Punt To Save Sisa Waqa And His Family

Canberra: Gamblers Anonymous is the last place you would expect to find a Fijian cult-figure, a devout Christian and hugely talented NRL star. But for two years, every Monday night,
27 Jan 2015 10:02
Punt To Save Sisa Waqa And His Family

Canberra: Gamblers Anonymous is the last place you would expect to find a Fijian cult-figure, a devout Christian and hugely talented NRL star.

But for two years, every Monday night, Sisa Waqa would take a 45-minute train ride to the city from his rental home on the outskirts of Melbourne.

When he arrived in Australia as a 19-year-old, Waqa spoke little English. Life in a big city, with all the hustle and bustle and busy traffic, was a culture shock. He never got a driver’s licence.

Against this, there were the temptations. Which leads Sisa Waqa into this tiny room at Gambler’s Anonymous.

The former Melbourne Storm premiership winner and new Canberra Raider can count on one hand is how many meetings he missed over the past two years. He was determined to grab hold of something which had “got out of control”.

At the meetings, Waqa would take his seat inside the small circle of men and women who told stories similar to his, he would often sit nodding knowingly.

“It was like putting a mirror in front of you,’’ he said. “I was looking forward to going to the meetings every week. Because, for me, it wasn’t so much about gambling, as it was learning more about life.’’

When it was Waqa’s time to speak, he told his story.

How as a teenager in Fiji with nothing more than 30 cents to gamble with, a deck of playing cards and a group of mates, he got his first taste of the punt.

“In Fiji, gambling is a massive thing,’’ Waqa said.

“Back home we used to play cards. That’s where I learned how to gamble. And 10, 20, 30 cents, that’s like $30.’’

A talented rugby union player who represented his country at under-19 and under-21 level, Waqa’s athletic physique ensured he would dodge the life of crime already being led by not only his mates, but his brothers.

“I grew up in one of the bad areas in Fiji. Most of the boys I played cards with and grew up with all ended up in jail,’’ Waqa said.

“My older brother is still in there. He has served eight years in maximum security for armed robbery, so hopefully he will be out soon. My younger brother got out a couple of months ago.

“I was just blessed and lucky to come over here and get an opportunity.”

At 19, Waqa left his family behind and flew to Sydney to take up a contract with Gordon Rugby Union club in 2008.

He moved in with one of his biggest supporters and confidantes, manager George Christodoulou. By the end of that year, Waqa would accept a second-tier offer by the Roosters to switch codes. It would prove a brief stint, just seven NRL matches.

But his time in the Harbour City would be telling — the opportunity to bet on the horses and the lure of Royal Randwick was all too easy.

Waqa wasn’t on the six-figure salaries of his teammates, so his bets were never larger than a couple of hundred dollars. But they were frequent.

And with that the debts began to pile up.

After a deal to play rugby union in Europe fell over, Waqa moved from the Roosters to Melbourne in 2011 on an opportunity contract worth $75,000.

Bravely, he made a decision to be up front about his problems with having a flutter.

“When I came down to Melbourne, I told them,’’ Waqa said.

“When I talked to the coaching staff and the welfare officers, I said to them, ‘I’m trying to be honest’.

“I tried to tell them what is happening with my life, especially with myself personally because I knew it was going to affect my family and my football.’’

Unlike the half-million dollar contracts other players received while speaking out about gambling issues during their career, including Parramatta’s Chris Sandow and Eels great Nathan Hindmarsh, Waqa was a first-grader earning less than $100,000.

The soon-to-be father of four tried to gamble his way to a bigger bank account. But it was failing.

His infectious smile and natural warmth made the decision for his teammates and coaching staff to lend him a few dollars here and there fairly simple.

“I was just chasing the money and then I started running out of money,’’ the 2012 premiership-winner said.

“When I had a big win, I thought I could get some more. I’d get tips from the boys and put a bet on.

“Then I’d lose and I would try to chase it back.’’

But the hole just got deeper. Waqa needed professional help.

With the support of Melbourne welfare managers Brian Phelan and Peter Robinson and his loyal wife Luisa, Waqa’s monthly pay was divided by the club so that he at least had enough to pay for rent, food and the electricity bills.

Had they not intervened, Waqa would not have been able to afford the bare essentials.

Everyone felt the plan was working, but by June last year, Storm officials made the most agonising decision they have ever reached as an organisation.

They had to let go of a player who should never have had to leave the club.

In order for Waqa to pay off his gambling debts, support his family and extend his career on a salary greater than what he could earn at the Storm he was told to find a club that would assist his cause despite being on contract for 2015.

The decision gutted the entire club, but to a man they knew it was the only way Waqa could set up any type of future for he and his family.

The Raiders have given Waqa that new hope.

Eager to add experience and skill to his backline, head coach Ricky Stuart signed Waqa to an upgraded deal for the next two seasons.

“When I first had a chat to Ricky about coming to Canberra and gaining a long-term contract with the many talented players that are here, I saw that as an opportunity for me and my family,’’ Waqa said.

“I’ve been thankful to Ricky and the Raiders welfare officer Dave Thom, who took me into his home for three months and Dean Souter who have tried hard to put things together financially for the sake of my welfare and that of my family.

“I’ve got three kids now and another on the way, I want my kids to be happy.

“I don’t want to be one of those footballers who after football is still broke and then see their family split up.

“I want to raise the family in Australia, hopefully get a house and build a life for my family.

“Gambling, it came to a stage where I couldn’t control myself. I’m now strong enough to put a few dollars on instead of going above my limits, which I was a couple of years ago.’’

Well-spoken, respectful and modest, Waqa has the presence and life-experience which the NRL could use as a valuable tool to provide undoubted mentorship to other young players.

“As I said, where I grew up in Fiji, with all the crime, I never dreamed of getting an NRL contract, winning a premiership and playing with the big three (Cooper Cronk, Billy Slater, Cameron Smith),” Waqa said.

“But at the moment, I’m just trying to focus on myself to try and improve as a person.

“I want to get myself stable, my family stable here in Australia before I go out there and try and pretend to be a mentor.

“I’ve got to prove myself to myself first.”


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