One fine day: NRL star’s vow to cancer-stricken teammate
Ronaldo Mulitalo woke at 5.30am on the floor of Liverpool Hospital.
In a ward upstairs, his childhood friend and fellow rising star at the Cronulla Sharks, Fine Kula, lay seriously ill, awaiting surgery to ease the pressure from a tumour on his brain.
Mulitalo's awkward bedding - made from foam cushions on the hospital waiting room couch - wasn't the reason why the Sharks talent began to stir.
Neither did the hugely talented Maroons Emerging Origin squad member wake from the pinging doors of the nearby elevator.
"It was the thought of what Fine would want me to do,'' Mulitalo said.
"I needed to be at training at 6am - I didn't want to go. I wanted to see and stay with Fine.
"Me and a few of his other close mates had been told the night before he was being rushed into surgery. So we jumped in the car and raced to the hospital. I cried the whole way there.
"We managed to sneak into an area of the hospital where we shouldn't have been, past these doors of a special ward, but the door which Fine was behind was locked and we weren't allowed in.
"So we slept on the floor, hoping to see him in the morning. But we still couldn't be let into see him. So I felt that Fine would want me to get to training. I got myself to training, I was in all sorts with puffy eyes from not much sleep and crying and just emotionally drained.
"The Sharks coaching staff were great - I did my work and then shot back out to the hospital and that's when I saw him.''
That was a fortnight ago.
And every day since, as Mulitalo revealed during a school visit to Gymea Bay Primary to The Daily Telegraph, he's been at the bedside of Kula.
Mulitalo finishes training, and with Sharks under-20s player Jensen Taumoepeau they travel the 40km from Cronulla to Liverpool to visit Kula.
Kula is the 21-year-old who is currently being wrapped in the arms of an entire rugby league community.
A GoFundMe page with a target of $15,000 set up on Saturday night had reached just over $12,000 on Wednesday with the likes of Roosters forward Siua Taukeiaho and Sharks players Bronson Xerri, Braden Hamlin-Uele, Jack Williams and Scott Sorensen contributing.
Mark Hughes, an inspiration for brain cancer patients, is attempting to visit Kula while the Sharks are planning further fundraising before round one.
A dominant footballer in his junior years growing up in Auckland, Kula arrived at the Sharks as a 15-year-old, where he went on to claim the Harold Matthews Cup Player of the year award before playing a dominant role as a forward in the club's 2018 Jersey Fegg title.
"We've known each other since we were little kids in New Zealand. We grew up together playing footy against each other,'' Mulitalo said.
"He was unbelievable. He won every award possible. You go look at Auckland's junior league awards and he won everything there was.
"I knew he was the big-time player that moved here for the Harold Matts and then when I started to come to Sharks training camps, I met up with him again. Ever since then, shut the gate, we've been tight.''
After six years of sacrifice and persistence, Kula was closer than ever before to achieving his NRL dream in 2020. But after complaining of constant headaches to the Sharks medical staff in early January, Kula was sent for brain scans.
The results were devastating - a grade four brain tumour.
Until last week, Mulitalo wasn't aware of the severity of the tumour.
He recalls the moment he was told during a Sharks training camp in Kiama; "On the second last day of the camp I got a call from Aneisha (Kula's girlfriend) and I knew then it was bad.
"She told me he had stage four cancer.
"I broke down in my car with my best mate Jensen (Taumoepeau - a Sharks under-20s player) I wanted to keep it to just myself and Jensen, out of respect to the rest of the team, so they could keep their focus for the rest of the camp.
"Bomber (Sharks coach John Morris) then came up to me on the last day and asked if I was comfortable with him telling the team.
"Hearing it again, hurt me even more. I broke down in front of the boys.''
Mulitalo, just 20 himself, launched onto the NRL scene in serious fashion in 2019 with his powerful kick-returns, infectious energy and high-class wing-play resulting in five tries in eight matches.
Such is the belief in his talent, Mulitalo start the new season as one of Morris' first-choice wingers. And he'll do so with a promise to Kula and his family.
"It hurts me. I'm not in his shoes, so I can't really say what he's feeling. I can't tell him how to feel and how not to feel,'' Mulitalo said.
"But for me, I've already said to him and his family, this year I'm taking you with me.
"I guarantee you'll (Kula) be on my wrist every time I run out. I'll bring him into the sheds after every game when I can and I'll support his family whenever I can.
"I'll sit with them, I'll eat dinner with them at the hospital, whether he's good or not. That's what is getting me through my day. That's what is getting me through my training.
"Just being there.''