By Chris Kennedy
National Correspondent - NRL.COM

Unwanted Manly forward Jesse Sene-Lefao called his old club to ask if he could return to training just two weeks out from pre-season when he couldn't find any club to take him on, before being thrown an 11th-hour lifeline by Cronulla.

The Samoan international felt he was on the outer when a list of 14 players was leaked during a huge club reshuffle last year.

Most of those players were off contract while others earned new deals elsewhere though a few – like Feleti Mateo – have stayed to fight for a spot under incoming coach Trent Barrett.

That is what Sene-Lefao thought he'd be doing when he called the club shortly before the start of pre-season to ask to be allowed to return to training to try and fight for a spot in first grade after he and his manager were unable to find another club to take him on.

Two weeks later he was calling the club back to ask for a release from the final year of his playing contract when talks progressed rapidly with Cronulla.

It was a huge sigh of relief for the 25-year-old, who had just welcomed his third child – a daughter named Ariella – with his partner. He is now looking at moving his family from Penrith out to the Shire.

"To be quite honest I was part of the 14 that got named – but I wasn't actually named – so we were obviously looking around but we couldn't find anything," Sene-Lefao told NRL.com of his struggles to find a new club.

"There was no interest at first when my manager asked so I rang Manly and said 'sorry I can't find anything, I'm going to come in, I'm going to do my best to make first grade.' Then literally two weeks later, I'm ringing back to ask for a release and ask if they can give me the opportunity to come to Cronulla."

The whole negotiation with the Sharks – specifically head coach Shane Flanagan and head of football operations Darren Mooney – was done and dusted in about four days.

Sene-Lefao also revealed the move was partly prompted by a conversation with one of his best mates – recently departed Sharks prop Tinirau Arona.

Arona left the Sharks for a deal with Wakefield in the UK Super League shortly before Sene-Lefao arrived at the club, but as the godfather of Sene-Lefao's new baby daughter was also a trusted confidante.  "He was here last year and he gave me good raps about the club and he said 'you'd love it'," Sene-Lefao said.

The Panthers junior is now two weeks into pre-season training at his new club and while everyone has been welcoming, the huge number of familiar faces from his time in Penrith's junior system made the transition even easier.

"It's been awesome. I was a bit worried leaving Manly, I'd been there for so long, it was actually where I debuted. To move I thought it was going to be really hard but coming to the club it's been really welcoming, really family orientated," he said.

"There's like seven of us from out west. 'Lewy' [Luke Lewis] is one of the local heroes who played in the [2003] grand final. Wade Graham. The Fifita brothers [Andrew and David], I played with them all in the local league so it's good to get back together."

While Sene-Lefao's immediate focus is trying to prove to Flanagan he's worthy of a spot in Cronulla's best 17 come Round 1 next year, he'd also love to add to his one Test start for Samoa as well.

"Playing for your country is a dream come true but I need to work towards making first grade first, getting a spot in this competitive side and see what happens from there," he said.

That Samoan connection has also provided an immediate bond with several of his new clubmates.

"Sam Tagataese, Nu Brown, Ricky Leutele, all them boys, we met in the [Samoa] tour camp and still stayed in touch."

The Sharks have built a formidable pack with internationals Paul Gallen and Luke Lewis, the Fifita twins, future club captain Wade Graham, underrated prop Sam Tagataese and Chris Heighington now joined by Sene-Lefao and former Eel Joe Paulo.

Most are hugely experienced, and all bar Graham are older than the 25-year-old Sene-Lefao. While there are some promising up and comers, Sene-Lefao said there was an opportunity for him to shore up that gap between the old heads and new crop of youngsters.

"I'm almost the only 25-year-old in the group that's played over 20 games so it's not like a leadership role but in that middle area of the club they didn't really have as much experience. Obviously they've got the big dogs and then in the middle, that's probably where I come in," Sene-Lefao said.

"I feel like I need to fill that gap and I feel like I can give that to the Sharks. That's where I'll probably fit into the team and I'm going to work for my spot."

His mission will be helped by a full pre-season that he's going into both fit and happy.

"I'm all good, touch wood. The body's going all right and my mental state is really happy – I'm really happy, my family's happy. It's a good time on the roller coaster," he said.

 

* Article first appeared on NRL.COM