The second week of March this year is one that Sione Tuipulotu will remember for the rest of his life.
After signing with the Melbourne Rebels in late 2015, the nineteen year old home-grown Victorian star was selected to start at centre in his first ever Super Rugby match against the Reds at AAMI Park.
However the realisation of a life-long dream had to share his focus that week, after a close friend of his committed suicide just days before his debut.
“From a Rugby perspective, it was a really exciting week for me; to find out I was going to make my debut in front of my family and friends was the highlight of my career so far,” Tuipulotu told RUPA. “However, finding out about my friend and the fashion in which he passed meant it was a very sad week as well.
RUPA TV caught up with Sione at #RUPACamp in December; watch here.
“Zach and I grew up together; we were in the same class all the way from prep to Year Six at St. Francis Xavier in Frankston, and we lived across the road from each other. We were always really close.
“When I moved to St. Kevin’s College we drifted apart a little, but whenever we’d see one another we’d have great conversations which made it clear that we hadn’t lost one another as mates. Two weeks before he passed away I saw him and we had a chat about old times, and he seemed happy in life.”
The Rebels ground out a tense 25-23 victory over the Reds as Tuipulotu debuted, and the young centre impressed with ten carries before the emotion of the whole week set in as the siren sounded.
“(Rebels’ Head Coach) Tony McGahan really looked after me in the lead up to my debut,” Tuipulotu said. “He allowed me to prepare without putting too much pressure on me, which was certainly important considering everything that had happened.
“When the final whistle went it was a bit of a strange feeling; before the game, I was thinking about Zach and again straight after the game as well. It was the hardest game I’ve ever played in my life and I was physically exhausted after the game, but I was also emotionally exhausted.”
It’s no surprise Sione was physically exhausted that night; not only was he trying to familiarise himself with playing at a new, tougher level, but his direct opponents in the midfield were Wallaby centre Anthony Fainga’a and Samu Kerevi, tipped to don the Gold jersey in the foreseeable future.
Fainga’a, who has Tongan heritage just like Tuipulotu, was hugely impressed with what he saw from Sione that night.
“I thought Sione was a very humble young man and he played very well,” Fainga’a told RUPA. “I spoke to him briefly after the game and I really believe that his humility is a great cornerstone for what will hopefully be a very successful Rugby career.
“His ball carries, his tackling and his communication were really impressive coming up against myself and Samu (Kerevi), who have played a fair bit of Super Rugby. He did a fantastic job, had a great work rate and his side got the win, so from the other side of the field I thought it was a very successful night for him.”
Speaking with Roy Ward in The Age the very next day, it’s clear that Sione was just as impressed by 29 test Wallaby Fainga’a.
“I looked up to… Anthony Fainga'a who I got to play against today,” he said. “It's pretty crazy to go from watching him last year to playing in this tournament.”
Like most who watched that game, Fainga’a had no idea about the week Sione had endured off the pitch.
“For Sione to come out and play such a strong game (in tough circumstances) is a credit to himself, and also to his friends and family; it takes a hard young man for him to roll his sleeves up and come play on a Saturday following a serious incident of that nature,” Fainga’a said.
Things didn’t get any easier for Sione from there, with another catch-22 situation presenting itself the very next week. Tuipulotu was selected in the Rebels’ touring squad to play in Tokyo against the Sunwolves, taking a spot on the bench as Tamati Ellison returned to the starting line-up.
Retaining his spot in the side was great for Sione, however it meant that he was unable to attend Zach’s funeral.
“When I found out I was going to miss the funeral it was a sad feeling but at the same time I was so happy to be selected to tour, and that I was achieving things I had dreamed of my entire life,” he said.
“We trained in Tokyo at the same time that the funeral was taking place in Frankston and it was quite hard to concentrate, however I know that Zach would have wanted me to play. My parents were able to go (to the funeral), take some flowers for his mum and send me some photos of the service.”
Sione said the passing of Zach has reminded him of the different ways in which mental health can affect people.
“Zach and I had pretty similar lives growing up and had spent a lot of time together, yet I wasn’t aware of the pressures he was facing, so the biggest lesson I took from it was that mental health doesn’t discriminate; anybody can have problems,” he said.
“Nobody is immune to pain or suffering, even in a place such as Frankston where you are kind of expected to be fairly tough and it’s not necessarily cool to speak out, and I think that definitely had an effect on Zach. It’s weird sometimes that you never really know what’s going on behind the scenes in somebody’s life, and it got to a bit of a tipping point for him and unfortunately he took the action he did.
“It only takes one decision for somebody to take their own life, so I suppose it’s just so important to speak up if you need help. It’s also just as important to make sure if somebody reaches out to you and asks for help that you support them as best as possible.”
Fainga’a agrees, and calls upon his years of experience to lend some advice for how to continue playing amongst adversity.
“Throughout my Rugby career, a lot of things have happened which have been challenging for me to deal with such as both my father and grandmother being diagnosed with cancer,” he explains.
“When confronted by a challenging situation, what I have tried to do is either use that energy and take it into the game, or on the flip side focus purely on the game plan when I’m preparing and separate the two. Just doing whatever the coaches tell me to do, and blocking everything else out to try and execute it.
“Rugby players are in such a fortunate position in that we have big squads of teammates around us and as a team you become really close and like brothers to one another. I always say to my teammates that they should open up and speak to each other if they do have something on their minds, because you spend more time around your squad than you do your family with training, games and tours.
“You need to speak about things which are affecting your wellbeing rather than let them boil away; surround yourself with good people within, and also outside, of Rugby and then if you don’t feel comfortable speaking about something with a fellow player you’ll have really good mentors who you can go and speak to.”
Mental health is an important component of RUPA’s Player Development Program. RUPA work closely with expert organisations to supplement resources with knowledge on mental health and to proactively identify and help players with mental health issues.
Professional athletes are less likely to reveal depression due to a long-held cultural mentality of staying tough, however RUPA are one of many organisations within the industry who are exponents for real change in this area.
Every Australian Super Rugby franchise has a RUPA Player Development Manager (PDM) stationed within the team environment. All PDMs have completed Mental Health First Aid courses and special education in suicide intervention, and along with the Team Doctor any player can speak to them confidentially about anything health related, including their mental wellbeing.
75% of people who have some form of depression, mental health or condition or anxiety disorder encounter it before the age of 25.
Facts about depression in young Australians*:
One in 16 young Australians is currently experiencing depression
One in 6 young Australians is currently experiencing an anxiety disorder
One in 4 young Australians currently has a mental health condition
Suicide is the biggest killer of young Australians and accounts for the deaths of more young people than car accidents
For help or information regarding mental health, call Lifeline 131 114 or beyondblue 1300 224 636.
* Source – Beyond Blue Man Therapy