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Sauiluma leading out the Bears. Photo: Dylan Parker/QRL

Sami Sauiluma never planned on staying at Burleigh long.

The former Canberra Raiders and Cronulla Sharks outside back always thought his move to Queensland would be a one-year stint and then he would go back to the nation’s capital.

But now his name is almost synonymous with the club.

Burleigh Bears skipper, Burleigh Bears veteran, two-time Burleigh Bears premiership winner and Burleigh Bears milestone man.

He is part of the furniture and over the past nine seasons has watched a culture develop at the club that no one wants to walk away from. Now he leads that culture.

This Sunday, Sauiluma will rack up game 150 in Hostplus Cup, all of which were played with the Bears.

Milestone men: The Burleigh Bears six

With two NRL State Championships also under his belt, this milestone is not something Sauiluma ever expected, but it’s one he is quickly learning to cherish.

“I didn’t think too much of it until everyone else was making a thing of it,” he said.

“I realised it’s a pretty cool milestone when the club, the boys and my family are celebrating it. It’s a pretty cool feat to reach at this level.

“It definitely wasn’t part of the plan with football. I thought I’d come up and play one year and then head back home and play footy for my local team back in Canberra.

“I didn’t think this would be a long-term thing but it’s a good competition, it’s a really good club to have fallen into. The people here help make this home.”

Sauiluma leading out the Bears. Photo: Dylan Parker/QRL
Sauiluma leading out the Bears. Photo: Dylan Parker/QRL

Sauiluma’s love for the Bears developed over time as he watched the culture grow too.

In his first season in 2016, under the tutelage of Jim Lenihan, Sauiluma helped turn around Burleigh’s fortunes as they claimed their first premiership title in over a decade.

With one year also done in his electrical apprenticeship, the centre decided to sign on for another season.

Four years later, he had completed his apprenticeship, had the 2019 premiership to his name, and was still a proud Bear.

But the real reason behind his dedication is not just the success or his goals away from the field – it’s the people who have helped shaped Burleigh since 2016.

“I’ve just grown to love Burleigh and the people there,” he said.

“The year before I got there Burleigh, struggled a bit. We were told a lot of stories at the time by Jimmy about how they’d gone in the past and I think half of them were lies but that’s how he got us going.

“The expectation was to win the comp in our first year. We had a pretty stacked side so the expectation was definitely there the first year for us to turn it around from what happened the year before and we were lucky enough to win it off the bat.

“The years after that is when we started to build the culture. It’s something that takes a bit of time.

“The years leading into 2019 is probably really what built the foundation that we have now.

“We were lucky enough to get away with the premiership in year one but the years after that it developed the culture, especially with the new faces coming into the team - guys like (Sam) Coster, who brought a professionalism we didn’t have in 2016.

“It starts at the top with the coaching staff and all the people in the office – (CEO Damian Driscoll) Drisco, (football operations and wellbeing manager) Jodie Berkers is massive for the club.

“All the people behind the scenes, that’s where it starts. All the coaches we’ve had in our time are pretty quality coaches, especially (Luke Burt) Burty with his honesty to players.

“He has to have some hard conversations every now and then but I feel like he’s pretty honest.

“Jimmy’s no-idiot policy, we’ve run with that since then. All the boys that come in are easy going and easy to get along with. It’s just a good bunch of boys to be around and enjoying our footy still is important.”

Sauiluma against the PNG Hunters.
Sauiluma against the PNG Hunters.

Sauiluma – who last year welcomed twins with his wife – said that while he’s had a lot of positive influences across his time at Burleigh, from players to coaching staff, it is still Lenihan who has left the biggest impact.

“I’d have to say Jimmy Lenihan ... he brought us all here in 2016,” Sauiluma said.

“You could say a few of us were quite lost in terms of where we were going with our footy. A few us had come out of fulltime systems, so not really knowing what we wanted to do other than football.

“Jimmy made us feel really wanted at Burleigh. It was a good thing for a lot of us. He made us feel needed and let us know our input and that we still had something to give to footy.

“He got me going with my apprenticeship. He said, ‘just knock something off', and that’s been massive for me, being able to finish my ticket and have something after footy. He was unreal for all of us.”

Now it’s Sauiluma’s duty to keep that culture going.

The 33-year-old said the idea of retirement pops into his head every now and then, but while he’s still loving his footy as much as he does now, he’s not considering it seriously.

Instead, he wants to win more premierships and to help pass on the Bears’ culture to the next generations.

“I’d like to win as many grand finals as we could,” he said.

“That’s the number one goal, is to win as many as we can and push as many boys through to first grade or whatever goals they want to achieve.

“I’m probably the easier senior player they can talk to. Some might be intimidated by the Costers and (Pat) Politonis that are full on football heads.

“I like to think I’m easy to talk to. I just try to uphold our standards every training session and do little things like cleaning the sheds, picking up weights around the gym, being in the right kit on away trips.

“It’s all the little things that the guys, especially the younger guys, might see. If it helps one or two and changes the way they look at things, that’s all we need.”

Sauiluma will reach game 150 this Sunday at UAA Park when the Bears take on the Tweed Seagulls for XXXX Rivalry Round.

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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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