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'I tested Cheika and he didn't like it... we haven't spoken since'

By Liam Heagney
(Photo by David Rogers/Getty Images)

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Five words on social media were all it took for London Irish midfielder Curtis Rona to encapsulate how joyous an occupation being a rugby player can be. “Best job in the world” he giddily tweeted last weekend after the Irish had snapped an eleven-game winless streak in the Gallagher Premiership that dated back to last March. The five-hour bus ride back from Exeter sure was fun, the “better vibe” enthusiastically embraced compared to previous sombre trips home after losses.

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Enjoyable too was the religious Sunday that followed. Rona’s social media avatar is accompanied by scripture, “I can do everything through him who gives me strength” which is from Philippians 4:13, and it has a huge influence on who he is. “Every time I go out on the field I represent the jersey and my family but I am representing God as well, representing Jesus,” said Rona over the phone to RugbyPass while out and about last Wednesday with his family, enjoying some lunch and a visit to the park and the shops while on downtime from his Irish duties.

“Every time I go out there we have a small group of boys who get a huddle and always say our prayers before and after the game, and I go to church on Sundays with my family. It is good for us to be connected to God. On the weekend we had lunch with some of the pastors after church. It’s good to have a fellowship where people are looking out for you and you’re looking put for them.

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“My family (back home) aren’t religious at all, never go to church, but it was something for me to do as a kid because they have youth camps where you can do fun activities with other people your age. I got connected with that and then met my wife (Jacinta) who is a strong believer.”

Faith can’t deliver rugby results, however, London Irish losing out at home this weekend to Bristol. “We have been building for a number of years. It has been a slow, slow process. We are trying to get our best team on the field all at once and when we do we know we are a good outfit.

“We have a good blend of young and old heads, we have an exciting back three and a few old heads in the pack with (Agustin) Creevy, Rob Simmons and Sean O’Brien. It is a good blend we have and it’s just finishing up those small margins. We are losing the games ourselves in terms of letting those opportunities slip and we have spoken about that and have to take it to the next level.”

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Whatever the inconsistencies of London Irish results-wise, the New Zealand-born, Australian-raised Rona is revelling in the experience of life on the other side of the world. West Molesey is home, convenient for loads of outdoor activity with his young family of three, and how settled they are since arriving in England in 2019 was an influential factor in his decision last May to extend his contract through to 2023.

For someone who has had a transient dual-code career with previous pit stops in Sydney, Townsville and Perth, the Irish are proving a real home from home for the 29-year-old Rona who was born in Taaranaki and moved with his parents to Western Australia at the age of eight. “It has been a good transition because I have got a family and I don’t want to uproot them too many times if I can,” he explained.

“I want to stay put where I am. I have three of them so it’s a busy schedule. To be dragged around would be pretty tough on them. We have settled in well, been here a while. All the other times I haven’t had as many kids and did a couple of years at a time. I have been lucky enough to always have a contract, which is a real blessing. It has been good here and I have enjoyed my time.”

To better understand Rona, who has lately become one of the Premiership’s most consistent midfielders with Irish, it’s best to dwell on his upbringing where union and league were constantly in his life on alternate weekend days growing up. “My family had an opportunity to move to Australia, to a great country that provides so much opportunity for young families who are trying to have a better life,” he said about the decision of his parents to uproot and leave the Taranaki area behind.

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“I played rugby league when I first moved to Australia, switched over to union and kept switching. Literally, on a Saturday I would play union and on a Sunday play league. It was quite funny, I was always going back and forth, back and forth and that is what happened with my (professional) career. At the moment I’m in union, I’m enjoying it but hey you never know, maybe one day I will go back to the NRL, go back to league. I’ll never say no.

“It was tough (changing countries at the age of eight). Twice a year we would go back to New Zealand to see our family. It’s hard to explain, we always kept in touch with our roots in New Zealand. My parents are both Kiwis so moving to Australia was a big deal for us.

“It was a sacrifice that they made and at the time it was the best opportunity for us and funnily enough, not that I have a lot of relatives but it was also nice in Australia that some moved over from New Zealand. It was a good move for us at the time but my parents are still itching to go back to New Zealand when the borders are open. With Covid, it has been pretty tough.

“In the lockdown, we did get back (to Australia). March 2020. It was a tough time, we quarantined for two weeks in a hotel room with two kids at the time (the Ronas had their third child at the start of 2021) so you can imagine that was pretty exciting. My wife and I, it was probably one of the worst times in our lives being stuck in a room that you could not leave for two weeks, not even to open a window, not even to get fresh air. That was a bit of a daunting task that we endured.

“We had a couple of kapa haka groups, Maori groups, that we used to attend,” continued Rona, explaining how his parents kept him connected to his New Zealand roots after they emigrated to Australia. “We had group meetings and used to do a lot of Maori traditions, like songs and speaking a little bit of the language. Not being in New Zealand but keeping the tradition going, which my parents did for me, was good.

“It is hard with my family now as they have lived most of their lives in the UK at the moment. Hopefully, one day I can give them an opportunity to get back to the Maori tradition and maybe go back to New Zealand and live there so they can experience some of that.”

Rona went on to have a seven-year career as a league professional, joining the Sydney Roosters at the age of 18 and then making it as first-team NRL player at North Queensland Cowboys and the Canterbury Bulldogs. He loved the razzmatazz of the sport and now reflects why the 13-a-side code retains an edge on player recruitment in Australia compared to union even though he prefers playing XVs.

