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How Warriors hero Dallin Watene-Zalezniak overcame his darkest days

The league star says he owes his sporting success to his wife and children
Emily Chalk

It was night two at church camp when Warriors player Dallin Watene-Zelezniak first laid eyes on his future wife Purdy. At 17, his focus was “footy, footy, footy”, so the plan was for his mum Kara to pick him up, drive him to training, then drop him back to camp – but it took only one chat with Purdy for smitten Dallin to change tack.

“She was so down-to-earth – it felt too good to be true,” recalls Dallin, 28. “I rang my coach and said, ‘Mum’s forcing me to stay at church camp,’ and he goes, ‘You can’t argue with her, but we’ve got a big trial on Saturday, so make sure you’ve got all the plays down.’ Then I rang Mum and said, ‘Coach said I can stay here the whole week!'”

He spent the rest of camp happily hanging out with Purdy, but once he got home, Dallin started panicking about the next day’s important trial. Yet not only did he secure his spot in the Penrith Panthers under-20s team, but he also played his best game yet.

Little did he realise that, 10 years later, it would again be Purdy, plus their three gorgeous children, who would help propel him to another of his best performances – playing a killer season with the Warriors after a rough few years of disappointing games and mental lows.

Dallin’s goal is for a happy life with Purdy and their kids Orlando, Indigo and little Lola.

Setting a Warriors record for the most tries in one season, Dallin was also named the NRL’s Winger of the Year for 2023. It’s a dream achievement for the Māori-Tongan-Polish athlete, who was born into a league-loving family. His late great-grandfather, Puti Tipene “Steve” Watene, was the first Māori to captain the Kiwis, while his grandfather, Tuhoea Watene, co-founded Hamilton club College Old Boys, where Dallin began playing league at age four.

After the family moved to Sydney when he was five, he continued playing with his five siblings and 28 cousins.

“League was our family game,” says Dallin. “It was our outlet to release energy – the one thing that calmed me and made me feel I belonged.”

Earning a spot with the Penrith Panthers development squad at 15, Dallin was all about sports when he met Brisbane-born, Canberra-based Purdy. Bonding over their shared Mormon faith, they dated long-distance, with Dallin travelling three hours by bus to visit Purdy after every game.

Within three years, they were engaged. Dallin proposed during a picnic at Sydney’s Mosman Beach, having thrown Purdy, 27, off the scent by asking her to pack the picnic herself. “He definitely caught me off guard!” she laughs.

The two wed in a religious ceremony, followed by a celebration at Sydney’s Taronga Zoo, where Dallin’s heritage was saluted with a haka and Tongan dances.

Wedding day bliss in 2015.

Laughing as his son Orlando crashes our interview to ask for a biscuit, Dallin admits he feared he wasn’t ready for fatherhood when Purdy started talking babies. And while today he describes being a dad to Orlando, six, Indigo, five, plus two-year-old Lola, as a “massive blessing”, finding balance between footy and family was a struggle that led to mental turmoil.

Having previously played for the Penrith Panthers and Canterbury Bulldogs, Dallin confesses, “I had some of my worst playing years before the Warriors because I didn’t have my priorities straight. I would think, ‘If I’m not playing footy well, I need to focus fully on that,’ not realising the pressures that put on my wife and kids.”

Purdy adds, “There were a lot of losses. He brought that home with him and was constantly down.”

Dallin also became affected by harsh messages on social media, including threats and mean comments about his family.

“No one prepares you for things like that,” he says. “It made me upset because you don’t go out there to play badly. I was fast, fit, strong and doing everything I could physically. Looking back, everything built up with the messages I was getting and the results on the field. I was coming home depressed, not wanting to talk to my wife or spend time with my kids.”

Purdy booked her husband a session with mind coach John Novak. Dallin insisted he didn’t need to talk to a professional, but afterwards, he declared it was the “best thing” he could’ve done. He still consults John today.

“He helped Dall with resilience,” Purdy says. “He’s the king of resilience now – physically, mentally, emotionally… The biggest difference is the effort he’s put into his mental health.”

John helped Dallin recognise that his greatest motivation is his family and ensured he allocated adequate time to them to fuel his wellbeing.

“I was so successful last year because I finally found a good balance,” tells Dallin, who also credits his amazing 2023 to coaches Andrew Webster, Rich Agar, Stacey Jones and Justin Morgan.

“Anyone would think I must be training the house down, but it was the opposite!” he enthuses. “I pulled back from spending too much time on footy to spend more time with my wife and kids. Everything fell into place because I got my priorities right. I’ve also realised that if my wife’s happy, everything else is good!”

Dallin’s biggest cheerleader, Purdy says her husband was “destined to be a superstar” and she’s thrilled Warriors fans are finally seeing the talent she always recognised. She’s so invested in his success that she encouraged him to join his teammates in a Queensland bubble during the COVID border restrictions, even though it meant him missing Lola’s birth.

“I watched over FaceTime and that was the hardest thing,” says Dallin. “I’m really close to Lola now because I feel I owe her for not being there. When she’s a teenager arguing with me, she’ll probably bring it up!”

Since Lola’s arrival, Dallin has stepped up daddy duties as the couple juggle three young kids. John talks Dallin through stressful parenting moments, but the league legend credits Aotearoa for helping the family thrive.

“I was ready to give up league after the Bulldogs, but the Warriors took a shot with me. I thought, ‘They’ve given me a lifeline, so I’ll go home, take my family and they can tap into my culture.’ It was the best decision ever. I pictured my kids having Kiwi accents and learning Māori. It was such a cool moment coming home and hearing Orlando sing Māori songs.”

While little Lola is a “foodie”, Indigo’s the “artistic” child and Orlando the sporty one. Proud dad Dallin tells, “He plays soccer and league, and he’s excelling. When he started sports, he was shy, but now you can’t stop him. It’s cool to have that bond with him, although he’s at the stage where he’s too cool for me. It’s like he knows what I do but doesn’t want to give me the satisfaction of going, ‘My dad’s cool.’ I’m waiting for that day!”

The Auckland clan love picking strawberries and hitting the beach over summer, and Dallin and Purdy have a “two, two, two rule” to keep their marriage strong. She explains, “Every two weeks, it’s date night; every two months, we go away; and every two years, we have a big holiday.”

Having spent Christmas in Canberra with Purdy’s family, Dallin’s excited to get back into training with the Warriors.

Purdy’s happy supporting her husband until he retires, at which point they’ve agreed she’ll pursue her passions.

Dallin’s also working on starting a haircare brand, Soul By DWZ. He says, “I went straight from school to footy, so I’ve never had an everyday job. It’s cool to have something I can build after footy while I support Purdy and her dreams.”

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