Payne Haas was one of the first people to congratulate Thomas Mikaele when it emerged he would become the latest Wests Tigers debutant.
Haas and Mikaele were the starting front-rowers for Queensland powerhouse Keebra Park in 2016, the high school team that also featured Broncos forward David Fifita and Gold Coast teen prop Moeaki Fotuaika and lost to Westfields in the national final.
On more than one occasion, Mikaele, 21, had wanted to ditch Concord for the quieter life back home in Ipswich, but was grateful he hung around for his special moment at Leichhardt Oval on Saturday evening.
Next big thing?: Tigers debutant Thomas Mikaele.Credit:Wests Tigers
The powerhouse 110kg forward has quickly impressed his Tigers teammates, although his rat's tail and choice of clothing have not gone down well with some.
"We were in New Zealand last week for a training camp and he was wearing Queensland shorts, so I gave him a spray,'' said Tigers' favourite Robbie Farah.
"But he's a good kid – for a Queenslander. He's raw, has natural talent, the club have put a lot of time and effort into him. It's been difficult for him and he's spoken about being homesick and wanting to go home, but I know how much this opportunity will mean to him on Saturday.''
Mikaele said Keebra comrades Haas, Fifita and Fotuaika had all inspired him to never give up on his NRL dream.
Haas took the rugby league world by storm last year when unleashed by Wayne Bennett for a few games before he broke down with injury.
Benji Marshall was the first player to put Keebra Park on the map and the Tigers have enjoyed looking north of the border to unearth the school's graduates.
In 2016, Mikaele took out Keebra Park's MVP award, while Haas was the sportsman of the year.
"I'm pretty anxious, nervous, there are mixed emotions but, of course, I'm happy and excited for this weekend,'' Mikaele said.
"Growing up in a Polynesian family, we're close and what we do is for our families, so the last two years have been hard for me. There have been tears along the way, but the boys have made me feel welcome.''
Coach Michael Maguire saw enough from Mikaele over the summer to give him the nod over Matt Eisenhuth, one of the Tigers' best up front last season.
The New Zealand-born Australian Schoolboy forward joins fellow Kiwis Russell Packer, Ben Matulino, Elijah Taylor and Michael Chee Kam for the home game against Manly.
Meanwhile, Maguire defended his decision to start $3 million recruit Josh Reynolds in reserve grade, saying: "I just want to see him get out and enjoy his football. He's had a couple of tough seasons and has put a lot of work in the background to make sure he can stay on the park. That's all in front of him now.''
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