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Playing for a visa: How budget deal kept Storm favourite in the country

Tui Kamikamica will come off Craig Bellamy's bench at some point against Penrith, trying to play Melbourne into yet another grand final.

Deservedly so after playing his way into the Storm set-up and out of being deported five years ago. Twice.

Kamikamica – the friendly Fijian seemingly chiselled from granite – is out the other side of an injury-plagued 2020 campaign that left him bed-bound for a fortnight, and eventually consigned to 18th man duties for last year's decider.

His well-documented back surgery was a result of training too hard and too much when the NRL was put on hold last March.

That same old habit kept Kamikamica's NRL career alive before it had even started when his Australian visa depended on a Storm contract in 2016.

Melbourne recruitment officer Paul Bunn had Kamikamica on his radar long before that, clocking him at a Fijian schoolboys carnival while meeting Suliasi Vunivalu's parents almost a decade ago.

He hasn't got a selfish bone in his body. Whatever he does is what's best for the team.

Craig Bellamy on Tui Kamikamica

Parramatta scouts were at the same carnival and ended up signing a teenaged Kamikamica, who would end up on the Sunshine Coast via a brief stint playing rugby union in Canberra.

That 2016 pre-season was Kamikamica's last chance to earn an NRL contract as far as both he and the Department of Immigration were concerned.

"My visa was due to expire in the second week of February that year," he recalls.

Grant provides for Kamikamica

"I could only be on a working visa to start with to stay in Australia, and when that was up it meant I needed a sports visa to stay.

"You only get that with an NRL contract. I was training hard with the Falcons and we had a trial game before the Storm played against the Warriors at Sunny Coast Stadium.

"I remember thinking 'this is it, Bellamy's coming to this one, this is my chance'.  

"Bellsa gave me a rap after that game against Easts Tigers and told me to keep going, and I had about a week to go on my visa and one more game against Burleigh Bears.

"We played on a Saturday and my visa was expiring on Thursday of the following week.

"I was sitting there thinking 'far out I've only got four or five days here'."

Bellamy liked what he saw after being told by Bunn to watch "the big bugger".

"We were impressed straight away," Bellamy told NRL.com.

"There were a few rough edges but we knew it wouldn't take too much to fix them given his attitude and work ethic."

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A big man with a big engine was what Melbourne were after, but they wanted to see if Kamikamica would perform in competition games as well.

So he went to the courthouse the next week and wrangled a final three months to stay in the country.

"But I remember that was it," he laughs.

"They said 'no more extensions. If it doesn't happen you go home'.

"The first six rounds of the season I didn't know what was going to happen.

"I was picked to make my Fiji debut on the Saturday in May which was a really proud day.

"And then I got a call from my manager on the Wednesday night saying 'congrats, you're an NRL player. You can stay in the country'."

Kamikamica forces his way over

Bellamy recalls discovering just how fine the contract call had come for Kamikamica's immigration status only after the paperwork for a minimum wage NRL deal was sorted.

Now 27, Kamikamica has been a permanent resident and regular member of Melbourne's top 17 since 2019, last year's debilitating back injury aside.

Kamikamica plans to begin his Australian citizenship application next year, ideally with a grand final ring on his finger.

If not for the bulging disc that left him bedbound – with great mate Justin Olam delivering KFC to his Sunshine Coast hotel room – Kamikamica would surely have figured in last year's triumph over Penrith.

He had started the season as Melbourne's most impressive forward before the COVID-19 shutdown, and naturally wanted to keep that status.

"They gave us our training programs and I had had a good start to the year in the first two games, so I wanted to put in a bit extra and kept training pretty hard," Kamikamica says.

"I must have overloaded my training in that six weeks and I had a tight lower back.

"Then when we were about to go back Bellyache called after we'd had a day with our physio, and coach had to tell me to take it easy.

"From there it was scans, back surgery and then I got back and in the last round against the Dragons did my syndesmosis, it was just one of those years."

Still, Kamikamica pushed on and recovered in time to be considered for grand final selection.

Bellamy observed Kamikamica's reaction to working so hard only to watch the decider from the sidelines with interest at the time, and doubly so since.

"You can imagine what having to watch a grand final was like, especially after working his way back from that injury," he says.

"It's made him hungrier I'd say. He was certainly in our top 17 when he was playing and that was tough on him, the surgery and the operation.

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"But that sums him up a little bit I think, all we saw was how happy he was for his close mates to get that chance.

"He hasn't got a selfish bone in his body. Whatever he does is what's best for the team and that's been his mentality since he arrived with us.

"He hasn't been hit with the magic stick or the talent brush too hard.

"What Tui's got is because of hard work and I love seeing guys who earn their rewards doing well."

 

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