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First time . . . Otago Whalers players Inoke Fisilau (left), of Oamaru and Sione Fa'aoso, of Waimate, were rapt to be part of the rugby league side that won Southern Zone Championship and were runners up at nationals. PHOTO: SUPPLIED

When Inoke Fisilau’s friend told him an Otago Whaler was trying to contact him, he was pretty confused.

“When I first got told by one of the Tongan boys ‘the Otago Whalers manager is looking for your number’, I thought it was a fishing trip.”

There was no fishing trip – he had been selected for the Otago Whalers rugby league squad, alongside Waimate player Sione Fa’aoso.

It was his first season playing rugby league and the call up to a provincial level was a shock.

“It was exciting. It was something new and it was unexpected for the first time and then to get picked.”

He and Fa’aoso were part of the team that won the Southern Zone Championship, beating Aoraki 38-6.

“From the moment they picked me up from Oamaru it was a good bunch of boys to be around, and management, everything was good.

“It was hard to pick a highlight. Obviously winning the championship is the most important thing .. everyone had fun, and that was the biggest thing.”

The Whalers went on to a gut-wrenching 22-20 loss to the Northland Swords at the national championship.

It was the fourth year in a row Otago had come up short in the final.

“We started off poorly but then came up in the second half – it was just too little, too late.”

A natural rugby union player for Old Boys, Fisilau said the two game styles were “very different”.

“They’re complete opposite.

“I made a few mistakes because I keep running like a union player, but that’s not how you run in league.”

Still, he loved being involved in a different sport.

“I’m keen to have another go next year, if I’m eligible.”

He took up rugby league, playing for the Waitaki Warriors, as a way to continue playing sport after the conclusion of the union season.

It was one thing he could thank Covid-19 for this year, but it could be more difficult next season.

“We only played this year because of Covid. The season didn’t line up with club rugby.

“So if the season’s the same next year, it’s going to be tough because we obviously both have our own club here.”

He and Fa’aoso “loved every moment of it” and hoped to return for both Waitaki and Otago next year.

“If we can, we will play – most likely, yes we will play.”