Alaifatu Junior Fatialofa joined Pacific Rugby Players (PRP) when he took up the role of personal development manager in the United Kingdom two years ago.
It has been a challenging yet rewarding journey for the former Bristol and Exeter Chiefs centre, who has big aspirations of what can be achieved working alongside the many UK-based Pacific players.
The picturesque county of Buckinghamshire, fondly referred to as Bucks, is a far cry from Porirua.
Bordering greater London and Oxford, it is home to Pacific Rugby Players’ (PRP) personal development manager Junior Fatialofa, who is making waves in the UK Pacific rugby community.
Of Samoan descent, Junior was born and raised in the Wellington region, attended Wellington College, and Victoria University of Wellington, and played club, age grade and provincial rugby, for Wellington.
“Following school, I started a Marketing and Management degree at Victoria and got about three-quarters of the way through before I gave it up,” Junior says.
“It was the ‘rugby players’ degree of choice’ at the time…rugby was going well, and I guess I was on the cusp of turning professional.”
Life changed dramatically when adventure came knocking and Junior was presented with the opportunity to head overseas to England to play for Premiership Rugby club, Exeter Chiefs.
It was a toss-up for Junior, who says he was at the age he needed to decide if he was going to pursue a professional rugby career in New Zealand, or head offshore and pursue a different path.
Eventually, Junior’s older brother Mark, who at the time was already based in the UK at the end of his playing career, persuaded Junior to take a leap of faith and join him in England.
Looking back, Junior says it may have been too early in his rugby career to leave New Zealand, but in terms of life experience, his decision to move was invaluable.
“When I left, I was living at my family home where I had lived all my life and had all the home comforts.
“I had no driver’s license when I arrived in England, I didn’t have a bank account, and I suddenly had to do my own washing and cook dinner.”
Being thrown in the deep end on arrival to a foreign country, has provided Junior priceless insight as to what Pacific players experience when they leave the Islands to play rugby offshore.
“Knowing what they go through first-hand has really helped me in my role with PRP,” Junior adds.
“Pacific boys live being around home and family. In many ways, these boys are making the same journey as our parents did – relocating and working overseas to provide for their families.
“I understand the transition and the changes they experience can be difficult and part of my role is to make that as easy as possible.”
As a PRP personal development manager, Junior also informs and guides players around wellbeing, welfare issues, sorting visas, education, and post-rugby opportunities, providing them with the skills, confidence, and tools to tackle life after rugby.
“I try to get across to them their life is not defined by rugby – sometimes Pacific players think a rugby career is as good as it gets, and my role is to help change this mindset and give them some options.”
Finding the right career following rugby is a trial and error process and it is something Junior has also experienced first-hand.
While playing for Exeter, he tagged along with his mates who were employed part-time, so he could do work experience.
“I couldn’t just sit around and do nothing in my spare time,” he explains.
At one stage, Junior was considering taking up a teaching role in England, but fate intervened.
“At that stage, I was also coaching rugby at a private school and saw a need to work with at-risk students – kids with no father figure, those who had learning difficulties, or ones where the system had failed them.
“I set up a mentoring programme, using rugby as the driver to help these kids become more confident, and back on track.”
It took Junior a good 10-12 years to figure out, but he knows now working with youth is something he is passionate about – it is a strength Pacific people boast, he adds.
Never one to miss an opportunity on offer, Junior snapped up the chance to work for PRP when it was recruiting two years ago, and to utilise the many skills he had gathered over the years.
“The first year was really about building trust and gaining a better understanding about how professional players’ minds work,” Junior says.
“It feels like over the last six months, I have started to make progress, learning new skills every day.”
The Covid-19 pandemic has put a spanner in the works for rugby, with games cancelled and players out of work.
It has accelerated the thinking about life after rugby, and Junior has been busy helping players step out of their comfort zone, who are looking to start side projects such as e-commerce, to earn passive income.
“It is my role to remind these guys you never know what the future holds, that rugby is a fickle game and they need to take control of their lives.”
Going forward, Junior has some big aspirations for PRP and players he works with – he is only just scratching the surface now, he says.
“I think we will start to get some really positive outcomes in the next six months, in terms of player engagement, plans for life after rugby, and managing pay cuts due to Covid-19.”
While clubs mostly look after their top tier players, Junior strives to ensure the lower tier players are protected and not exploited.
Another plan of attack he is brainstorming currently to support players, is to work with players’ partners and help them upskill and become work ready.
It is an exciting and challenging role, where no day is ever the same.
“I really enjoy the challenge of it all.
“I’d really love for more players in the UK to reach out and touch base with me in case I can support them in some way.”
Email Junior Fatialofa email@example.com for more information.