There is a steely look as Denny Solomona explains how he won’t let hurt get the better of him.
Despite being “gutted” at missing out on the recent England training squad – and the chance to atone for an error of judgment that saw him sent home from the previous camp – he used disappointment to be a force for his club.
“Obviously it hurt not to be part of the training squad,” said the 24-year-old, whose dramatic international debut in June against Argentina saw him miss a couple of important tackles before a superb solo effort sealed a 38-34 win.
“I was gutted, but at the end of the day if I’m not playing well for Sale then I’m not going to be involved for England.
“There’s no point kicking cans and sulking. I had that day to be disappointed when the squad was announced, but it’s in the past now. The focus is on Sale and that’s what will eventually get me back in, playing well, scoring tries and helping them win games.
“Eddie Jones has said to work hard. He’s a great coach, but not only a coach, but a mentor. He’s given me pointers on how to improve, that’s what he wants. If you don’t do it, you are not going to get in the team.”
The shame of being sent home from the August camp after a late-night drinking session with Manu Tuilagi may linger for as long as he is not part of the England squad.
But he added: “I didn’t get influenced, I made my choice and it was a wrong one. It was out of character. I’ve struggled a bit with my mental state and it was a way out where I could have released it. But it was the wrong time, the wrong place. I’m a lot better than what came out and what people said.
“I made a mistake and will learn from it. The No1 priority is to do well for Sale and then hopefully get back with England.
“Everyone says we have a lot of depth and we do. We have a lot of strong characters, good players, and it’s tough to be pushed out. But I love the competition, you don’t play the sport to have a free run. You want to challenge yourself to know your character.
“It was fantastic to make my debut against Argentina. but it’s like that block of chocolate, you’ve had one piece and you want more. That’s what it’s done to me.”
Growing up in Auckland, Solomona has had to learn to stay strong to deal with whatever fate delivered.
The blow of being released by Melbourne Storm, his boyhood idols, in 2014 was a nadir.
“I was about 16 when I went there and it was tough as a youngster,” he said. “It all comes down to do what you need to do to provide for your family.
“Since I was five I was playing rugby with my brother, he’s two years older, and because my dad, also called Denny, couldn’t coach both nights, a Tuesday-Thursday or Monday-Wednesday, for both grades, he gave me the ultimatum that I jump up two ages or I get coached by a different person. So I played two age groups above until I was about 10.
“It kind of benefited me, toughened me up, but it was hard too because I had to socialise with people a lot older than me and had to grow up a lot faster as a person and on a development level. I played First XV in union on a Saturday and then league on a Sunday.
“I was focusing more on union, and had something lined up, but it fell through and then the league opportunity came. To go to the club I always loved was a no brainer.
“At the time my older sister dropped out of school and took a part-time job to try to help my family out. It was tough growing up, we were living week to week, month to month. As a young islander you grow up seeing that family struggle so all you aspire to do is provide for them. Luckily I got a chance to go to Melbourne Storm.
“I had planned on being a one-man club and in there for the long haul. It was everything I wanted. Growing up, watching Melbourne winning championships, that’s what I thought it was going to be.
“But at the time Billy Slater was in his prime and to get a game at full-back was hard. He was backing it up from State of Origin and straight back to playing in the side.
“Melbourne gave me some opportunities and I thought I took them, but it was a massive blow to me as a professional, and a kid, as well when they released me. In the end it was not the worst opportunity coming to England. Another door opened for me.”
That door was the London Bronco’s Super League outfit and Solomona’s 10 tries in 21 games saw him earn a move to Castleford a season later.
The ‘Jungle’ was where Solomona was a try-scoring beast, setting a mark of 42 in 2016, before it all ended acrimoniously last December when it was announced he had retired with two years left on his contract.
When he subsequently switched codes and joined Sale Sharks, a bitter legal battle followed, settled finally in June, and overshadowing an impressive debut season which included an England call once he was eligible after completing his three-year residency in the United Kingdom.
Solomona is desperate to work his way back into England coach Eddie Jones’ plans.
Relieved the Castleford case has been resolved, Solomona – whose side host Toulouse on Friday in a European Challenge Cup tie – added: “There was a lot of controversy around it and no one knows the full story. It was mentally tough, trying to wake up positive and realise what the goal was, and that was to provide for my family.
“You don’t dwell on it, you can’t. It either makes or breaks you and I decided to use it as a motivational thing to go forward. I thought my first year back in union with Sale was a good one so used it as a positive.
“It’s a credit to the boys at Sale too. I felt very welcome, didn’t feel like an outsider, that things had gone on and they didn’t trust me. They brought me in and made me feel at home from the first day.”
Solomona has developed into a winger with the pace, power and finishing skills to draw comparisons with Wallaby Lote Tuqiri and England and Sale icon Jason Robinson.
“It’s good to be compared to other players like that, but I want to be remembered in my own right, to make my own mark,” he said.
And, with 16 tries in 20 games since he joined Sale, he is desperate to play his way back into Jones’s plans and a place in the 2019 Rugby World Cup in Japan.
“Everyone is making the steps towards that, the World Cup would be special,” he added.
“Eddie is driving it. That’s everyone’s aspirations, to play in that World Cup, to play at the highest level and to win it. “That’s what I want, there’s more to come and more to achieve.”
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