Growing up watching rugby league on television back in his native Fiji, Illawarra Cutters second-rower Peni Botiki always knew he wanted to play in the NRL.
Despite missing out on a spot in the NSW Cup squad in 2012 and 2013, Botiki never gave up hope, moving one step closer to his dream of playing first-grade this past off-season, when he was rewarded with an Illawarra Cutters contract by Head Coach Ian Millward.
“I have learnt heaps of things from him,” said Botiki of his new head coach.
“He talks to me and tells me straight what is wrong with me, and what I have to do.
“I really like the way he approaches me and the way he tells me what to do on the field. I really respect him for what he has done.”
Botiki had a stellar 2013 season, capping off an Illawarra Coal Premiership with Collegians with a call up into the Fiji Bati World Cup squad, travelling over to England at the end of October to play alongside his childhood idol Petero Civoniceva.
“Petero, I always looked up to him,” said Botiki, with a huge smile on his face.
“Just watching him on the telly and how he went in the NRL while still being such a humble person.
“When I was playing alongside him, he shared some of his story with me - it touched me.”
After winning the Vodafone Cup Player of the Year award as a member of the Saru Dragons in 2011, Botiki decided to move to Australia in May of that year, keeping a promise he made to his grandparents to support his family and chase his dream of playing in the NRL.
Peni started his journey with University during the 2011 season, before transfer to Collegians at the start of the 2012 campaign, where he was a pivotal member of the club’s success.
This past off-season, Botiki made the move over to Wests, where he impressed coach Jason Ryles with a try on debut.
Botiki reiterated how hard it was to leave his family behind in Fiji, but he knew that if he wanted to make a better life for them, he had to move to Australia.
“For me, leaving back home was so hard,” said Botiki.
“Being separated from my family was the choice I made.
“I look back and where my family was going, heaps of people back home would look down on us.
“I sit down and look back. It’s not going to be like this. My family isn’t going to suffer like this.”
In order to support his partner Kathryn, who he lives with in Wollongong, and his family back in Fiji, Peni wakes up at 4:30am every morning so he has enough time to travel to Manly, where he works as a labourer.
“It’s really hard,” said Botiki.
“It’s a two hour drive up, sometimes when there is traffic it’s two and a half but I got to do it.
“I have a family back home. I have a fiancé. I have got to do what I have got to do.”
Although his family is yet to see him play a game here in Australia, Botiki hopes that one day, he will be able to earn enough money so that he can fly his parents out here to see him play.
“They really, really want to (see me play), and I am trying my best, but I work and train,” said Botiki.
“I don’t care how much my body can’t cope. I want to see my family one day.
“My mum, my dad, my family one day, they will sit in a grandstand and watch me play.
“That will be one of the best feelings. I just can’t wait for that day to come.”
Before every game, Peni calls his father back in Fiji and they pray together over the phone.
He says that his dad was one of his main role models growing up. Whenever he felt like giving up, his father was always there to push him that little bit further.
Growing up with his grandparents close by, Botiki spoke of how they too where an inspiration to him, saying one of his biggest motivations throughout his football career was to make them proud.
“Before they passed away, I promised them I’d wear my first national jumper and give it to my grandma, and that didn’t happen, which has always stuck with me.
When they both passed away a couple of years ago when I came here, it was so hurtful.
That’s why I always ring my dad before the game. Those feelings never go away. Wherever I go to, I always try and keep my phone with me.
With Kathryn being the only family he has in Australia, he relies heavily on her support when he gets homesick.
On game day, she drops everything and travels to the game with him, something he hopes his family in Fiji will one day be able to do also.
“We have gone through hard times, and I am so glad she is here,” said Botiki.
“She is always there for me. Every football game, she puts everything down and supports me.”
Peni has been selected to be a part of the Fiji Bati side that will take on Toa Samoa at Sportingbet Stadium, Penrith on Saturday.
The winner of that match will go through to the our Nations tournament, being played throughout Australia and New Zealand.