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Outside the comfort zone: How Polata is rediscovering her love of league

China Polata found herself at a crossroads earlier this year.

After 19 months out of the game following an ACL rupture, season 2022 was shaping up to be a success for the 20-year-old.

She made her NRLW debut with the Brisbane Broncos in their Round 4 clash with the Gold Coast Titans in March. She proudly represented Tonga in their mid-season meeting with the Kiwi Ferns. She returned to the BMD Premiership with Souths Logan Magpies.

But despite all these milestones, something just wasn’t right for the promising young gun.

“I went through a lot of personal stuff this year,” Polata said.

“I came back for the Broncs. It was my first game in nearly two years, post-operation. I played my debut against the Titans. I finished the rest of the season there, then went into BMD.

“But I just felt like my heart wasn’t in footy at the time. I had a bit of a break, I stepped back from BMD and then later on in the year, I played in the comp below (Holcim Cup).

“At the time I remember talking with my dad and he said, ‘what do you want to do? Do you want to go to Sydney next year? You really want to think about your future.’

“And I was like, ‘oh, I don’t know.’ I then kind realised I was becoming complacent in Brisbane. I wasn’t really going anywhere. I was too distracted and I knew the same thing would happen in Sydney.”

Polata playing in the 2019 Under 18 Girls Origin. Photo: NRL Imagery
Polata playing in the 2019 Under 18 Girls Origin. Photo: NRL Imagery

As Polata came to grips with her outlook on the game, she didn’t know where to turn next.

Until she saw the announcement that the North Queensland Cowboys would have an NRLW team in 2023. And that NRLW team would be coached by her former Queensland Under 18 mentor Ben Jeffries.

As someone who has had a major impact on Polata’s rugby league career, she remembered a key piece of advice Jeffries had once given her – 'sometimes you need to get out of your comfort zone'.

And that’s exactly what Polata has done.

“I consider myself quite close to BJ on both a player and a personal level,” Polata said of Jeffries.

“I played a great game of Origin underneath him in 2019 when I was playing fullback and I just thought I really want to have a coach like that again.

“I saw the news online and I was just like, I want to make one of my goals for next year to grab one of those Cowboys contracts. I said to my parents, ‘I’m moving to Townsville.’

“I was supposed to move up next year in January but I got back from a vaycay in Tonga and while I was over there, my dad and I were talking and I was just like, you know what? I’m moving.”

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Polata booked her tickets to Townsville on Monday, November 28, and arrived in town on Wednesday, November 30, staying with her uncle, aunty and two cousins.

She was at her first BMD Premiership training session by Thursday, December 1, as part of the Townsville contingent that will represent the Mackay Cutters.

And already she can feel that love of the game, her motivation and her passion creeping back.

“Being up here, it’s already cleansing,” Polata said.

“I’m excited. Really excited.

“I’ve had a few great coaches in my lifetime but one thing I’ve been taught, especially by BJ, is you have to get out of your comfort zone.

“Sometimes when you’re in the comfort zone, you stop listening as well, you don’t really grow, you can’t really develop and you’ve exceeded your learning in that place. I feel like that’s exactly where I was at in Brisbane.

“I knew it was time to get a kick up the arse, move away, get outside my comfort zone and just start learning again.

“Short-term (goals), right now, is to make the Cutters run-on side. I don’t care where I play.

“Medium goal would be to find my groove again in BMD. I didn’t find that this year. I didn’t get to test my limits after my surgery. My BMD goal would be to find my groove as a player and hopefully that will attract BJ or other (NRLW) clubs.

“It’s all about self-development as a player, on and off the field. It’s head down, arse up and work really hard to find a better version of myself. I have to work on me first.”

In Townsville, Polata is already finding a lot of support.

She reached out to both Jeffries and Mackay head coach Marco Peters before her move. While neither could make any guarantees to her, they both have belief in her ability.

She is also driven by her family, with her 15-year-old cousin Sitiveni Afu part of the Townsville Blackhawks’ Cyril Connell Cup squad.

They are able to push and motivate each other, training together whether it be running, strength work or just a game of basketball.

It’s been a long journey back to this point for Polata, who said she never made it anywhere in rugby league until Jeffries discovered YouTube highlights of her efforts, posted by her dad.

From there she played for Queensland in the 2019 Under 18 Origin match and was signed by the Brisbane Broncos. She was with Souths Logan from the age of 16 and played one Premiership match with them in 2020 before the women’s season was cancelled by COVID.

She then joined the Brisbane Tigers for the short 2020 Holcim Cup season, but in her first game in August she tore her ACL, putting her on the sideline for 19 months until her NRLW debut.

All the parts of her journey are what make her move to Townsville so thrilling and terrifying all at the same time.

From trying to start over with a new club to being in close proximity to one of her strongest mentors, Polata knows 2023 is going to be one of her biggest seasons yet.

“I’ve pretty much been at Souths my whole time and this is why all of this is really new,” she said.

“It’s a new place, new people, new team. I’ve been training with Souths since I was about 16 and I’m 20 now. It’s all new.

“I’m a little bit scared. I definitely have a bit of a fear after (getting injured at the Tigers) but I’m doing everything I possibly can to not get injured so I’ll be fine.

“I’m very grateful to BJ … I owe a lot to him. He was able to give me things as a player that I was always seeking from a coach.

“He said to me, ‘go play your game. I’m not expecting anything from you. I just need you to be early, be on time, take accountability for things, be a leader.’ He let me be me.

“That’s when all my doors started opening for me and it was when BJ gave me the opportunity.

“That’s what I’m really grateful for and I’m working for those opportunities again. I will work hard for him. It’s more personal.”

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Queensland Rugby League respects and honours the Traditional Custodians of the land and pay our respects to their Elders past, present and future. We acknowledge the stories, traditions and living cultures of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples on the lands we meet, gather and play on.

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