Cult hero Mahe Fonua on his journey from Hull to Concord and his adoring fans that stay in touch
Nick Walshaw, League Central, The Daily Telegraph
May 10, 2018 8:10am
EVERY few weeks, they call Wests Tigers HQ.
It’s another Hull FC fan on the phone. Out here on holiday, they say. Or visiting family.
So what time can we drop by training to see Mahe Fonua?
And those not flush enough to travel, they email messages of support. Or post on Facebook.
Just as throughout the winger’s two seasons of English Super League, fans gifted paintings, cards, drawings, teddy bears, even a birthday invitation.
And, no, that particular party Fonua couldn’t attend. Still, he sent a card. And inside, some cash.
The little Yorkshire fan, a fella named Archie, in turn burning two stick figures onto a small, wooden key ring — representing himself and Fonua — that still swings from the footballer’s kit bag.
”The Hull FC fans, they showed me love, man,” Fonua says. “Proper love.
“Since December alone, I’ve had four different groups come visit me at training. And I stay in contact with them, too
“The love and support, it’s endless.”
All of which proves one thing: Mahe Fonua, 25, isn’t simply about the mullet. Or rat’s tail.
Or whatever it is hanging from the head of this new Wests Tigers cult figure.
Sure, seated now in the Concord Oval grandstand, Fonua is every inch a fella capable of making you look twice.
Tattooed arms. Terminator frame. Even three teeth capped in gold.
But if gimmicks were all it took to win over League Land, we’d still be wearing Power Balance wristbands. But we don’t.
Just as that mullet isn’t the ugliest part of this story.
No, for that you need to go inside Fonua’s family home three years ago — back when this rising Melbourne winger stood with his mum crying, dad confused and fiancee Christine … well, she was inconsolable and asking who in the room even knew where Hull was?
Of the four, nobody did. Not that it mattered.
“Because there wasn’t another club wanted me,” Fonua says. “No one.”
So NRL cult figure? Um, no.
At the age of 22, Fonua had long considered his future to be at Melbourne. More than being the first Victorian to play for Storm, the Junior Kangaroo had by 2015 also racked up 50 first-grade appearances, a World Club Championship, even a handful of internationals with Tonga.
He was a rising star. Until he wasn’t.
And if being unwanted in your home town sounds bad, how about all of Australia?
“Oh, it hurt,” Fonua says. “I’m 22 and suddenly being told the only club interested is across the world, in some town I’ve never heard of.
“Earlier that evening, Christine and I were driving home from dinner when my manager called. He’d been talking about England for a while, but I kept saying, no, get something here.
“Anyway, I’ve got him on loudspeaker and he says there’s no one but Hull. And they want a decision tonight.
“My missus is looking across at me from the passenger seat — she’s in shock.
“So I’ve asked for a few hours, then gone straight to see the old man. I sat Christine down, she was distraught.
“We were born and raised in Melbourne, only ever lived with our families. Dad and mum, they were tearing up too … but there just wasn’t anything else.”
So next morning at 7am, Fonua agreed to join Hull, wherever it was.
“And my missus,” he says with a laugh, “started crying all over again.”
So a yarn about hair?
No, this is the story about a footballer who has spent three years fighting to prove he belongs.
Sure, he may look a little, err, Good Time Charlie.
But know that this new Tigers flanker is driven by the values of a father who worked three jobs to keep five children fed.
Sweating all day with a Melbourne road gang concreting and laying bluestone, Moses Fonua then headed across town to work nightshift at the Toyota factory.
Afterwards, home to sleep a few hours then go again.
“And dad did that for years,” Fonua says. “Friday and Saturday nights, he worked security, too.
The wrecking ball has been patient waiting for an NRL start with the Tigers.
“And Mum, she worked, of course.
“So while our family wasn’t well off, we certainly weren’t the worst.”
It also meant that when Fonua arrived in Hull, he knew exactly what was required.
And so, he sweated. Improved. And starred.
Within two years, the winger nobody wanted had won consecutive Challenge Cup finals, Dream Team selection, even “made a bit of noise” with Tonga at the 2017 World Cup.
And still he did more.
Quizzed on his bond with Hull FC fans, Fonua says humbly: “Obviously winning helps.
“But I’d also like to think it had something to do with the way I played. And that after games, I’d high-five as many fans as possible.
“I’ve always believed that what fans really want is the chance to interact.”
Undeniably, hair also played some part, most famously a rat’s tail that was last seen hanging halfway down his back.
So what happened to it? “Ah, some of it’s still there,” Fonua says, fishing a thin, 20cm strand from within his mullet. “But the rest, I cut it off by accident.
“During the World Cup, I had extensions in. So when I went to take them out after a training session, when I grabbed a chunk of hair and snipped through … somehow I got the rat’s tail I’d been growing for seven years.”
Devastated? “Oh, absolutely. But hair, it grows back.”
Careers too, apparently.
He is now back in the NRL — and the father of a little girl whose birth certificate reads ‘Hull’ — and the fight continues.
We might see Fonua as some mad dude with a mullet. But when he looks in the mirror? “I’m the provider for my family,” says the footballer whose elaborate inkwork, a collection of roses, doves, clasped hands, angels, even Jesus Christ, represents different family members.
“And here at Wests Tigers, there’s five guys can play my position. So sometimes you play, sometimes you don’t.
“And that’s all right if it happens once. But to some guys, that’s happening every couple of weeks: you’re in, you’re out, then back in, then out again … there is a lot of head noise comes with that.”
So Fonua, he sweats. “Try to be a handful,” he says. “Whenever I run, I’ll fight for extra metres or an offload. Fight to throw defenders off.
“And I know people might only see the mullet. Look at me and think, ‘man, you missed the 80s’.
“That’s OK. I know initially, it will be about the hair. But eventually, yeah … I hope people will realise there’s more to me, too.”