He arrived in Perth as a blockbusting backrower, and soon found himself on the wing after topping the charts during speed testing.
But Onehunga Havili is now back in his favoured No.8 position and opposition defences beware: he’s held onto his outside back skills.
Tongan born, Auckland schooled alongside Taniela ‘Tongan Thor’ Tupou, and now after a stint on the wing, the prodigal no.8 has returned to his backrow roots. It’s fair to say the rugby education of Onehunga Havili has been an interesting one.
“Yeah, we were doing some speed testing last year, and I was just beating everyone,” the quietly spoken Havili told rugby.com.au this week, on what prompted the move out to the wing.
“From there, the Force wanted me to try out the wing and see how it would go.
“It wasn’t too bad; the way I play, I like playing outside wide [as a no.8], I always play out on the edge. I like watching Kieran Read, how he always hangs around with the backs; I’ve always played like that.
“So when it came to playing on the wing, I was kind of already used to it. And it wasn’t too bad. The only thing that was a struggle for me was the high ball, or the lines you run as a winger; that kind of stuff.”
The Western Force did indeed see something in Havili, putting him into their Future Force program that trains alongside the senior squad. The Force and Havili’s Premier Grade club, Palmyra worked on his transition together and it paid dividends to the point that Havili scored a couple of tries on the Spirit’s flank last season.
He again started the 2016 season with Palmyra on the wing, but the itch to get amongst the action was growing.
“I just didn’t have as much fun. I would hardly get the ball,” the 20-year-old said.
“I wanted to get involved more, so I asked the coaches if I could go back, so I could get the ball and do what I can do. Running is one of my strengths, and I wanted to get the ball more, so I decided to go back to no.8.”
Fortunately, his coaches agreed, and Havili says it wasn’t difficult to find his feet again in the backrow.
“I been playing no.8 my whole life. When I went back there, I was feeling like, ‘oh, I’m back home.’ It just felt normal, it felt like I was back to where I play.”
It’s been a rapid rise for Havili, who still only arrived in Perth at the start of 2015, after he completed his schooling in Auckland and even spent some time with the Blues Under-18s squad.
“When I was 14, a Tongan Under-14s side had a tour to New Zealand, and from the tour, I got asked by one of the schools to come and play rugby the next year. So I went the next year to New Zealand to the school, Sacred Heart, with Taniela [Tupou].
“Me and him got picked to go the school, and we played together for about four years, first with the school, and then the Blues Under-18s. After that, I found the Future Force program with my agent, and I came over here after that.
“Auckland is not really home; Tonga is my home, but when I came here, I wanted to move here because I’ve got more family here than in New Zealand,” he said.
Since then, it’s been all about the rugby, training in the Future Force program alongside the Western Force squad, and playing for Perth in the NRC last year.
“When I first got here, they told me I was training with the Force pro squad. I was nervous; I’d just come from school and I was straight into a professional environment. But every day I learn; every day I just want to take something with me that I learn from the professional players.
“At the start, it was so fast, but now I’m more used to it and I’m learning a lot from them.”
The Future Force program has been hugely successful for RugbyWA, too, with Spirit teammates Harry Scoble, Richard Hardwick, and Kane Koteka all making their Super Rugby debuts in the last two seasons. Havili says the focus on individual skills has been the big improvement in his game along with his confidence, and he’s also motivated by what his teammates have been able to achieve through the program.
And now that he’s back at no.8, we could see Onehunga Havili go to a new level in this year’s competition. Already, he’s shown that he’s lost none of his try-scoring instincts, breaking away to score the first try of the 2016 NRC against Melbourne last Saturday.
“They want me to do heavier lifting now, with the weights, but I try to stay out of that if I can so I can maintain my speed,” he laughs. “I still do a bit of speed training with the coaches.”
“I tried the wing, but I didn’t really like it. But I got some skill from it and that is helping me at no.8. Even the high balls now, as a no.8 I sometimes have to hang around at the back for them, and I’m pretty confident with them.
“No.8 is definitely where I want to be.”