At the end of the 2017 season Hull FC cult hero Mahe Fonua brought an end to his stay in East Yorkshire one year early, taking his young family back home to Australia.
The popular outside back’s departure left a big void on the Hull’s right edge, with Wests Tigers gaining the Tongan’s services for two years.
He made a big impact during his first season back down under, finishing fifth in the NRL for post-contact metres while also getting plenty of attention for his mullet haircut.
But the 2019 season was not kind to Fonua, with a season-ending injury bringing an abrupt end to his time with the Sydney club, where he made 21 appearances, scoring six tries.
Relationship with Lee Radford
Now 26, big Mahe is at his peak and despite interest from other Super League teams, he is back in Hull, ready to produce more memorable moments in the famous black and white.
Speaking to the gathered media at the Airlie Birds Elite Performance Centre, it was clear that he still holds the club very close to his heart, just as they do him.
“I’m happy now I’m finally here, it’s been a long time coming,” he said. “Obviously, I signed in late June, but there were a couple of visa issues that had to be looked after.
“Like I say, I’m happy now that’s done and the 24-hour flight with two kids, that’s finally over.
“Me and Radders kept in touch over the two years I’ve been back in the NRL, and with our sport, it’s a very physical game, so unfortunately we get injured.
“I got injured, mid this season, and I was off-contract this season, so it wasn’t an ideal time for me to be injured playing for another contract.
“I broke my foot and that had me out for the rest of the season, so had Radders not kept in touch, I would’ve had to rush back and then play for another contract.
“But like I said, me and Radders had kept in touch the whole time I was back over there, we’re good mates, and he reached out when I needed it the most, so I’m thankful to him and the club.”
Leaving home behind again
It’s the second time in four years Fonua has had to leave Australia, this time with a young family who must adapt to living on the other side of the world again.
Despite his previous stint in Hull, the Melbourne-born back admitted there was a temptation to stay in the NRL for the sake of those closest to him.
“To be honest, that’s ideally what would be best for me and my family,” Fonua said. “I’ve got a small family and me and my wife have got two small kids.
“There’s no immediate support group, so that was pretty tough, and that was the original reason why we moved back to the NRL from Super League, was because we were having our first daughter.
“But like I said, with our sport, you can’t control what happens in some games, it’s a very physical sport, and that’s just the cards that I got dealt at the time.
“I’m very happy to be back here, because it’s a great opportunity to be back, especially with the squad that we’re building.
“On paper, we’ve a very sound team, so if we can perform as good as what we look like on paper, we should do some damage.”
When Fonua originally arrived at the KCOM Stadium in 2016, not only was he a young, unknown quantity to Super League, but the competition was also unknown to him.
Things are a little different this time though and the more-experienced figure believes he can adapt what he has learned from the NRL into Super League.
“It (playing in the NRL) was a different experience for me this time,” he said. “It was a better, sort of learning experience for me.
“I was older, I am older now. I left Melbourne Storm at 23, spent two years here then went back at 25/26. I would’ve liked to play more footie, injury set me out both years in a row for lengthy periods of the year.
“I had two different coaches in Ivan Cleary and Michael Maguire, they both coach in different ways and I learnt a lot of things off both of them.
“Playing with some older, experienced players like Robbie Farah and Benji Marshall, they still bring a lot of knowledge to the team.
“There are little things you can learn off them, and they’re always passing knowledge onto the younger players.
“I felt this time that I was able to give some input of my own from knowledge that I’ve gathered, but at the same time still learn, off the senior players and the two different coaches.”
Why return to Hull FC?
To Hull fans, Fonua’s return to the club seems an obvious one, especially after the success of his previous spell, helping end their Wembley hoodoo in 2016.
Not only did he win back-to-back Challenge Cups in black and white, but the Tongan international was also named in Super League Dream Team both years he was here.
“The club is in my heart,” he said. “Me and this club have a lot of chemistry and history and also, my daughter was born here in Hull.
“So it always was going to be my first preference, unless another team came and blew it out of the park. I do hold Hull in high regard, the club and the support of the fans.
“It’s pretty ironic to be back, I was speaking to the Hull Daily Mail the other day, and me and my wife were just coming back in.
“We just passed Brough, and we both just said, Déjà vu, fancy being back here two years later, because when I left I thought that was probably my career, here in Super League.
“But, I said it before, you never know the cards you’re going to be dealt with, and it’s brought us back here to Hull, and I’m happy for the opportunity.
“Coming back to somewhere we’re familiar with, me and my wife, we found it a little bit easier.
“A lot of the core players that were here last time are still here, so my wife hasn’t had to find a new group to hang out with.”
Grand Final ambitions
Fonua’s role in Hull winning their first ever Wembley final was huge, as he scored and assisted the winning try in the 2016 Challenge Cup triumph over Warrington.
Having helped the Airlie Birds get that monkey off their back, he is now determined to aid the club’s attempts to win a first ever Super League Grand Final.
“That’s something that I’d like to create with this club and this bunch of boys, I’m here to create some new memories, hopefully good ones.
“We won back-to-back Challenge Cups and things went a bit downhill maybe, with things not going to plan as what they thought.
“But, with the squad that we’re trying to build, I think we can definitely be up there in the mix, with the likes of St Helens, Wigan and that.
“So, yeah I’m really excited for next year, and hopefully we can make it to Old Trafford. The Challenge Cup is held in high regard, but that isn’t the week to week competition that we play in.
“It is good to make it to Wembley, and to win a Challenge Cup, but you train all pre-season to play 29 weeks, or 29 rounds of the Super League and make the Grand Final.
“I think that’s the pinnacle of the competition, and to be able to make it there, to Old Trafford. I think to staff and players, and the background staff that’s helped to get this squad together.
“Hopefully we can get it done, but I think that’s where this pre-season comes into play, to get the players to gel together and build combinations, hopefully it will show throughout our season.”
Competition for places
It’s no secret that Hull are not short of outside back options next season, with Lee Radford adding a number of high-profile signings on the edges.
With the ability to play wing or centre, Fonua is all too aware that he doesn’t have a guaranteed spot in the team and must work hard to earn a starting place.
“My preference is probably just to be on the field to be honest,” he said. “There are some good players in our squad.
“We’re stacked in the outside backs region. You’ve got Grand Final winner Adam Swift, GB international Jake Connor and even Bureta Faraimo played for USA a couple of weeks ago.
“Then you’ve got our Army man Ratu Naulago. I’ve seen his highlights reel and some of the things he can do are spectacular, so I’ll just be happy to get on the field.
“If there was a preferred choice I wouldn’t mind being at centre, but wherever I can be on the field for the team then I’ll be happy to represent the club.”
Tonga recall and becoming an Exile
The heavy contingent of overseas imports into Super League has seen several players call for an England vs Exiles return in 2020.
Although Fonua wouldn’t turn down the opportunity to play, he admitted that a recall to the ever-improving Tongan international side is higher on his list.
“My main focus is just staying on the paddock, playing good footie and staying fit, and if my performances grant me a test for Tonga, I’ll be more than happy.
“I wouldn’t mind if I was in an Exiles team, but I wouldn’t be too fazed if it didn’t happen.
“But with the amount of players coming over from the NRL, it could be a good game for the supporters to watch.
“I don’t know who they’ve played before but there are heaps of players from Australia coming over here, so they would definitely be able to put together a decent side.
“If they were to put it on, and I was a part of it, I’d be happy to take part, but then again I wouldn’t be too fazed if it didn’t happen.”