While injury may have put a hold on his first grade career in the past, Illawarra Cutters second-rower Junior Tia-Kilifi isn’t ready to close the chapter on a return to the NRL just yet.
Despite not having made an appearance in the top grade since 2010, then as a member of the Canterbury-Bankstown Bulldogs, Tia-Kilifi says that his primary goal this season is to force his way into a Dragons jersey.
As one of the veteran members of the Cutters squad, the now 26-year-old realises the importance that his past experiences in first-grade are to the team, saying that he wants to “be that player a lot of the boys want to play alongside”.
Tia-Kilifi has split his career between the Penrith Panthers and Canterbury-Bankstown Bulldogs, making ten appearances at the highest level, before spending the 2013 season playing for the Wyong Roos in the NSW Cup.
Junior says that the time he has spend under the tutelage of head coach Ian Millward since moving to the Cutters over the offseason, has been the most rewarding of his career.
“Just being able to learn off someone like Ian Millward, who has had so much experience in the UK, it’s helped my transition from the outside backs into the back row a lot easier and smoother,” said Tia-Kilifi.
“I’d say I’ve learnt the most I have in my career here at the Cutters.”
In an effort to make the move to the Cutters easier, Tia-Kilifi, his partner Jackie, and 20-month-old daughter Cruzayne moved from their home in western Sydney down to Wollongong, so that Junior could be closer to training, and spend more time with his young family.
When Junior isn’t traveling to Sydney five days a week to work as a scaffolder, or doing security work on a Friday and Saturday night at the Rocksia Hotel in Arncliffe, he’s giving back to the community.
“I’ve been doing a lot of work with Franky Puletua and Nigel Vagana organising community events,” said Tia-Kilifi.
“I’ve just finished my major community event over in western Sydney, Hype2Unite, where I used my church as a vehicle in getting traditional culture messages out to the youth around Sydney, sharing our culture and our roots to all different types of cultures across Western Sydney.”
Going back to his days as MC Wingmann at Club Envy, a nightclub which he helped setup, Junior speaks of the happiness it gives him to be able to connect with people on stage.
“I’ve always had a joy for being on the microphone, being able to interact with a crowd and speak to people,” said Tia-Kilifi.
Through his heavy involvement in the Samoan community, Junior has been given the opportunity to help out at the Samoa and Fiji test match on Saturday, May 3 at Sportingbet Stadium, Penrith, where he will be doing the ground announcing during the main game.
Coming from a family of seven children, Junior knows the importance of family, speaking proudly of his three younger brothers, who are all making their own way through the rugby league system.
Akeripa, 19, who captained the Panthers SG Ball side last season, is currently a member of Penrith’s NYC side, while Vaipuna, 22, is a full time member of the first-grade squad.
Meanwhile, Kilifi Tia-Kilifi is also a member of the Cutters squad, playing alongside his brother during a trial match earlier on this season.