TURBULENT TIGERS | Wests Tigers' 2016 season was... interesting.
From the demotion and eventual dep...
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The big difference for prop Iafeta Palea'aesina this season is that he's not huffing and puffing his way around the rugby league field.
He's fitter than he was, a bit lighter and definitely faster, just turned 21 and starting to feel like a professional footballer.
It's taken Palea'aesina a while to recover from the knock he took five games into his career, one that resulted in his spleen being removed. It knocked his confidence as well as his body.
Palea'aesina made a barnstorming start in the National Rugby League as a 19-year-old, who was groomed at Otahuhu then lifted straight from the Hibiscus Coast Raiders Bartercard Cup side to play for the New Zealand Warriors against the Northern Eagles at Ericsson Stadium.
In his first touch of the ball, he smashed multiple tacklers. He carried again in the same set of six and the Warriors broke through for a try to Monty Betham that helped turn an 18-30 deficit to a 34-30 win.
And all the Australian commentators were struggling to pronounce his name.
Then came the spleen damage, incurred in the act of scoring a try in a 37-30 loss at Newcastle.
But Palea'aesina's five games were enough to convince club bosses they were on to a winner with the 1.83cm, 110kg prop, and he was signed for three years.
He played 11 games last season.
The better form of others was the only reason he was left out of this year's opener against Newcastle, but he has played every game since.
Coach Daniel Anderson had words with Palea'aesina after ordinary pre-season trials performances.
He says he took it on board, has increased his effort and is determined to hold a spot in the starting 17.
The presence of Jerry Seuseu, Mark Tookey and the return next month of Richard Villasanti make that a tough task.
Pushing behind him is a similar-sized hulk in Dallas Rennie, also at Hibiscus Coast and highly praised by their coaching staff.
"I'm a lot happier this year with no injuries," Palea'aesina said.
Seuseu and Tookey set the benchmark for him, and give him advice.
"I just try to carry on where they leave off when they go to the bench," he said.
Anderson has been bringing him into games about 10 minutes before the break ? longer than that in the last two games ? looking for explosive impact that would lift the rest who might be flagging.
Palea'aesina has done exactly that, frequently carrying multiple defenders, falling to knees and elbows so he gets quick play-the-balls away and opens space for the faster backs.
He's concentrated on doing that right.
But both coach and player know he is capable of good off-loads, bringing more ball-playing skill to his game.
"He still doesn't feel in his own mind that he's consolidated his position but that will come soon," Anderson said.
"He hasn't been lazy this year, his defence has been better, he's a bigger asset to the team.
"Eventually he'll feel that he has consolidated his position and then I'd expect you'll see the off-load.
"I've drummed it into him ? you don't do the flamboyant until you're on top of the dirty work."
Consistency another thing Palea'aesina is aiming for.
He likes making a living as a pro player after starting in 2001 on a match bonus and having to go back to his original job of scaffolder when he didn't make the team.
"It's harder than I thought it would be when I first came here."
But others like Seuseu and Stacey Jones are an inspiration.
He's concentrated on getting more acceleration and speed this season, working with specialist Keir Hansen.
"I find I can talk a lot more on the field, which helps your defence," he said.
"I used to be hands on hips, puffing away, there was always lots of deep breathing. I'm definitely fitter now and it helps your confidence."