photo by STUART WALMSLEY. Powerful Brumbies back rower Fotu Auelua. Photo: Stuart Walmsley
SHOPLIFTING, schoolyard fights and a self-confessed rebel - Fotu Auelua knew his Super Rugby dream was destined for the scrapheap if he hadn't turned his life around.
Now 28, Fotunu'upule Auelua is the fearsome 121kg ACT Brumbies No. 8 launching his Super Rugby career in Canberra.
But few know the troubled youth who shoplifted, had scholarships torn up, was constantly fighting, went to six different schools in Australia and almost gave up on his rugby dream to be a security guard at nightclubs.
For a guy who has played just two games for the Brumbies, Auelua's journey to the top has been painfully long.
He played schoolboy rugby with Digby Ioane, Ben Mowen and Ben Alexander.
But while they excelled, Auelua kept making ''stupid decisions'' and at times it appeared his career would never take off.
That's why he pinches himself when riding the team bus in South Africa ''just to make sure it's reality''.
And the fact he's been through so much already makes him appreciate every chance he gets to test himself against the best players.
''I've had a troubled life, not with my family but with the decisions I've made - I wasn't the best kid around,'' Auelua said, speaking for the first time since being selected to make his debut.
''Every time I had a foot in the door, I would take a backward step because of other things I did.
''I've been to six different schools in Australia, now you look back and laugh at it. But deep down it is a bit embarrassing and I've grown up to understand that.
''Those things happen, I've realised my mistakes and I'm trying to rectify it and I think it has made me a better person.
''A lot of people probably wouldn't talk about that past. I'm not proud of it, but it has made me the person I am today, it was either grow up for it or I would still be in the place I was in as a young kid.''
Auelua will play his third Super Rugby match when the Brumbies take on the Johannesburg Lions at Ellis Park tomorrow morning.
He draws inspiration from his family network which helped him transform his life and career - partner Annita, sons Noah and Maddax and father Falefia.
The Brumbies have given him a simple task as he attempts to establish his career in Australia - crash and smash.
He's no stranger to physicality - Auelua has been 120kg since he was 17. But even with his size, Auelua vomits before games as he struggles to fight nerves.
''It's just all the nerves and all the pressure and you just want to get out there,'' Auelua said.
''Sometimes I can't believe I'm here and it's a special feeling. My job is to be destructive, smash and be in that contact area.
''I know I've got a lot to improve on … I'm still excited and it feels like a good achievement for me to a part of the squad.
''And there is just an amazing feeling in this squad.''
It's a world away from where he thought he would be less than a decade ago.
Born in Wellington with Samoan heritage, Auelua moved to Campbelltown with his family when he was young.
He grew up playing rugby in the backyard pretending to be Tana Umaga and Jonah Lomu.
Soon he was being offered scholarships by top rugby schools.
But ''my mum would be in the office every month'' and he was regularly shown the door as he struggled to find his feet boarding away from home.
He fought his peers, he stole, he skipped class and wanted to find an escape.
He moved to the Gold Coast for one last scholarship chance and when he finished school he contemplated giving rugby away to get his forklift and security licences to support his young family.
But an opportunity with West Harbour in 2005 in Sydney opened the door for him to sign a professional deal with Top 15 club Dax in France and it changed his life.
Since then he has played for Toulon, moved to Japan and finally arrived in Canberra in February.
Even now he is his harshest critic.
When he dropped a ball against the Pretoria Bulls last weekend, the television cameras caught him giving himself an uppercut to get his mind back on the job.
He's already rattled bones with crunching tackles and charged through defenders with his devastating runs.
''I've never wanted to look back and think 'what if?', I hate that question,'' he said.
''I just want to set an example for my kids and for young Islanders out there because there are plenty that go through what I did and you've just got to change.''