Football in Australia to rugby in Wyndham, Arese Poliko's journey to becoming a Southland Stag – Stuff

Arese Poliko has taken a more unique path towards becoming a Southland Stag than most.
For a start, he only took up rugby at the age of 15. Before that football was his sporting love while living in Australia. He was born and raised in Australia up until the age of 12.
It was when Poliko and his family moved back to their home country of Samoa that his rugby journey began.
Football wasn’t all that big in Samoa, so it ended up on the rugby fields.
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“I loved it, and I probably should have started a bit earlier I reckon, I learned to love the game.”
Poliko linked with the Rugby Academy of Samoa run by former Samoan captain Mahonri Schwalger. It triggered a chain of events that led him to rural Southland.
The academy had a connection with sports management group Essentially, now called Halo Sport.
Menzies College, in the eastern Southland town of Wyndham, was on the lookout for some players to help its first XV rugby team. Poliko took up the opportunity and at 16 years old made the shift.
He left his five sisters and parents to chase the rugby dream, spending three years living in at a homestay in Wyndham. Close to six years on from that shift from Samoa, Southland now feels like home.
”I love the province,” he said.
He spent Year 11 and Year 12 at Menzies College before shifting to Southland Boys’ High School for Year 13.
Gerry Ward was the Menzies College principal at the time of Poliko’s arrival and said the now stags No 8 made an immediate impact at the school.
“Arese is such a lovely kid, he had real mana around the school. Good manners and respect,” Ward said.
Only a few years after first playing rugby, Poliko, in 2018, was selected in the Highlanders under-18 squad.
And four years on from that he now looks at home playing in New Zealand’s National Provincial Championship competition.
He started at No 8 in the Stags’ first two 2022 NPC games against Tasman and Auckland, and will get a third start against Otago at Rugby Park in Invercargill on Sunday.
“It means everything to me,” he said about the opportunity to represent his adopted province.
Poliko made his Stags debut against Tasman in 2020 and showed promise before being forced from the field with a nasty ankle sprain.
The following year he impressed playing for the Highlanders under-20 team and looked set for a big 2021 NPC campaign only to break his ankle in an internal trial game.
Rather than taking on a dejected outlook Poliko was determined to return better.
“It was pretty hard, going so hard and then getting a season-ending injury and being back to square one.”
“With my injury last year I was just trying to come back better and stronger than I was.”
“It’s been two years of injuries. So I’ve been doing pretty good to come back better than I was.”
Poliko’s rugby aspirations don’t sit at just playing in the NPC.
“I guess this year my goal is to just go hard and make sure I’m doing all of my jobs, and hopefully it opens up some more doors for the future.
“I’ve just got to make sure I look after myself properly and make sure I’m doing all those one percenters, rehab, prehab, just looking after myself. I’ve got to make sure I keep improving with everything I’m doing.”
Stags team to play Otago: Rory van Vugt, Viliami Fine, Isaac Te Tamaki, Scott Gregory, Matt Whaanga, Marty Banks, Jahvis Wallace, Arese Poliko, Matt James, Grayson Knapp, Josh Bekhuis (c), Joe Robins, Morgan Mitchell, Sam Stewart, Joe Walsh.
Reserves: Jacob Payne, Shaun Stodart, Quinn Harrison-Jones, Charles Alaimalo, Jacob Coghlan, Jay Renton, Robbie Robinson, Michael Manson.
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