MICHAEL Jennings does not live in a mansion. But the two cars in the driveway and the plasma TV represent a powerful force in rugby league, something that grows ever more important in our game with each passing year: the Polynesian Dream.
The Penrith centre’s parents, champion school athletes Antonio and Vialata, moved from Tonga “for a better life” before Michael was born. When he says he’s from “a broken home”, he doesn’t mean his parents split up. He means they were poor. He means he ran with the wrong crowd. The house was probably, literally, broken.
Jennings once boasted he got away from the police as a teenager because “I could run faster”.
What Panthers coach Matthew Elliott is leaving behind at the end of this year is not just a job. Elliott has seen a few dozen Michael Jennings’ turn their lives around thanks to rugby league. He’s seen young players set out in the morning to mug someone on a train and come back christians.
But rugby league saving individuals is only part of this story, far too wide-screen and epic to cover sufficiently here. “You can help your whole family out,” says the quietly-spoken Jennings, sitting on a green couch in his livingroom, “which is the main (reason) I wanted to play – to help my family out.
“They helped me out. They did all the hard yards to get me where I am. I owe it all to them.
“The property that they’re living in now, I bought for my parents.
“We grew up tough. Financially, we were unstable. It was good to play rugby league.
“Rugby league’s given me a massive opportunity. It’s bettered my life and my family’s life. It’s opened a lot of doors. If I wasn’t playing rugby league, I could have ended up anywhere. It’s a good life to be where I’m at now.
“We’ve come … from nothing to something. There’re a lot of players that have come from nothing to be something. That’s rugby league – and especially out here in Penrith. It gives a lot of players opportunity. There’re a lot of islander kids who can really get off track, follow the wrong crowd. It’s the choices they make (that decide) where they end up.
“Coming from no money to having a lot of money, you just want to spend it like crazy. But (manager Isaac Moses) really switched me on in saving my money … a real tight allowance – ha!”.
HAVING learnt to deal with money, 23-year-old Jennings has this year had to learn to deal with something else that was hitherto unfamiliar: criticism.
His try in Origin I was his first of the season.
“I was pretty stubborn about things, didn’t want to listen to it,” says Jennings, who takes a while to warm up to this interview, when asked about being buffeted.
“I had to get a kick up the bum and look at where I was, where I was at. I guess making that Origin team was a real opportunity to do it on the big stage, to prove that I’m still here.”
A kick up the bum from whom? “From myself. I’ve had some people telling me: ‘you’re not at your best’ … Pet (Petero Civoniceva) having a chat to me, saying ‘you look a bit distracted about things’. I was like ‘yeah, I really need to start to focus on my game’.
“He might have just thought something was up. Distractions would be anything with the media, the coaching stuff (Elliott’s axing).”
Here’s the lowdown on why Jennings believes he has not been as potent this season: “I’m getting enough ball at club level. It’s just, on that left side we’ve got Lewy (Luke Lewis) and House (Trent Waterhouse). They can always break the line. I’ve just got to change my game plan and know that I’ve just got to keep pushing up on them. It’s not about getting early ball. I can get early ball when I want it – I need to work better with ‘Lewy’ and ‘House’ now that they’re both on the left side.”
Jennings didn’t expect an Origin call-up. “My form wasn’t at the best. There were plenty of people doubting my selection and my ability. It was a bit of a confidence boost for me.
“I’m happy with my performance on that night. It’s something that I needed.
“I think camp was awesome. Ricky (Stuart) is a real passionate man and he pumped me up on the first day when he spoke. I was grateful that he gave me that opportunity and I owe it to him that he had faith in me.”
OK, a few short, sharp ones to the Blacktown Junior. How will the West Sydney AFL franchise go?
“With Izzy (Israel Folau) going there, I think they would get a few islander kids,” he answers. “They’ve got a lot of money behind them.
“But I don’t think it will go that good. I think western Sydney is a NRL-based area and it’s really strong. They’ll go alright. They’ll get a couple of kids. But it won’t be that big.”
The next World Cup – will you be playing for Australia (one Test so far) or Tonga (three)?
“I’d like to be there for Tonga in the next World Cup. I’d love to play for Tonga. I think it was a massive honour to play for my home country – but also you do want to play for Australia because it’s the pinnacle or rep footy. So I’d like to play for Australia.
“If I miss out on Australia, I’ll definitely go for Tonga.”
What about your younger brothers Robert and George? We hear they’re going to be better than you..
“I’ve heard massive wraps on my younger brothers from my old coaches and old teachers from school, telling me that they’re playing really good footy.
“They both play centre. They’re both number three.
“I went out to their trial and watched them. They can do more. They’ve still got a lot to learn but you can see they’re both standing out from the players.
“One’s 18, one’s 15 and they’re both bigger than me. Taller and bigger. I’ve got two older brothers and two younger brothers. It’s the two younger brothers that play football. The two older ones, they work. They do play footy, they play local footy.”
MICHAEL Jennings is still in touch with his old coaches because, as is the case with Antonio and Vialata, he owes them a fair bit. If rugby league was the guiding light from above, then it had a representative on earth when Jenko could have gone down the wrong path.
“Football did steer me in a good direction – due to the fact I had a coach that was always about discipline on and off the field,” he reveals. “He steered me in the right direction. I could have ended up anywhere, really. I think I may … I could have ended up anywhere.
“(The coach was) Billy Dowers. He gave it up. He’s a teacher. He’s at a private school. He’s a really good coach and I’d like to see him back in coaching.”
Antonio Jennings – a champion rugby union player back in Tonga – tried to talk his 10 year old son Michael our of playing league until he was older. “Dad would love it if I went to union,” Michael says, flashing the pearly whites.
Jennings won’t rule out doing it, either. Won’t completely rule out leaving Penrith.
“It is too early. Who knows where I’ll end up? At the moment, I’m happy at the club. I see a great future there. I’ve been there since juniors. I’d love to go the whole way, but…”
…but there’s more to consider than himself. You might think of footballers as selfish and shallow with short attention spans.
Well have a listen to this: “It’s all about the future now,” Jennings, a quiet, sincere fellow, says just before giving me a lift back into Penrith.
“What (we are) looking for is not just to look after my family but to look after generations of family, saving money and having enough to keep it going down the line.”
One sport, one short professional career, changing the entire course of a family’s standard of living and eduction over several generations – long after Michael and the rest of us are gone.
You thought the stakes were high in the NRL. For some people, they’re higher than you ever really imagined.
Filed for: RUGBY LEAGUE WEEK