THIS is what it’s like to miss the finals. During the year, media managers and PR men have run interference between the likes of Ben Teo, Scott Prince, Beau Ryan, Feleti Mateo and pressmen. The figurative line to speak to them has snaked out the figurative door.
Today, they stand around during a medical at Allianz Stadium for the Prime Minister’s XIII side to play Papua New Guinea at and no-one wants to talk to them. Including A-List, the number of journalists present is exactly three.
Feleti Mateo sits alone in the adjoining cafeteria waiting for his coffee. He flew in last night from Auckland and goes back there in a few hours. Last year he was Tongan player of the year at the RLIF Awards – his selection in the PM’s side underlines that that’s one award he is no longer eligible for.
Mateo, 27, probably wouldn’t like the word “enigma” being put in the same sentence as him. In many ways he is consistent in what he brings to a team – raw, rampant creativity.
But more than once this season, the now-sacked Warriors coach Brian McClennan said he wasn’t “an 80 minute player”.
“He did his best in his role and he tried to manage me as best as he thought … I think he was sort of getting it right towards the end of the year,” says Feleti, standing in the tunnel as he speaks, away from his new team-mates.
“I was playing longer. I think I was averaging about 70 minutes. I’d like to play 80. I probably didn’t give myself the chance to play 80. At times I probably let myself down. It’s something I can work through in the pre-season. Hopefully I can knock out some 80 minutes games next year.
“Obviously my attacking game is known and obviously my second phase is what I pride myself on. My defence is going to be scrutinised a bit more but I’m happy with that. If that’s the case, let it be. I just have to man up and work hard at that.”
If you’re expecting some grand insight into what went wrong at Mt Smart this season, Feletic doesn’t have them.
“There were a lot of questions to be answered … it wasn’t the best season but there were a lot of positives to come out of it,” he insists. “We tested our depth. The guys that have come through did a really good job. There’re some positive signs for the future.
“Most games, we were positive all the way up until the end, even in games where we were getting pumped. That’s the thing about the club and the team – everyone has a positive outlook on things and if we get down in the dumps, we’re never going to get out of it. We just found ourselves in that sort of headspace a few times during the year and we just couldn’t get out of it.”
Where the real meat on the bones of this interview comes is in the discussion about who should replace McClennan.
“It was sad to see him go but one door closes and another opens,” the City Origin star says. “Tony Iro coming in, I love the guy. I’d love for him to take over as head coach. It’s obviously out of our hands but I think all the players have voiced their opinion on the situation. We’re just sitting around waiting to see what happens.
“We’ve done some season reviews and that with the CEO and the coaches and stuff … I think they know who we want and what we want. It’s good because most clubs don’t really give you that opportunity to voice what you want. To their credit, they’re listening to the players and I hope they can come to a decision that will make everyone happy.”
So you want Tony Iro, Feleti … and so do your team-mates?
“Oh, 100 per cent. I think he’s a guy that all the boys would play for. He knows the game really well. He’s an ex-player so he knows how to get the boys up emotionally too. I’ve said it lots of times – as far as coaching’s concerned I think he ticks all the boxes so it will be nice to see him get the job.”
That’s player power for you. Anyone else who comes in will do so on the understanding they do so against the wishes of the players.
The Warriors were fairing reasonably well at the start of the State Of Origin series this year – Mateo cannot blame his club for his failure to break into the NSW team after changing his allegiance from Tonga.
He says his performance for City didn’t help.
“I guess I was a bit quiet in that game and probably didn’t give myself the best opportunity to show what I can do but I tried to do what was required of me … and I didn’t go any further,” he says. ”It was a good experience, I met some good guys.”
This time next year, we have a World Cup. “As things stand, I can’t play for Tonga. I still have to wait two years. Hopefully I’ll be in green and gold by that time.”
But Mateo believes the current international rules are unfair. While many support him in that they believe players who miss out on selection for Australia, New Zealand and England should be allowed to go back to a second tier nation, Mateo has been linked to all three of our game’s leading nations.
He has one English parent and will soon qualify for New Zealand on residency grounds.
“I’ve never had anyone approach me from England but I’d never say no to anything, to any jersey either,” he says. “I think it would be an honour to play for them, to play for anyone really. If it’s international footy, you just want to be in anything. It would be nice but I guess it’s a long way away.”
I suggest to Mateo that quotes such as these have traditionalists shaking their heads. It wasn’t like that in the old days –players only aspired to represent one country.
“Everyone has their own opinion but at the end of the day, you want to play and I think the fans want to see the best players play,” he argues. “If you’re sitting on the sideline and not eligible for a team because you have to sit out for two years, I don’t think it’s fair. If you’re eligible to play, let them play. If it’s unfortunate that you can’t make one team, why can’t you play for another one? If you’ve got that heritage in you and that culture, why not?”
PNG is one place rugby league has taken Mateo before – with different teams.
“In the Junior Kangaroos, I went up their eight years ago,”he recalls. “It feels like a lifetime ago now. There were some big names in that team. I think I was in the halves with Toddy Carney. Toddy was playing seven and I was playing six. Sammy Thaiday, Keithy Galloway, Tommy Learoyd. There were some big boys.
“I’ve been up there with the Tongan team a couple of times too. A lot of people put a lot of stress on how dangerous it can be up there but once you mix and mingle with the locals, they’re pretty cool. I’ve always had good times up there.
“We played in the Pacific Cup … three years ago. We didn’t have security escorts anywhere. Everyone was pretty cool and welcomed us with open arms.”
As this reporter has witnessed, throwing one sock out of a team bus can cause a riot. “Anything …and if you don’t you know about it too!”our subject agrees.
“They’re crazy. It’s funny to see how big rugby league is up there. Sometimes you take it for granted but those guys don’t.”
Parramatta fans see Mateo’s departure at the end of 2010 as controversial. He doesn’t. “I’m happy, mate,” he smiles.
“I’m as happy as can be. I owe the Warriors a lot. They’ve looked after me, I’ve played every game since I’ve gone there and I’ve had a ball doing it. They’re great blokes over there, I love Auckland.
“I’m here doing this interview because I’ve been playing there so … I’m ecstatic.”
Not bad for a man who didn’t make the finals, who no-one but me wants to interview. I ask Mateo if he can see himself being like David Solomona, playing well into his 30s as a bench specialist with magic hands. Of course, he wants to prove first that he can start – and finish.
“I’d definitely like to see myself playing a bit longer. Hopefully I can mature with age and I think I have. I’ll learn the game more, learn to pick my times … I don’t think I can ever not learn. We’ll see how we go and see where I’m needed.
“I hope I don’t get pushed up to that front row!
“I think, even if I do get pushed up, it doesn’t matter what number I’ve got on my back, I’m always going to play the same.
“I’m pretty sure the coaches know that too.”
Filed for: RUGBY LEAGUE WEEK