In past years, injury was not kind to Willie Tonga but in 2014, he has remained fit, healthy and has been a revelation in a surprise Eels side of 2014.
With good form under his belt and good health, the veteran centre will opt for a new challenge in 2015 and beyond, signing a 2-year deal with the Catalan Dragons.
Tonga, who is still only 30, has played in 179 NRL games so far and has scored 79 tries in that time.
For Catalans coach Laurent Frayssinous, he is pleased to have signed a player of Tonga’s quality.
“I’m really satisfied to be able to announce the addition of Willie to our squad for the next two seasons,” said Frayssinous.
“He is a world-class player who has been outstanding this season and will add power, pace and skills to our backline.
“Willie has played at the very highest level in the NRL, in State of Origin and for his country and he will bring his experience to the squad.”
Tonga has had stints with several clubs besides the Eels, also playing with the Canterbury Bulldogs and the North Queensland Cowboys.
Representing Queensland and Australia throughout his career, Dragons CEO Christophe Jouffret is excited at signing Tonga, a marquee player.
“Willie Tonga is a marquee signing for us,” said Dragons chief executive Christophe Jouffret.
“When a player of Willie’s calibre decides to join us, it’s a strong sign to show everyone our ambition.
“Willie has all the qualities we are looking for both on and off the field and his experience will prove invaluable to the young players who are coming through at the club.
“It is a great opportunity for them to continue their learning under one of the best centres in the game.
“We started the discussions with Willie a long time ago and it has been a pleasure to find an agreement with his agent Isaac Moses, with whom we have excellent relations.”
For Tonga himself, he wondered whether his career would even continue due to persistent injuries. What got him through it all? The faith and support of all Eels fans.
â€œThe first two years here were the hardest two years of my life, and I donâ€™t say that lightly,â€ Tonga said.
â€œWith injuries and back surgery, there were times I didnâ€™t think I could walk again, let alone play; and there were still Eels supporters encouraging me and wishing me the best, which has meant a lot to me.â€
That was crucial for him and with his health now in fine order, he appreciates everything the fans have done for him.
â€œI want to thank our supporters and also apologise; I know there was a lot of expectation from our fans and from myself coming from Townsville having just played for Australia, and I know in the first two years here I didnâ€™t live up to that,â€ he said.
â€œBut I want to thank those who have been here from day one, encouraging me and getting me back out on the field, where Iâ€™m giving it all Iâ€™ve got.â€
â€œStarting my career here back in 2001, it seems fitting that I would come back here and I couldnâ€™t see myself playing for any other NRL club; Iâ€™m glad that I can say Iâ€™ve started and ended my NRL career here.â€
As a veteran player, his leadership is crucial and that was one area that Eels coach Brad Arthur lauded Tonga for.
â€œHeâ€™s been an absolute credit to himself in terms of pushing himself through training difficulties to get himself in shape, and heâ€™s only missed one game all year,â€ Arthur said.
â€œHis leadership through his mental toughness that heâ€™s showed to the young players in our side has been invaluable.â€