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'I’ve literally played one game of league': Meet the union flyer who swapped All Blacks dream for Wests Tigers

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13th February, 2024
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Rugby league players often straddle a line between brash confidence and total humility. They might be the best player in the world, but it’s full credit to the boys.

Solomon Alaimalo isn’t like that. It’s not surprising: the 28-year-old former Super Rugby star has barely played a game of league in his life.

Speaking to The Roar ahead of his first professional appearance in his new code, Alaimalo recognised that he has much to learn – even though he preferred watching the NRL to rugby union.

“I’ve literally played one game of rugby league and that was a club game back in Christchurch,” said the 196cm, 99kg winger.

“Obviously, this is going to be a step up.

“I’m just taking it week by week and learning the game. I’m not putting pressure on myself on when I’ll play first grade but more getting comfortable with the game.

“Whether it be NSW Cup or whatever, I’m itching for preseason to be done so we can rip into the games. There’s not too much expectation, but when it comes it comes.

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“I’ve never played league, but I’ve always followed it. I followed it more than union, I enjoyed watching it more than union – like a lot of my good union mates.”

Alaimalo has been a professional athlete for almost a decade across a career that took in stints at the Chiefs and Highlanders, but admitted that he had never seen anything like an NRL preseason.

“I was saying to the boys back home that play union that asked me how the preseason is – we always see videos of how tough they are (in the NRL) – and these preseasons are no joke,” he laughed.

“It’s tough but good. This is the toughest preseason I’ve done, genuinely – and I’ve only been here maybe six or seven weeks. Some of the boys started in November.

“It’s a different type of fitness, that’s been the biggest thing to work on in terms of the energy system. It’s real tough, the toughest I’ve done.

In particular, it was the dynamics of wing play that were proving taxing. After years of trying to run around opponents, the new Tiger is tasked with starting sets off by runnnig straight into them.

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“I’ve got so much respect for these boys in how much contact there is in a game,” said Alaimalo.

“In union, you get 30 minutes in play as the most you’d get, and that’s a decent game.

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“The body contacts these fellas go through with the amount of time that the balls in play, that’s the biggest thing that I tried to adjust to. The ball-carrying into people and the running back for the ten.

“The body contact is different – if I’m on the wing in union, I’m not having to make as many carries whereas I feel now in league a lot of the carries are off the kick or in the first two.

“That’s something I’m still getting used to. It’s tough but I’m enjoying it.”

He revealed that he had almost joined an NRL club in 2020 – though declinded to mention which one – but turned it down to continue his dream of playing for the All Blacks.

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AUCKLAND, NEW ZEALAND - FEBRUARY 09: West Tigers assistant coach Benji Marshall looks on ahead of the NRL trial match between New Zealand Warriors and Wests Tigers at Mt Smart Stadium on February 09, 2023 in Auckland, New Zealand. (Photo by Hannah Peters/Getty Images)

Benji Marshall. (Photo by Hannah Peters/Getty Images)

Now, at 28, he said it was an opportunity that he couldn’t pass up – especially when it involved working with a Kiwi legend like new Tigers coach Benji Marshall.

“Growing up I looked up to him big time in how he played the game,” he said.

“Whether you played league or union in New Zealand, everyone knew who Benji was. He’s an icon back home. It’s surreal to be coached by him, it’s real cool.

“I had looked at coming four years ago in 2020, it was close in negotiations but at the time, my focus was on trying to pursue that All Black jersey so I didn’t pull through with it and stayed in NZ playing Super Rugby.

“When this opportunity arose, I didn’t want to look back on when I do retire and think I didn’t give it a go.

“There’s class players here like Api (Koroisau), (David) Klemmer, Stefano (Utoikamanu), all those boys, Jahream (Bula) too. A lot of the stuff I learn here can cross over both sides too.

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“I’m just taking it week by week and learning the game. I’m not putting pressure on myself on when I’ll play first grade but more getting comfortable with the game.”

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