, so his best football is in front of him.

“He debuted when he was 18 and he’s taken a different path so it’s an honor for him and the work he’s put in. He deserves everything he’s got and Newtown also deserves a lot of credit for giving him a crack after Penrit.”

Morris also predicted that Talakai would make an impact for the Blues, whether he plays in the center or the forwards when he comes off the node in his Origin debut on Sunday night.

Siosifa Talakai gears up for his Origin debut in Perth earlier this week.

Siosifa Talakai gears up for his Origin debut in Perth earlier this week.
©NRL Photos

“It will certainly cause some anxiety on the Queensland side, knowing that Talakai will step up as the game starts to unfold and he’s one of the best tackle-breakers in the game,” said Morris.

“You get some fatigue in the game and you bring someone forward with his leg speed in and around the ruck. I think it’s a great move and it’s just really worth it for him and all the work he’s had to do .”

“It hasn’t been easy, he’s had a hard time – he played against NRL early on and he’s learned some lessons off the pitch. He’s had to earn his stripes again by coming back and playing the NSW Cup, and now it’s He plays for NSW.”

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