Just two years after being told that the Sharks couldn't fit him in their top 30 squad, Siosifa Talakai is being hailed as a game breaker for NSW in Origin II - but he may not have received the opportunity if the COVID-19 pandemic hadn’t stopped the game in 2020.
It has been well documented that Talakai had been a stand-out in junior representative teams for South Sydney and made his NRL debut as an 18-year-old centre in 2016 before his career went backwards at a dramatic rate.
However, he almost missed out on a second chance with the Sharks after the club was forced to choose between him and Royce Hunt for their remaining top 30 roster spot at the start of the 2020 season.
Talakai had been working as a garbo while playing for Newtown in 2019 after a stint with Penrith failed to yield a second shot in the NRL but then Cronulla coach, John Morris, knew first hand of Talakai’s potential and he was offered a train-and-trial contract.
For 20 weeks leading up to the start of the 2020 Telstra Premiership, Talakai trained alongside Hunt, who was also trying to revive his NRL dream after waiting in the wings at Canberra for three years.
The pair, who earned $1,000 per week for their efforts, both convinced Morris and the Sharks coaching staff that they were worthy of an NRL contract – but the club only had one spot remaining in their 30-man squad and offered it to Hunt.
“I was filthy for Sifa, because it was out of me and him for that last top 30 spot, and we had trained together and become good mates,” Hunt said.
“I just thought ‘this sucks’, because me and him were in the same boat when we came. We had both trialled well, he was a good player, and I knew how hard he had worked.
“That was the week before COVID hit, so he has probably got COVID to thank in a funny way. The comp shut down and when we came back six weeks later some players had left so Sifa got put in the top 30.”
Having initially signed a $60,000 per year development contract, Talakai was unable to play first grade until midway through the season but the NRL removed the restriction when the competition resumed on May 28, 2020 to provide clubs with a larger playing pool.
After the Sharks lost their first game back to Wests Tigers, Morris called up Hunt and Talakai for the round four clash with North Queensland and the 25-year-old has never looked back.
“I first saw Sifa play in the 2015 SG grand final, I was overseeing our pathways and Cronulla played Souths Sydney,” Morris said. “He was exactly like he is now - powerful, dynamic and hard to handle.
“Sifa had a really good year at Newtown in 2019 so leading into the 2020 season we offered him a full-time train-and-trial contract. At the time we had all sorts of salary cap troubles so we couldn’t afford to bring in anyone in at the top end.
“We really had to go for diamond in the rough-type players, and the two we got were Royce and Sifa. One of them has turned out to be a State of Origin player and the other played for the Maori All Stars.
“We only had one spot to come into the squad and both of them were excellent in the pre-season.
"Sifa absolutely trained the house down, he absolutely killed it and I knew he was going to have a good year but I gave the spot to Royce because we needed middles.
“We had back-row pretty well covered so all we could do was offer him a development contract.
"At that stage players on development contracts were unable to play NRL until round 10 so if COVID didn’t come we may not have seen the best of Sifa Talakai.
“But since getting his chance he hasn’t played another reserve grade game and he was always one of the first picked every week because you could put him in the centres, put him in the back-row, put him in the middle and he just goes all day. He has got a huge engine.”
After winning the club's Tommy Bishop player's player award in 2020, Talakai was re-signed until the end of the 2023 season and Cronulla GM of football Darren Mooney said the Sharks were keen to further extend his contract.
"We are just so proud of him at the club for everything he has achieved and I think he will be a real asset for NSW on Sunday," Mooney said. “He has just recently hit 50 NRL games so his best footy is in front of him.
"He debuted when he was 18 and he has come through a different path so it is a credit to him and the work he has put in. He deserves everything he has got and Newtown also deserve a lot of credit for giving him a crack after Penrith."
Morris also predicted Talakai would make an impact for the Blues whether he plays centre or in the forwards when comes off the interchange in his Origin debut on Sunday night.
"It will definitely put some fear into the Queensland side knowing that you have got Talakai coming on when the game is starting to unfold as he is one of the best tackle breakers in the game," Morris said.
"You get some fatigue in the game and you bring on someone with his leg speed in and around the ruck. I think it is a great move and it is just really rewarding for him and all of the work he has had to put in.
"It hasn’t been easy, he has had to go the hard way - he played NRL early and he has learned some lessons off the field. He has had to earn his stripes again by coming back and playing NSW Cup, and now he is playing for NSW."