In just a few years, Solomone Kata has transformed from a rugby league rookie to a man at the centre of the Warriors and Kiwis, as JON RAWLINSON explains.
When it came to throwing myself around Paparoa Park (home of the Howick Hornets) I had heart. Unfortunately, compared to former Howick Hornet, Solomone (Sol) Kata, I sure as hell didn’t have enough talent.
He’s a quiet, almost self-deprecating sort of chap; a man of few words. This surprises me as we chat while overlooking the Warriors’ home ground at Mount Smart. It’s tough for me to equate this polite 22-year-old with the bulldozing role he plays on field. Then again, maybe Sol’s just softly spoken around mouthy media types.
I ask whether he’s looking forward to representing his adopted home, at this year’s Rugby League World Cup (Oct 27 – Dec 2) in New Zealand and Australia. I’m surprised by his response. It seems whether or not this Warriors’ midfield back will be back in black for the Kiwis depends on how the ball bounces, so to speak.
“I don’t know yet, I might play for Tonga,” the four-cap Kiwi tells me. “Like most of the boys, I want to play in the best team I can. [To play for] the Kiwis was my goal when I switched
from rugby to league.”
In rugby union, once a player has represented one nation at the top level, he can never represent another. However, eligibility rules for rugby league are much less stringent, allowing players (such as Sol) with dual eligibility to switch sides depending on selection.
Whether he sports a black or red jersey will come down to who’s most keen to harness his skills. In either case, Sol says he will relish the opportunity to perform on international league’s big stage.
“It would be a highlight of my career,” he says. “It would be a special moment for me being the first time I play in a World Cup, and in front of my family and fans.”
And, he’s reasonably sure his family will be there to watch, or as he puts it: “probably, hopefully… if they want to.” I tell him I’m sure they would!
As to whether fans can expect the Kiwis to claim the World Cup for just the second time since the competition began in the 1950s, is another matter. Sol appears unwilling to give too much focus to a bridge he’s yet to encounter. However, he does believe lower-rated squads could upset the much vaunted favourites of England, the Kangaroos and the Kiwis.
“I don’t know who [will win] but the Tongan team is pretty good; they’re improving each year and could play well,” he says. “For now, I just have to focus on my own game with the
Warriors first and then we’ll see what will happen after that.”
It’s a fair point. The Warriors certainly should focus on the task at hand. Despite a change of coach – with Steven Kearney leaving the Kiwis to take the reins this year – and a new
captain (Roger Tuivasa-Sheck), the Auckland-based club’s premier team has struggled.
Despite this – and departures of playmaker Kieran Foran and Ben Matulino next year – Sol remains faithful in his franchise’s chain of command. “They [Kearney, Foran and Tuivasa-Sheck] have been really good for us,” he asserts. “We’re lucky to have them at the club and on the field.”
Exactly how this luck runs will only really be revealed once the top eight is decided later this year.
To Howick and beyond
The rise of Solomone Kata comes with a sting in its ‘tail’; actually, in a way, it begins with one. Born and raised in Tonga, Sol attended Sacred Heart on a rugby union scholarship before
opportunity came knocking in the form of a certain Bell.
“Someone [from the Warriors] came to watch one of my games and then [former Warriors’ and Kiwis’ great] Dean Bell knocked on my door at home,” he explains.
“He asked if I wanted to play for the Warriors Under 20s and I thought it would be a good step for me to try and make the top side. I think, if I had stayed with rugby, I would be good
at that, but I couldn’t miss such an opportunity.”
While he admits to never even watching rugby league growing up, in 2013 he switched codes and promptly began turning heads as a Hornet and Junior Warrior.
“I had a talk with John Ackland [from the Warriors], about clubs near me and he said the Howick Hornets was the place to play,” the Glenn Innes resident says. “It was lovely to play for the Hornets and spend time with the boys there.”
In 2014, Sol played in the NRL Nines before joining the Warriors’ top squad in 2015. Again, he quickly made his presence felt showing scintillating form. Missing selection for the Kiwis,
Sol played for his native Tonga before helping the Kiwis to a Four Nations final last year.
However far he has come in just a short time in the game, Sol credits the Hornets with helping him begin his rise to the top.
“I haven’t been back [to Paparoa Park] since I last played for the Hornets. I wouldn’t just turn up but if they invite me I’d love to go back,” he says.
Although it’s not my place to do so, I assure Sol that I’m sure he’d receive a warm welcome.