‘We didn’t have a rugby ball. We used to play with sandals’
Mahe Vailanu never dreamt of being a rugby player as a kid - the idea just seemed too far fetched.
He didn't play with a ball until the under 12s, instead throwing around anything that he could get his hands on - mostly his sandals - with his mates.
At various times he was told he was too small to play, not fast enough, carrying a little too much weight.
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Now, at age 23, he has proved the right fit for a Gordon rugby side intent on pulling off a fairytale finish to a fairytale season in the Shute Shield on Saturday.
"I grew up in Tonga in a village. It was pretty small. Everyone would hunt their own food," said Vailanu, who has five brothers and a sisters and is now based on Sydney's north shore.
"I thought I would just do the same as everyone else.
"When I was 10 I followed one of my mates who went to training.
"We didn't have a rugby ball. We used to play with sandals. I played rugby with a ball for the under 12s for the first time."
Vailanu's break came when selected in a Tongan under 14's team for a tour to New Zealand where he played Auckland Grammar, the school which offered him a rugby scholarship the next year as a 15-year-old.
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At the end of school he moved to Melbourne to be closer to his mother and father who had moved there from Tonga and joined the Melbourne Rebels program,
"I got to play three games for the Rebels. I wasn't signed. I was an injury cover. It was a great experience," he said.
Vailanu then moved to Sydney for more opportunity in the Shute Shield and to press his claims for a spot in future Waratahs programs.
After a stint at Warringah, the hooker in 2019 joined a Gordon team rebuilding after finishing with the wooden spoon in 2018.
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Now he's heading to a grand final with the Darren Coleman coached side.
"Everyone gets around each other, we know each other well," said Vailanu, one of Gordon's most prolific scorers this season.
"We had a three day camp at the start of the competition and went to Hunter Valley and got to know each other.
"It was a great bonding session. I think it made a big difference for us."
SHUTE SHIELD GRAND FINAL
Saturday at Leichhardt Oval (3pm AEDT)
Gordon v Eastwood
Live TV on 7Two and 7plus
Originally published as 'We didn't have a rugby ball. We used to play with sandals'