Sports columnist Vince Habermann talks to Bundaberg rugby league stars Felise Kaufusi and Lachlan Lewis about the return of NRL.
Bundaberg's Felise Kaufusi can’t wait to get back on the NRL playing field when his Melbourne Storm hosts last year’s beaten grand finalists Canberra Raiders at AAMI Park tonight.
Both teams won both of their games before the season was suspended due to COVID-19 but neither really hit their straps with the Storm defeating Sharks 12-10 and Sea Eagles 18-4 and Raiders accounting for Warriors 20-6 and Titans 24-6.
Felise, who turned 28 on May 19, declared they are “ready to go” and they are super keen to reassert their authority after twice losing at home to Canberra last season, including in the first qualifying final when the Green Machine scored a 78th minute converted try to snatch a 12-10 victory from the jaws of defeat.
“After a massive pre-season, for the competition to be put on hold after two games was disappointing – no-one could see it coming and it was hard to deal with and everyone is really looking forward to it restarting – we’re all pretty itchy to get back out there again,” Felise said.
“Last time against them was pretty heartbreaking for them to score in the last three minutes to win it after they also got us at home earlier in the season (22-18 on August 17) – we’ve got them at home again and hopefully we can right some wrongs but the Raiders are a tough team after being grand finalists last year.
“We have had like a mini pre-season. When we started training again it was pretty weird – we couldn’t do contact and could only be in groups of 10 but in the three weeks we’ve had as a team again now, we’ve built the combinations again – we’ve done our bit at our end and we are ready coming into this round, then it’s full steam ahead for the rest of it.”
While the club was in shutdown, Felise returned to Bundaberg with his wife Rebecca and children Atarah (3) and Orlando (1), spending valuable family time with his parents Dan and Bernadette, most of his siblings and parents-in-laws Anthony and Michelle May and their families.
“It was nice to head back home to Bundy – I was there for a month – we didn’t know whether the season was on or off and it was good to be surrounded by family during tough times,” he said.
“It certainly beats being in Melbourne on our own – it was nice to go to the beach and go for a swim but other than that we still couldn’t do anything much but to go out for essentials.”
So far Felise has played 112 games for the glamour club, including in their 2017 grand final victory, as well as six State of Origin games for Queensland, four Tests for Australia and three for Tonga.
But he has got a lot of unfinished business, including helping Melbourne to another premiership after suffering a head knock and rib injury in the first half of their preliminary final against Sydney Roosters last year and being unable to return to the field and having to watch on as the Storm’s season ended in a 14-6 loss.
That injury also ruled him out of the Kangaroo’s three-Test series in October-November.
Plus, the Maroons have lost the past two Origin campaigns that he has been part of, so he is ultra-keen to be part of the side which reclaims the trophy in its new timeslot this year in November.
Felise has recently signed a one-year extension to his Storm contract to the end of 2021 and he believes that his best football is still in front of him.
“I have still got a lot of improvement in me to be honest, and I would love to think that I have got a good few years left and I love what I’m doing, training, playing and being part of a special group,” he said.
Lachlan Lewis a rising star at Canberra
One person who does not think the Storm will win tonight is fellow Bundaberg Brothers and Shalom College product Lachlan Lewis, not the 23-year-old Lachlan Lewis who is an integral member of the Canterbury Bulldogs NRL team but the 19-year-old flaming red-head Lachlan Lewis who is a rising star in Canberra Raiders’ Under-20 side.
Lachlan, who left Bundaberg at the end of 2016 to finish his schooling at Rugby League School of Excellence Wavell State High, went on to represent Queensland at the nationals and continued his career with Norths Devils in Brisbane.
He was recruited by the Raiders in June last year, and he went on to be a star in the second row in their side which suffered a heart-breaking 16-14 loss to South Sydney Rabbitohs in the Jersey Flegg Cup grand final in September.
He impressed to the extent that Raiders First Grade coach Ricky Stuart invited him to train full-time with the NRL squad during the pre-season, and he spent four weeks mixing it with all the stars, and he certainly benefitted from the experience.
“Ricky (Stuart) was really good – he was honest and if you were not doing well, he would call you up on it – the Club and everyone is well connected and we all get around together – everyone is nice and welcoming,” Lachlan said.
Lachlan said this was “meant to be (his) break-out year” but that all changed when the Under-20’s competition was cancelled due to Covid-19 but since then he has continued to train privately while working for an electrical wholesaler.
“They are talking about us playing in a Local competition nine-round season, which could kick off at the end of next month, maybe – we haven’t heard for sure, but we have just been given our own training programs but it looks like we could be playing again in the next few months and we’re all looking forward to getting back to training,” he said.
Lachlan’s father Howard still lives in Bundaberg and he still has a lot of friends here but he said his mother Kerry-Anne now lives in Roma and his sister in Brisbane, but while he misses them and he gets home whenever he can, he is happy to put up with the chilly climate in the nation’s capital to pursue his NRL ambitions.
He will turn 20 in November but said talk was that the Under-20’s would be changed to Under-21 next year because of the lost season in 2020.
“I was signed for two years originally but with Corona, I’m not sure what will happen now – I’ll play it by ear at the moment, but fingers crossed it will be Under-21 next year,” he said.
“One hundred per cent. I definitely want to play NRL and 100 per cent.
“I’m do everything we have to and more to be ready to take my game to the next level when we kick off again – I guess that I was given the opportunity to train with First Grade was an indication was that’s I’m in the club’s and Ricky’s future plans.”
Lachlan is also “100 per cent certain” the Raiders can go one step more in the NRL this season and break a 26-year drought.
“The work they have put in, you have to have seen it to believe it – if you don’t train with them, you don’t really know how far they push their bodies,” he said.
“And they are ready to beat the Storm again this week.”