Pressure nothing new for NSW debutant Suaalii

Jasper Bruce and George Clarke |

Joseph-Aukaso Suaalii will again be in the spotlight in the Origin opener.
Joseph-Aukaso Suaalii will again be in the spotlight in the Origin opener.

At 20 years of age, Joseph-Aukuso Suaalii has already made a career of standing up to pressure.

Every rugby league fan in the country knew Suaalii’s name before he’d taken the field at NRL level, before he’d even finished high school.

So prodigious was his talent that by 16, Suaalii was offered a six-figure salary and a chance for Olympic selection by Rugby Australia, and then became the subject of a bidding war between South Sydney and the Sydney Roosters.

After winning that tussle, the Roosters needed to get an exemption to play him in the NRL as a 17-year-old, convinced an athlete as rare as 196cm tall, fast-as-you-like Suaalii could no longer sit on the sidelines.

Then there was the 2022 World Cup in England, where Suaalii slotted seamlessly into fullback – a position he had never played at NRL level – and hoisted Samoa into their first-ever World Cup final.

“I think that was when people started looking at ‘Su’ and saying, ‘Oh, he’s the real deal’,” Roosters and NSW teammate Angus Crichton said.

“He had the pressure of the whole nation on him at fullback.

“There was so much criticism coming on to him, and then the way he bounced back from that and was a part of taking that team all the way to the final.”

Handling the public and media interest that came with his multi-million dollar switch to rugby union took an altogether different level of poise.

It’s hard to imagine any other teenager in the country was as envied by the sporting public as Suaalii when he put pen to paper on a $4.8 million, three-year deal that begins in 2025.

No NRL player in history has ever earned as big a salary.

With selection for the State of Origin series opener, Suaalii found himself under the now-familiar spotlight again.

The soon-to-be NSW centre was met with all kinds of criticism last Sunday, from those who doubted his form, to those insisting a player bound for rugby union had no place on rugby league’s biggest stage.

But when Suaalii’s NSW teammates are asked whether he’ll be up to the latest test set by the rugby league pressure cooker, their answers follow the same pattern.

Just look at his track record.

“He’s been dealing with that sort of pressure since he was touted as the next big thing when he was like 10 years old,” Crichton said.

“It’s nothing new to him and the pressure is nothing new to him.

“He’s obviously got all the tricks in his trick bag, and he’s tough as nails. I think he’s earned this debut, nobody can say he hasn’t.”

Playing for Samoa at the World Cup, NSW winger Brian To’o saw Suaalii’s star qualities first-hand.

“He’s definitely the kid that soaks everything in, he is a real born leader,” he said.

“He was the kind of guy who was a real professional with everything he did.”

Fellow Blues centre and Samoa teammate Stephen Crichton says Suaalii’s form has never wavered in the face of challenges.

“Everything about him is elite,” he says.

“His highlights of this year and in the past few years, say that he should be here.”