Eels Farewell Willie Tonga
The Dyldam Parramatta Eels farewell Willie Tonga this year as he prepares to head to the Catalans Dragons for the 2015 season.
And before presenting him with a farewell jersey from his teammates on stage at the annual Ken Thornett Medal, the Blue and Gold players and former players shared some memories of "Tongz", who debuted in the NRL with the Eels in 2002 and returned in 2012 to rejoin Parramatta.
"I still remember when I first saw him play," said co-captain Tim Mannah.
"I was only in Jersey Flegg and he was at Premier League at the time; he just looked like a star. And then watching him do his thing with the Bulldogs and the Cowboys he was always a class act."
"He’s played at the top of the game, he’s played in successful Queensland sides and he’s been in an Australian team. He’s just a classy kind of player and a person."
Tonga's centre partner in 2014, Will Hopoate, said playing alongside the veteran was an extra incentive to join Parramatta.
"I was excited to come to the club and to know that I would be playing alongside Tongz in the team," Hopoate said.
"When he debuted I was still a young kid and I loved the way he played, then to have an opportunity to play alongside him was something that I looked forward to. I’m grateful I had the opportunity."
Fullback Jarryd Hayne, who knew Tonga well from opposite sides of the field in State of Origin, said the centre's recovery from injury setbacks and his blistering form early in 2014 were a testament to his strength of will.
"Probably the last 12 months has seen Tongz develop as a player and a person," Hayne said.
"I think asl the boys noticed how hard he worked and how professional he was. He lost a huge amount of weight and he worked his backside off to be in the best shape possible for his final year at Parra."
"I always liked playing alongside him, he’d never say to much but if we were win the sheds he’d definitely say something, and a lot of the boys really listen to a person like that of that calibre."
"When he talks you know he means it."
"He went through a real rough patch last year and he went through an injury that would’ve knocked most people down and probably ended their career," added Mannah.
"He’s shown a lot of determination to prove people wrong. I think he definitely did that this year."
"He’s a great leader on and off the field, and he’s someone I think a lot of the young guys in 10 years time will find themselves pretty privileged to have played alongside."