JSL: Always full of joy

Posted: Monday 27th July 2020 - 5:00 PM

This article is taken from July's edition of Castleford Tigers' monthly magazine ROAR which is available to read in full, for free at castlefordtigers.com/roar

One of the happiest people you could meet not only in rugby league but in everyday life, Jesse Sene-Lefao is rarely seen without a smile.

Shortly after the impressive victory over St Helens the Tigers, along with the rest of the world, was brought to a standstill with the COVID-19 pandemic changing everyday life for everyone. Just as the players were preparing for a home training programme ROAR sat down with Jesse for a half-hour chat after another busy morning in the Sene-Lefao household.

“I’ve been up since 5am, our days start pretty early in our family, we’ve got to get things done before the kids get up so I’m busy most mornings with four kids, two boys and two girls,” he said after managing to find a quiet space to hold this interview.

“To be honest we are thinking about a fifth but in the UK, we don’t have a lot of family around here so it’s hard to get date nights and quality time with the wife. So, we’ll probably wait about five years, I’d like to have another in about five years, but we’ll see what happens.”

If you follow JSL on Instagram you will be able to see him at work as a rugby league player, property dealer, clothing businessman but more importantly as a father. He’s a busy man and has been ever since first flying over to join Castleford.

“We landed here in 2016, October 18th I still remember it because I think it’s important to remember these special moments. That was the day we first stepped foot in the UK, and I’d made a stamp that I was committed to Cas.

“We set a lot of goals to achieve over here and it was an exciting time for myself and a big challenge to move away from our loved ones, our families and actually go attack the world with just me and my family, back then it was just three kids and obviously now we’re up to four.”

Coming from the other side of the world to play rugby league was not a new idea for Jesse, he had seen relatives do it when he was a child, and they helped form some of his earliest memories of the sport.

“Rugby league is obviously something that I liked doing but I think I was in love with it because of my uncles and my grandad, I was brought up through my grandparents and my grandad loved the All Blacks. I had an uncle who played at Wakefield and another who played at Catalans back in the days, so I was inspired because they were all coming in and out of the country in New Zealand and I always wanted to know where they went and why they kept leaving the country.

“When my uncle debuted for the Kiwis that was massive and then I started playing in the local area and then I went to Australia to kick on from there.”

Australia are not shy of young players of course and have a plethora of amateur sides for youngsters to cut their teeth, for Jesse he was in a hotbed for league talent in Sydney and worked his way up into becoming a professional player.

“I’m from the west side and I started at the Penrith Waratahs and made my first footy side at the Penrith Panthers at the age of about 16 and then moved up to the Under 20’s I didn’t re-sign to go full time so I ended up playing in the Bundy Cup. I couldn’t find an opportunity and had to leave the area and ended up at Manly on a year deal in the pre-season. I think I’d done well and got a game in 2013, didn’t play first grade until the next year in round one.”

His role at Manly Sea Eagles was not the only employment JSL had though, with a young family to support he also worked security on the side as he began to learn about what it meant to provide for his loved ones.

“I had Kahmani, my eldest, just after I turned 19 and my missus was 18 so I had responsibilities from the get-go out of school and I had to get a job. I had a day job and then rugby league training in the afternoon and then worked nights bouncing, it was the start of the journey.

“Manly was awesome for me and they saw me as a bit different being from the west side and I was going to the north, I was the only one working so I would train full-time Monday to Friday with weekends off luckily. Every weekend I would drive straight home training Friday afternoon to work and do bouncing just to get that income coming in for my kids.

“As a dad, it was forced upon me and showed me the first step of being a father and taking responsibility. Once I made my debut, I could have given up security but I chose to keep it on and chose to work straight after games so, I’d be the first one out after games and get dressed in my security kit and then do my eight-hour shift.”

These important lessons helped keep him grounded and could be the steppingstones for the sort of mentality he showcases so strongly today, to be humble and grateful for what you have.

“I definitely think it kept me humble and it kept me from jumping on different paths to go out with the boys and get on the drink, could have been in a bad place at a bad time but it just cancelled all those possibilities and kept me focused. It hurt the body a bit not recovering well but everyone has to struggle to get success.

“I’ve definitely learned a lot and the man I am is way different if I knew half of the things I know today I probably wouldn’t do security and would have invested my time in learning about money, property and passive income but that’s a whole other story!”

With things going well for him, Jesse found it difficult to say goodbye to the Manly club, but he would go on to join an incredibly talented Cronulla Sharks team ahead of their Premiership winning 2016 season.

