MELBOURNE (Reuters) - Australia has scooped up plenty of talent from the conveyor belt of Fijian rugby in recent years but it took a chance encounter for one-time hotel porter Eto Nabuli to be plucked from obscurity and earn a Wallabies debut on Saturday.
Serendipity so often seems to play a part in the blooding of Cheika’s debutants and 28-year-old winger Nabuli gets his chance in the starting 15 against Scotland on Saturday after Henry Speight, another Fijian flyer, was scratched through injury.
Five years ago, Nabuli was lugging suitcases at a luxury hotel near his home village of Malomalo when he ran into two Australian rugby league luminaries enjoying a working holiday.
Initially impressed by Nabuli’s 6ft-5in (1.97m), 107 kg frame, former internationals Andrew Johns and Brad Fittler were also startled by his ability when they ran him through some drills.
Having grown up playing union, Nabuli took some time to adapt to the 13-man code after linking up with the Penrith Panthers in Australia’s National Rugby League.
But he made his mark in 2015, playing 13 games for the NRL’s St George-Illawarra Dragons before cutting a promising league career short to return to union with Super Rugby’s Queensland Reds last year.
In just a handful of matches, Cheika saw enough in Nabuli to name him in his squad for the England internationals last June but he played no part in the series.
He has been a standout this season, however, scoring eight tries in a difficult campaign for the Reds to beat out fellow Fiji-born wingers Sefa Naivalu and Marika Koroibete for Saturday’s game.
“He’s really knuckled down on his knowledge -- he’s been very enthusiastic as well, some big strong running and I think he’s merited the opportunity,” Cheika told reporters.
“Also throughout the season, I think his improvement from last year to this year has been excellent and I suppose that’s a good form guide to when someone’s improving.”
Nabuli will become the fifth debutant in Cheika’s team after four rookies had their chance in the 37-14 win over Fiji in Melbourne last week.
He will also be the third rugby league convert and dual international in the side with fullback Israel Folau and inside centre Karmichael Hunt, continuing Cheika’s love affair with players from the rival code.
Like Hunt, Nabuli was kept in the dark about Cheika’s plans until the squad was released on Thursday.
Too late for his family to fly over from Fiji to watch him at Sydney Football Stadium, they will be crammed around a TV set in Malomalo, instead.
“To be honest, man, I can’t believe where I am right now,” Nabuli told reporters.
”The only thing I think is I just work hard and do whatever is best for me, for this opportunity.
“It’s a really big thing for me, for the family.”
Editing by John O'Brien