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Fiji Time: 12:42 AM on Thursday 21 August

/ Front page / Sport

Nabuli the Panther

Phil Rothfield Of The Sunday Telegraph
Monday, December 10, 2012

A FEW weeks ago, Etonia Nabuli was a humble porter in a Fijian hotel. That was until he bumped into Freddy Fittler and Joey Johns in the foyer.

An amazing chain of events has led to the 23-year-old joining the Penrith Panthers sight unseen. It has to be one of the most amazing player signing stories in NRL history.

Freddy and Joey were in Fiji, combining a family holiday with coaching clinics, school visits, tours of villages and charity fundraisers.

"We bumped into him in the foyer at the Intercontinental, looked at him, and thought what a specimen," Fittler said.

"So me and Joey invited him down to a nearby park. We put up some bombs, had him running up and down the field, passing left to right, right to left. We did some skills, some sprints, some grubbers and he came up a treat."

Johns was equally as impressed.

"His athleticism was phenomenal," Joey said.

"Plus great hand-eye co-ordination. I guess you could say this is an educated gamble but sometimes you can just look at blokes and know they are good players."

Nabuli plays club rugby union in Fiji in both the 15-a-side and Sevens formats.

"As long as he can learn a bit about our game and about positioning, he'll be a freak," Fittler said.

Johns is employed as an assistant coach under Geoff Toovey at Manly and offered him to the Sea Eagles first.

They even had video footage from the hour-long skills session, taken by cameraman Adam Thompson, who was filming a documentary on the trip.

"Manly were umming and ahhing so I rang Gus (Phil Gould) at Penrith," Fittler said.

"Gus just said over the phone, 'We'll take him'.

"I thought living in Penrith would be an easier place for him to adapt to as well."

It wasn't just the football skills that convinced the Blues legends to set him up in the NRL.

He doesn't drink or smoke and had stable employment.

"We spoke to his bosses at the hotel," Joey said.

"They just raved about the guy's work ethic." Freddy added: "What impressed me most is when he came along to a clinic in one of the villages.

"Just watching him leading the kids around, he had leadership and authority about him.

"He didn't yell or scream but they listened to him. He's a very impressive kid."

Johns and Fittler paid for the Fijian trip themselves. They took gear from the Roosters, Penrith and Warriors to hand out in schools.

Their inspiration was the stunning debut of winger Marika Koroibete at the Wests Tigers this year.

One day they even dressed up in drag on a catwalk to raise $10,000 for the local hospital.

They also visited the homes of Lote Tuqiri and Akuila Uate and met their families.

"It was a wonderful experience and we are going to make it an annual thing," Fittler said. "The NRL should be putting some money into Fiji and finding a good operator to run the show.

"If it's handled properly, I can see the day where we have a lot more Fijians playing rugby league.

"They need some funding and they need some direction."

Wests Tigers winger Koroibete burst on to the scene last season as arguably the most exciting young prospect in the game. Noa Nadruku, Jarryd Hayne, Uate and Petero Civoniceva have done it all before him.

"Seriously, it's a great breeding ground as long as you get them early before their diet changes," Fittler said.

"They're all born athletes. They're 6ft 4in, they jump high, can run fast, step and they're so strong.

"There are a lot more like our mate Etonia just waiting for opportunities."


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