The New England Free Jacks re-signed Paula Balekana for the 2023 Major League Rugby season. The 29-year-old wing (30 in May) is 5’11” and 225 lbs.
After being traded by the Houston SaberCats to the Free Jacks, he started 12 games and scored 6 tries in 2022. He has now played in 22 MLR matches and scored 12 tries.
Paula played 1277 minutes in 16 starts and was the team-leading try-scorer, with 6 tries. He carried 147 times for 1,421 meters, ranking second in the MLR, and was a serious threat with the ball, ranking 1st in the league in both line and tackle breaks picking up 21 and 64 respectively.
Paula was born in Suva, Fiji, and grew up in Wainibuku. He attended Nasinu Secondary School in Suva before being offered a scholarship when he was 19 to attend Kelston Boys High School and play rugby. He played for Waitemata Rugby Football and Sports Club U21s in 2012 along with the Auckland Sevens.
Paula returned to Fiji in 2013 and after a potential contract did not materialize in New Zealand, he played with Northland in a national Fijian competition.
Paula moved to Australia following a tour there with a Fijian side. In 2016-2017 he played for Gordon in the Shute Shield and was the team’s leading try scorer. In 2017 he played for the Sydney Rays in the National Rugby Championship.
From 2018 through 2020 he played with Zebre Rugby in Pro 14 Rugby and the European Challenge Cup.
Paul Cook in behindtheruck.com describes the difficulties in overcoming poverty. His father was unable to continue working due to an illness when he was 10 years old. This led to his family moving into “‘The Hart’ (The Housing Assistance and Relief Trust), a housing commission providing for the disabled, the aged, and for single-parent families.”
The dream of playing professional rugby, however, for some, allows individuals to create a better life economically with the cost of relocating. This Pacifika diaspora has been a concern globally for many years. The well-being of the rugby players involved may depend on family support, reciprocating family support, living a ‘well-balanced’ life, athletic performance, and personal development away from sports, according to a 2019 study by Caleb Marsters and Jemaima Tiatia-Seath.
For Paula, there have been benefits of playing rugby in other countries. In 2021 he moved to the United States and began playing Major League Rugby with the Houston SaberCats. He now moves across the country to play with the Free Jacks