After more than a decade playing professional rugby league and union, Pakisonasi Afu decided it was time to return to New Zealand and take on a new challenge — becoming a builder. His sporting connections have helped him land an apprenticeship, and he’s finding many of the skills he acquired on the field are just as useful on the building site. 

Two years ago, Pakisonasi Afu was making good money playing for the Utah Warriors in Major League Rugby in the United States. Then, he and his wife learned they were expecting their first child — and it changed everything. 

“It sort of put everything into perspective. It opened my mind to knowing that footie’s not always going to be around to provide for my family. I realised that I wanted to have a trade that could eventually become a life skill, that I can use when I retire.” 

“As much as I love footie, I have to find a career that’s going to provide for my family in the long run.”

Known for his power and presence on the field, Paki represented Tonga in rugby league, and played for clubs like the Canterbury Bulldogs, Parramatta Eels, New Zealand Warriors and Sydney Roosters. After switching codes to union in 2017, the 6ft 3in centre shone for Tonga A in the Pacific Challenge, before signing up to play in America. 

He admits it was a big decision to leave a professional sporting career to start again in the trades. 

“It was a huge change. I was getting paid pretty well over there and making that financial decision to come back, both my wife and I had to come to terms with it. But looking back, it’s probably one of the best decisions I’ve made.”

For Paki, gaining a trades skill is all about being able to support his family long after his playing days are over.
Paki and his wife Abish returned to NZ before the birth of their daughter Asher, who’s now nearly two years old. There’ll be a new addition to the family in early 2021.
Propped up

With his sights set on learning a trade. Paki decided to do a New Zealand Certificate in Construction Trade Skills (Level 3) with a strand in Carpentry at MIT, and was grateful to discover the MPTT programme. 

“MPTT made the transition back into study a lot easier, because I had that one-on-one time with Hami and Chris (MPTT navigators). I really liked that, especially during lockdown, they’d message or call to make sure I had everything I needed to complete my coursework.”

Paki says that Navigator support helps create a fanau/whanau environment for MPTT trainees.

“Being a Pacific Islander, it’s always good having that extra support. Having that similar connection, but also just knowing in the back of your mind that you have someone there if you’re struggling with anything in class.”

“You have your navigator there to contact, and they’re always willing to talk and offer support. I really enjoyed it and am glad I had their help. I’m glad I found the MPTT scholarship online.”

Paki (second row, centre) with the Junior Kiwis in 2010.
Quick off the mark

Paki knew the best way to get a head-start in the industry was to get some work experience while he studied. 

Although he was new to the trades, Paki’s sporting contacts still came into play – his rugby club had a connection to McManus Building. 

“So I ended up working for them. And then the boss was like, ‘If you’re keen, we’d be happy to have you as an apprentice’. 

“I want to tell our Pacific and Māori young people that there’s connections in sport, not just for sport but outside of sport. Like how I managed to get an apprenticeship through my club’s connections. That’s another avenue our youth can go through to find work in the future.”

Paki’s work at McManus helped him try out skills he’d learned in class, cementing his knowledge of the trade.

“I’d definitely recommend being employed while you’re doing the course. I found it a blessing, because I was able to put everything I learned from my tutor into practice.”

This hands-on experience also helped the 30-year-old learn different techniques, and understand the terminology used on building sites. 

Unexpected hit

Unfortunately, Paki lost his job at the end of September when the deepening economic effects of Covid-19 affected his employer. 

Paki is confident about finding another job though and he’s wasted no time in seeking out a new position. 

“I’ve been in contact with my connections in footie and they’ve put a word out that I’m looking for work to continue my apprenticeship. Now it’s a waiting game to see if we get any interest.”

Paki in action for Kagifa Samoa, putting a big fend on Fijian Latui’s Tara Patterson Wilagi during the 2019 Global Rapid Rugby Pacific Showcase.
Core skills

Although playing professional sport and working in the trades are completely different careers, both fields are hands-on and require some similar skills, he says. 

“I love it eh, because I love physical work. It’s another way for me to stay active and not get too lazy or put on too much weight.”

“In footie, you have to be confident in your ability to play. When you transfer that into building, you might only know so much when you’re learning, but you’ve also got to be confident in yourself.”

Communication skills are essential in both sport and the trades, says Paki.

“In footie you’ve got to communicate, and the same thing applies on the work site. You won’t get noticed until you speak up for yourself on a site. You see that on the health and safety videos, where people let things go but it’ll come back to bite them.”

Passing it on

Paki’s sporting background sparked a passion for helping young people achieve their dreams – something he continues to pursue as he moves into the trades.

“Having that experience of going over to Australia by myself at the age of 16, and living there and seeing what the island kids go through and the struggles they go through, I felt it’s right for me to use my experiences in life to help them.”

While Paki is trying to find a new job, he’ll be doing youth work and mentoring for the Senate Nursing Bureau. 

“It’s what I did before I came into building. We work with kids in trouble, removed from families, that have mental health issues or medical issues.

“I’ll enjoy doing some youth work and looking after our tamariki while I look around for a new job.”

Going forward, Paki hopes to combine his interests to help more young people get into the trades.

“I’m passionate about seeing young kids succeed in life, but also in the trades and on the sportsfield.

“That’s one of my other goals — I want to be a mentor and be able to speak to the youth. I’ve had that passion, I guess, since I started playing professionally.

“I feel that it’s right for me to use my experiences in life to help the young ones.”

Want to know more about the MPTT scholarship and getting qualified in construction? Go here for all the details.