Not even a one-match suspension for striking an Italian opponent, which saw him ineligible for the Qantas Wallabies’ final Test of 2012, could dampen the enthusiasm for which SITALEKI TIMANI was viewed after his first full year as a starting member of the Australian forward pack.
Although initially sighted as a ‘development’ prospect through the 2011 Test schedule, it was last term that the 26-year-old announced his arrival as a powerful new force on the Test stage. Such was his impact, the Wallabies’ most capped forward – the 2012 skipper Nathan Sharpe – was moved to comment that the 126kg Timani had created a new mold from what had traditionally been expected from Wallaby locks.
The former Tongan Schoolboys football goal-keeper was undoubtedly a key fixture for the Australian scrum, adding raw power to the second row, with the significance of his presence being underlined by the lack of impact the scrum made in his absence. Timani also developed his contribution in general play although the accuracy of his handling and passing under pressure remains a work in progress.
For all of his improvements, Timani had to wait until his third Test outing, when Australia beat Wales 20-19 in Sydney to complete the June clean sweep of last year’s Six Nation’s Grand Slammers, to experience a Test win. The success came as a relief: not only due to the tight nature of the scores, but also because it finally rewarded Timani’s bold move to push on for Qantas Wallabies honours in 2011, after having been included alongside his elder brother Sione in Tonga’s Rugby World Cup training squad.
Sione Timani, who is based with the Scarlets in Wales, and ended last year with seven Tests to his name, went on to play for Tonga in the matches against New Zealand and Canada at the tournament. ‘Sita’ (as he is known to many) watched these on television from Japan, after taking up a short-term contract with the Canon Eagles when he missed the cut for Australia’s World Cup squad.
Following a bruising Super Rugby tournament for the NSW Waratahs, where Timani literally left his ‘mark’ on opponents; he was selected for the 2011 season-opening Test against Samoa. While the Wallabies were upset, Timani showed enough to ensure he was retained through the successful Tri Nations campaign where he trained with the squad to continue his personal development. That process led to further Wallaby selection last year, even though he was largely used off the bench by NSW once he returned from Japan a few weeks into the competition.
Although Australia again lost at Timani’s second start, in the mid-week season-opener against Scotland, he was one of the Wallabies’ better performers in the treacherous conditions. But for a strained hamstring, he may well have started in the series-winning second Test against Wales, instead of having to wait until the return to daytime Test Rugby at Allianz Stadium (formerly the Sydney Football Stadium) the following week. Timani made the most of the conditions, relishing the sunlight and the physical challenge brought by the Welsh, as he produced a number of brutal tackles, while also showcasing off-load skills under pressure which had largely been unsighted in Super Rugby last year.
Although troubled by a hamstring strain during the inaugural Castrol EDGE Rugby Championship, Timani continued his impressive form during the tournament, making a big impression on the All Blacks in his three appearances against a New Zealand side he could have ended up representing following a Schoolboy representative career on that side of the Tasman.
Being one of the Wallabies’ key figures is a far cry from where Timani had been two years ago, when he was on a development contract with the Waratahs, having been released after previous stints with both the Western Force and the Brumbies.
Tongan born, Timani hails from a large family comprising four sisters and two other brothers, raised in the large part by his mother, after his father died when he was young. The children grew up in the football-orientated village of Navutoka, which provided the country’s top soccer team. Timani played the oval-ball game as a youngster, making the Tongan schools side as a goal-keeper, which earned him a trip to Australia to compete in a Pacific Schools competition.
A taller than average youth at school, Timani tried his hand at Rugby the following year. He had only watched his first game of Rugby a few years earlier, viewing the 2003 Rugby World Cup final between Australia and England at a friend’s place. Yet, within a year of taking up the game, he had shot straight into the Tonga Schoolboys side as a lock forward. His second appearance for Tongan Schools came at the Pacific Schoolboys tournament, from where he was offered a scholarship to move to New Zealand to attend Auckland Grammar School.
Timani spent two years in New Zealand at the noted nursery of rising Rugby talent, making the Northern Regions ‘B’ side for the annual four-way New Zealand Schools regional Championship during his second year. That experience saw him recruited by the Cronulla Sharks rugby league club in Australia where he stayed for two years, featuring in a first grade side coached by the noted former Australian rugby league international turned coach Ricky Stuart. Although on the club’s first grade roster, Timani did not appear in the club’s premier side during his stint, being released midway through that second season so that he could join the Western Force Super Rugby franchise in Perth.
He started his representative Rugby career in Australia with the Perth Spirit in the ill-fated Australian Rugby Championship of 2007 and went on to make his Super Rugby debut for the Force against the Sharks the following year. That was one of just three appearances he made for the franchise before moving back east in 2009, when he was signed by the Brumbies.
Timani appeared nine times for the Brumbies in 2009, but fell from favour and failed to get any game time in 2010, which saw him quit the Australian capital to land on the NSW ‘development’ books. Injuries among the Waratahs second rowers opened the door, and Timani made the most of the opportunity, nailing down a regular starting position during the back half of the 2011 season, featuring in the Tahs’ final 13 matches. His deeds included scoring the match-winning try in the final moments as NSW defeated his old team in Canberra.
Such was the physicality he brought to his game; Timani also damaged the odd team-mate although it was mainly opponents who felt the brute force which helped to propel the Waratahs into the qualifying semi-final, and the big second rower into the Wallabies.
Timani’s return to Sydney last year, after the off-season stint in Japan, allowed the opportunity to combine with his equally towering younger brother Lopeti – then a member of the Waratahs Academy – for the first time at state level. The pair shares both a house in Sydney, and Super Rugby experience, after Lopeti made it into the Waratahs last year.
FAST FACT: Jonah Lomu is one of the biggest men in the game, but even he was ‘dwarfed’ when caught standing next to Sitaleki Timani at the team hotel on the morning of Australia’s third Test against Wales last year. The game’s most famous name, who had dropped in on the Wallabies to sign a second pair of boots for Kurtley Beale after a previous signed pair had been stolen, took the time to have a chat with the Wallabies’ strong Pacific Island contingent which includes Timani, Lomu’s former Wesley College school colleague Sekope Kepu, Wycliff Palu, Cooper Vuna (whose cousin is married to Lomu) and Digby Ioane. Timani recalled he had once skipped school, as a nine-year-old, in order to head into the city with a mate to attend a homecoming parade for Lomu after the Tongan-born All Black winger had taken the Rugby world by storm at the 1995 Rugby World Cup in South Africa.