“It was devastating to leave Manly, to be honest, I felt like I owed the club a lot and I played really well over there but we lost the coach and a whole new coaching staff was coming in, Trent Barrett actually and so I rang him saying; ‘Look I know you probably don’t know me, I don’t know you but if I’m not in your plans for the next two years you’ve signed for is it best for me to stay or leave?’. He didn’t really say ‘get lost’ it was ‘if you can find something you can go’ which led to Cronulla giving me two years and it was a no brainer to take it.

“I had an awesome pre-season and it looked like good things were going to happen but I had an injury just before the trial game and I came back from it a bit unfit, as you do, and I didn’t really perform in the trials. Cronulla won the comp that year and barely lost a game, when my opportunity came I felt like I played well but the guys coming back from Origin and that were playing out of their skin, credit to the boys winning the GF. Sometimes you just don’t get picked in special teams like that but I learned a lot and then I came to Cas and made a Grand Final, so I think it all paid off a bit.”

One of the players he grew close to in that season at Cronulla was Sosaia Feki who is now a Castleford Tigers player himself joining for the 2020 season. Sosaia has had terrible luck with an injury putting off his Super League debut but we’re sure Fords fans cannot wait to see him take to the field. When joining Cas, Feki mentioned about JSL talking to him about what the club was like and how crazy (in a good way) the supporters are. Shortly after arriving in the UK last November, Jesse gave Sosaia the nickname ‘Simon’ by the way…

“I knew Simon before through other friends and families but we met and were pretty close in Cronulla, we had a little iron squad group and some of the boys would meet up once a week and we’d just share and talk about faith as well as rugby league.”

Sene-Lefao is a strong believer in his faith and the role it has played in his professional and personal life.

“Faith is probably the thing I relied on when coming through the valley before getting to the mountaintop, if it wasn’t for my faith, I don’t think I would have endured those hard times. In the world of rugby league, they only see you at your highest and never see you when you’re grafting or you’ve been dropped or having a bad day, they don’t see that stuff. Faith is what holds my foundation and because of that strong, solid foundation I can always build on top.”

Jokingly at times some of the Cas squad have referred to Jesse as the King of Cas, as he’s often spotted around the town speaking to supporters and sharing local businesses, he took to the town and the community like a duck to water.

“I got picked up from the airport by Steve Gill and we talked about Cas and how passionate the fans are and he told me all about the stories of people with the mines and how families lived on £10 a week and things like that, how rugby league is a breath of fresh air around this community and during tough times gave people a purpose to live.

“For me, £20 to come watch us play can be a lot of money to some and I know there are people out there who don’t earn top dollar, so for them to sacrifice £20 to watch me play it’s only good will to try give back. It’s only a bit of time but if that little time speaking to a kid or a fan that could mean the world to them.”

Fitting in well in your new surroundings, particularly in a new country is always important but how did he fit in with the rest of his new players?

“I think it took a little while for all the boys to adapt to me too because I’m pretty different in a way, some people like it, some people hate it but the way we played together and the way we bonded on the field just earned respect and they just like you for who you are. Powelly’s mindset was to play fast, attack whenever we could and defend really well – it sounds simple but it’s not and it’s what we had done.”

Daryl Powell’s first words to Sene-Lefao as he joined Castleford were an indication of the Tiger that we’ve all come to know and love.

“He said, to be honest, he goes to me ‘You’re a bit happy!’”

Always smiling and always laughing Jesse is a joy to be around, during the season suspension he has taken to social media to try promoting positivity and mindfulness too. The break of the 2020 campaign came at a frustrating time as the Tigers were doing well with five wins out of seven, plus JSL had just come back from injury and was starting to find his feet.

“In Shenny’s testimonial I copped a dead leg against Toronto and came back against Warrington and we just fell short there but the last game against St Helens showed we are heading in the right direction and we defended the best we have and started to click. It’s a shame the games came to a stop but there’s definitely good signs and I’m very excited.”

When asked what his targets are when rugby league makes its return, Jesse’s answer was a simple and clear one.

“My aim is to come back like I’ve never missed a beat, I had an awesome pre-season and came back and I have no excuses now and I can only do what I can control and that’s to come back flying out of the box, play and aim to be starting. Hopefully, games are back soon, and we can get our season back on track.”

Betfred Super League is back from August 2nd and Castleford Tigers first match back is against Catalans Dragons on Saturday , August 8th. WE CANNOT WAIT. 

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