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Mulitalo’s wild Origin ride to Kiwis, NSW pick four debutantes, Koula’s Tonga pledge

Ronaldo Mulitalo describes the last year of his life as a “wild ride”. And anybody who has followed the Cronulla winger’s career will know very little has been straightforward.

“We’re finally here and I’m pretty excited,” he says ahead of his Test debut for New Zealand against Tonga this Saturday. “To pull on that Kiwis jersey will be something pretty special.”

Where exactly “here” is, takes some explaining. Mulitalo has returned to Auckland – the city in which he was raised by his mother Vaega – for the first time in three years.

When Ronaldo and twin Lorenzo were 13 she uprooted their lives in the suburb of Otara and moved to Queensland in a bid to improve the boys’ chances of an NRL career.

“There wasn’t much opportunity for us coming up in New Zealand and that’s not being disrespectful,” Mulitalo tells AAP. “Maybe at the time, I wasn’t good enough or hadn’t developed in certain ways. 

“My family made sacrifices and backed my ability to succeed and that’s why we moved over to Australia. I think I really built my toughness and thick skin growing up in New Zealand. It’s a resilient place and although I moved to Australia, Auckland will always be home for me.”

Mulitalo is 22 but has 37 tries in 52 NRL games and his form led to a call-up from Kiwis coach Michael Maguire for New Zealand’s first home Test since 2019.

It’s only by chance that the winger will don black and not the maroon of Queensland this weekend. This time last year it was Origin II and an injury to Reece Walsh meant Mulitalo was poised to make his Maroons debut. 

Despite playing junior representative football for the Maroons, he was deemed ineligible for senior Origin on the grounds he hadn’t played in Queensland before turning 14.

No issues had been flagged during his junior career and it led to the NRL and the Queensland Rugby League trying to apportion blame on one another as the winger was ruled out less than 24 hours before kick-off. 

Mulitalo was caught in the middle. “I feel like I handled it pretty well,” he says. “I don’t want to play a blame game, me and my family can’t do anything about it to bring us happiness.

“I have always kept it pretty tight and the people close to me know what was going on in that situation.

“The first game I remember watching was the game when James Tamou switched his allegiance from New Zealand to Australia. It’s crazy to think that I’d be on that international stage as well. It’s something I never thought would happen.”

Ronaldo Mulitalo

(Photo by Matt Roberts/Getty Images)

Sky Blues pick four debutantes

NSW women’s coach Kylie Hilder has unveiled a new-look spine and named four State of Origin debutantes in her side to face Queensland at GIO Stadium on June 24.

Hooker Keeley Davis is the only member of the spine to have played in last year’s 8-6 Origin loss. Rachael Pearson will make her Origin debut at halfback, joined by her St George Illawarra teammate, fullback Emma Tonegato. Five-eighth Kirra Dibb joins the halves pairing and will play her first Origin match since 2019.

Hilder’s changes came after incumbent fullback Botille Vette-Welsh tore her ACL playing for Parramatta in the final round of the NRLW premiership. Last year’s halfback and former Origin captain Maddie Studdon missed out on selection in the extended squad, while five-eighth Corban Baxter was named a reserve.

Sydney Roosters second-rower Olivia Kernick and Newcastle Knights prop Caitlan Johnston will make their debuts from the bench.

“We’ve got a really strong team this year, we’ve got a few debutantes,” said centre Isabelle Kelly. “Emma Tonegato is coming in and playing fullback and she’s been unreal, and our halves also.

“It’s about having a really strong team and working as one. Last year we went away from that but we’ve really built on that this year.”

Alongside Dibb, Hilder has recalled Shaylee Bent and Sam Bremner, the only member of the Origin side without an NRLW contract. Eleven of the 17 named played in the 2021 NRLW Grand Final for the Dragons or Roosters. Dragons prop Kezie Apps will captain the side for the fourth time.

From next year onwards, the women’s Origin will be expanded from a one-off match to a two-game series.  Should the 2023 series end in a tie, the winner of this year’s match will retain the shield.

NSW’s women’ State of Origin team

1. Emma Tonegato (St George Illawarra Dragons)
2. Yasmin Clydsdale (Sydney Roosters)
3. Jess Sergis (Sydney Roosters)
4. Isabelle Kelly (Sydney Roosters)
5. Tiana Penitani (Parramatta Eels)
6. Kirra Dibb (Newcastle Knights)
7. Rachael Pearson (St George Illawarra Dragons)
8. Simaima Taufa (Parramatta Eels)
9. Keeley Davis (St George Illawarra Dragons)
10. Millie Boyle (Newcastle Knights)
11. Kezie Apps (c) (St George Illawarra Dragons)
12. Shaylee Bent (St George Illawarra Dragons)
13. Hannah Southwell (Newcastle Knights)
14. Quincy Dodd (St George Illawarra Dragons)
15. Sarah Togatuki (Sydney Roosters)
16. Caitlan Johnston (Newcastle Knights)
17. Olivia Kernick (Sydney Roosters)
18. Sam Bremner (Cronulla Sharks – NSW Women’s Premiership)
19. Teagan Berry (St George Illawarra Dragons)
20. Filomina Hanisi (Parramatta Eels)
21. Talei Holmes (St George Illawarra Dragons)
22. Corban Baxter (Sydney Roosters)

SYDNEY, AUSTRALIA - MAY 20: Tolutau Koula of the Sea Eagles is tackled during the round 11 NRL match between the Parramatta Eels and the Manly Sea Eagles at CommBank Stadium, on May 20, 2022, in Sydney, Australia. (Photo by Mark Kolbe/Getty Images)

(Photo by Mark Kolbe/Getty Images)

Koula pledges allegiances to Tonga

The belief that the Tongan revolution sparked by Jason Taumalolo and Andrew Fifita five years ago would fall away now seems misguided. Just ask Manly teenager Tolutau Koula.

On the eve of the 2017 Rugby League World Cup, Taumalolo and Fifita changed the international game by opting to switch their respective allegiances from New Zealand and Australia to Tonga.

It led to Tonga reaching the semi-finals of that tournament after beating the Kiwis in the group stage and they have since defeated Great Britain and the Kangaroos. Those wins have inspired a new generation of Tongan players to follow suit, including Koula.

“What Jason Taumalolo and Andrew Fifita have done is inspire young lads to follow their path,” Koula, who will make his debut at fullback against the Kiwis in Auckland on Saturday, said.

“He (Taumalolo) started that movement … I grew up as a pretty passionate Blues fan (but) I watched every game of that World Cup (in 2017).

“I’ve always watched the Pacific Test, so to be a part of that will be pretty special. You get goosebumps just being in the stands.”

To look at the strength in depth Tonga now have, Moeaki Fotuaika and Joe Ofahengaue played State of Origin for Queensland last year, but can’t even crack the bench.

Fifita is now reduced to a role as a depth player, while Manly’s Haumole Olakau’atu shunned a NSW call-up to play for Mate Ma’a – a team moniker which literally means ‘Die for Tonga’.

Koula may be a stop-gap for this Test ahead of the Rugby League World Cup later this year, but does have a long family history of representing Tonga. His mother was a hurdler in the Atalanta and Sydney Olympics, while his father competed as a 100m sprinter at three straight Games from 1992 onwards.

“I’m really proud to continue that tradition,” he said. “(Tonga coach) Kristian Woolf called me a few weeks ago to tell me to be mindful of getting in the squad. It was always in the back of my mind but to see it in paper was crazy.

“I didn’t tell anyone, even my parents found out through the media.”

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