“If someone asked straight up what do you prefer, union or league, I have always loved a good game of rugby union because when you get exciting, free-flowing rugby it is awesome to watch whereas league can be quite basic. But coming up through the ranks, league gave me the opportunity to go through the rep teams.

“For one reason or another, (union in) Australia is really schoolboy-orientated so if you go to a private school then you play rugby but at the time I didn’t go to a private school, so rugby wasn’t an option for me. That can be the downfall with Australian rugby. I got an opportunity to play league and really enjoyed it. Sometimes I get the odd day where I think about going back one day, but I’m happy where I am now and I’m enjoying my rugby.

“The hype behind it [NRL], everything about it, it’s really appealing to everyone and a lot more people these days in the UK are starting to watch rugby league. Even the boys in my team always talk about rugby league, what is going on in the NRL and stuff like that because there is just so much hype and emphasis on making it really entertaining and appealing for everyone to watch.

“I enjoyed my time at the Cowboys and the Bulldogs and was even at the Roosters playing for their juniors. I enjoyed my rugby league all in all and even got to represent the New Zealand Maoris in my actual last game of rugby league. We played against New Zealand Residents in New Zealand which was a proud moment to be able to represent my culture and heritage.”

It was 2017 when Rona branched out, switching to Super Rugby at Western Force. He had been a Hurricanes fan as a kid, his eye always on the likes of Ma’a Nonu and Tana Umaga, but a soft spot for the Force and the chance to be near his parents after he and his wife had a newly born child was too good an opportunity to miss. He quickly remembered how to play XVs.

“I had to get back to the fundamentals and I picked it up as quickly as I thought I would. I see a lot of the league boys come across and they do miss out on the fundamentals like the breakdown, everything is a contest, and not switching off. In league you can do a hit-up and have a two-minute break whereas in union as soon as the ball is in play you have to be on.

“That is another thing I love about union, you don’t switch off. There is always something happening. People say it is a slow game when in fact it is not. When the ball gets kicked out you are already assessing how many numbers are in the defensive line or what play you are going to run – there is so much more to what people think about rugby.”

His stint with the Force was short-lived, though, Rugby Australia shutting down the franchise, but the services of Rona were thankfully in demand. “I was contemplating going back to league but I thought I didn’t have a fair crack at union, it was literally my first year back in and I said to my wife, ‘Look, I am just going to stick to my guns here’ and then I signed with the Waratahs for the two years.

“It was very stressful at the Force in terms of the unknown, the uncertainty as a lot of the boys were just playing their first year, young guys that had just come through, and it was like, ‘Where are they going to go now?’ I was quite blessed that if I did decide to go to league I could (before the Waratahs made their offer).

“They [Rugby Australia] made a mistake and they knew that. It shouldn’t have happened. The Force are back in the competition which is great for the game, but it was good I got the opportunity to go back to Sydney and our backline was pretty stacked. That was where my rugby really started to thrive because I had players around me like Israel Folau, Kurtley Beale, Bernard Foley, Adam Ashley-Cooper. Even Taqele Naiyaravoro, who is also killing it now in the northern hemisphere.”

No matter what Rona did at the Waratahs, however, he just couldn’t convince Michael Cheika to give him another go with the Wallabies. He got three caps in 2017, had a falling out and that was that. “I was actually speaking to my wife about it this week, I felt like I didn’t get a fair crack, a fair opportunity and you know with Cheika, he plays his mind games in everything he asks.

“He stuck to what he knew and he played who he thought should be playing and I disagreed with him and we had a bit of a fall-out and then he didn’t pick me again to come into the camp. I thought I should have got more opportunities. I tested him and he didn’t like it and before you knew it I wasn’t selected again and that was my Wallabies career done.

“No, I haven’t spoken to him since. I remember clearly I thought I was in a good opportunity, a good position at the time where I was playing. He actually gave me a few quotas to match in terms of my running, my playing in Super Rugby, and I matched if not bettered those and he still didn’t pick me. That is why I confronted him and it is what it is.

“That is just how things go sometimes. Sometimes coaches just won’t pick you or they don’t like you or you are out of favour and that is the way life is with selections and whatnot. There are a few people who have had a fall out with him [Cheika]. It is just a common thing with any coach… it’s the circle of rugby life.”

That life for Rona is now with London Irish where he would ultimately love to win a trophy and also see the Premiership introduce an NRL style ‘Golden Point’ so that matches don’t finish as draws as has happened twice with the Exiles this season. “Fans want to see a winner. If we had a vote, I’d vote for it.

“I’d probably say it must be a try. A lot of teams would say just points because you get a penalty and kick for goal and that is the game, but a golden try would be amazing for this league. Look at what they have done with the 50:22 which is awesome for attacking players. The whole dimension of rugby has changed now. People have to resort to dropping their back three to cover for those 50:22s, and it [a golden point] would make the game more exciting. People want to see winners.

“I want to lift a trophy,” he added. “Any cup, I would be a happy man for sure. We are here to compete. Irish in the past historically have not done well but with the likes of Declan (Kidney) and Les (Kiss) we are heading in the right direction to change that mentality and as a team that is what our goal is, to win at all costs.”

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