Until a few weeks ago, only the keenest rugby league trainspotter could have picked Junior Pauga and Terrell May out of a line-up.
If you were one of those people who knows an inordinate amount about what’s happening in the reserve grade wilderness, you might have known a little bit about them.
Or maybe if you worked alongside Pauga at the container company in Brisbane where he used to load and unload things before he headed off to training, or if you spotted May working at NADO Disability Services in St Mary’s you might have guessed they were footballers.
But now, with the two late-bloomers helping to keep the Roosters improbable finals run alive, everybody is fast learning all about Pauga and May who will once again form a crucial part of Trent Robinson’s side for this weeks’ sudden-death clash with Melbourne.
With Joseph-Aukuso Suaalii and Joseph Manu joining the casualty ward, the Roosters will be scrambling to get a team out there on Friday night. They’re one more dodgy hamstring away from pulling punters out of the Bat and Ball Hotel and sitting them on the bench.
But after what’s happened over the last few weeks, they’ll know they can rely on May and Pauga. There’s no need to worry about those two. They’ve got the good stuff.
May’s transformation has been the more dramatic. The 24-year old prop made his NRL debut last season after years wandering through reserve grade at Penrith, Manly and the Wests Tigers.
“It was tough, hopping from club to club. I always wanted to be a one-club man but the way things happened and the way I wasn’t giving footy 100 per cent, I had to hop around,” May said.
“I wasn’t training hard, I wasn’t eating right off the field. I didn’t want to train and I was carrying a few extra kilos. I wasn’t playing with the passion I have now.”
May earned his first grade debut in the middle of last season and seemed to settle into life as a solid but unremarkable bench prop until, just a few weeks ago, he transformed into a wrecking machine.
Now, when May comes on the field the game bends his team’s way. Bigger name players can’t get a hold of him.
In the final round clash with South Sydney he churned through 173 metres – more than any other forward on the field apart from New South Wales and Australian lock Cam Murray.
In the narrow win over the Sharks he clocked 122 metres, including 93 in the torrid second half that has quickly passed into Roosters legend, and the Tricolours, for all the stars they’ve bought and made over the years, probably don’t win either game without May.
“When I first came here I didn’t feel comfortable playing first grade and doing the things I do with my play style, but the boys and the coaching staff knew what I had,” May said.
“I just had to bring that to first grade and now I’m doing that I feel comfortable and happy.
“I was knowing every game could be my last one and I didn’t know if I’d make the team the next week so I just thought ‘bro, just leave it out there, do what you do and if it doesn’t happen at least you can say to yourself that you tried.'”
May seems certain to have more big games in his future. He’s proven himself to be capable of fitting into the team’s forward rotation for this year and beyond. He’s become the footballer he always knew he could be.
But that doesn’t mean he’s forgotten about the journey along the way. That’s why he still goes down to NADO when he can to check in with his old friends.
“It was a good job and I loved it. I still sometimes go down to see the kids and the adults, but now they always tell me they see me on TV and stuff,” May said.
Pauga’s rise to first grade is even more improbable than May’s – for starters, Pauga didn’t play an organised game of football until his late teens.
Born in Auckland, Pauga’s family moved to Samoa when he was still a toddler and lived there for ten years on the main island, Upolu, before returning to New Zealand.
“We moved back when I was 16 or 17 and that’s when my footy journey started, I’d played in the backyard with my cousins but that was about it,” Pauga said.
“It was a massive change, coming from a place where life was very simple where we lived off the land and the ocean, it was a big difference for us but we made it work.”
From there, Pauga spent time in the Warriors system before moving to Brisbane. The pandemic threw his Queensland Cup plans into chaos, so he kept unloading those containers, put up with the sore back that came with it and had a run around in park footy with some of his mates from back home who’d also moved across the ditch.
“The local footy was still going and all the boys wanted to have a jam and we ended up winning the comp. I was enjoying footy again, just having fun with my mates,” Pauga said.
“I always had a passion for footy, we didn’t have it back in Samoa but as soon as I started playing I fell in love.
“It was always what I wanted to do, no matter what comes my way I was never going to give up.”
Pauga earned his NRL debut in 2021 with the Tigers, scoring a try in a win over Brisbane, and got another couple of games with the joint venture last year.
Life isn’t easy on the first grade periphery and chances can be hard to come by, so when his manager called him to say there was a shot at a train-and-trial deal with the Roosters he didn’t hesitate.
“I took it straight away, I always believe in myself and I didn’t know where it was going to take me and now I’m here,” Pauga said.
“The boys have been giving me heaps of confidence to come into the team and play my footy and express myself.”
Then, at last, all of Pauga’s dreams started to come true. He’s been untouchable in reserve grade this year, scoring 21 tries in 17 games. He says he just catches it and puts it down, but his 114 tackle busts say otherwise.
He’s been in and out of the top grade since making his Roosters debut in Round 14, but he’s looked comfortable every time. He’s never run for less than 100 metres and he’s broken at least three tackles in every match.
Against the Rabbitohs, he got through 230 metres — more than any other player on the field — while scoring a try and playing a crucial role in setting up another. Against Cronulla, James Tedesco was the only other player to have greater gains with ball in hand.
Pauga is playing like he’s been waiting his whole life for this chance because he has and even though the Roosters’ run might end on Friday night you can guarantee that Pauga, like May, won’t go down without a fight.
Even if the season does end for them there’s every chance they’re only just getting started in the NRL. They’ve been chasing this for way too long to let it go now.
“I’m so grateful for all of this. We have a few boys out but I just have to keep believing in myself and keep putting in the work,” Pauga said.
“The club believes in us, they’re really good at that, they tell us to back ourselves and just do what we’ve been doing on the field since we were young.
“That’s all any of us can do.”