By STEVE MASCORD
MANU Vatuvei seems like a man who rugby league played a big role in creating.
Raised on what the cliches always describe as the “rough streets of South Auckland”, the 27-year-old has been transformed on the field from a rookie described famously as a “clumbsy klutz” to a fearsome Test regular, and off it from a shy monosylabist to a well-spoken ambassador.
But as it turns out, Vatuvei is actually very clear on what he’d be doing today if he wasn’t “The Beast”.
“I think, if I wasn’t in league, I would have pursued my dream of becoming a police officer,” Vatuvei, sitting on the touchline at Warriors training, says with an easy smile. “That’s something I always looked forward to when I was young. Growing up I was always wanting to be a super hero.
“Superman was always my super hero.”
On Sunday week, Manu confronts his own kryponite equivalent when returns to Parramatta Stadium – the scene of his career nadir in 2007 when he made more mistakes than any player in any one game in living premiership memory. He has not played during the 2014 pre-season due to a thigh injury and admits that knee problems will haunt him for the rest of his life.
But that night seven years ago was the making of Vatuvei as a person and a professional, he reckons. It was so gut-wrenching to watch that it summmed up for many of us the very essence of confidence and the role it plays in just about everything we do.
“I just do what I have to do and hopefully I inspire people to never give up on their dreams,” says Vatuvei now. “There’re a lot of obstacles that you’ll go through in your career and that was one big one for myself and one massive hurdle I had to overcome. I wouldn’t have done that without the people around me – my family, and especially the club, all the guys who have been through it. Hopefully I showed them that if I can get through it, everyone else can.
“I had to learn the hard way. If it happened to me now, I would have dealt with it way, way easier and quicker but then I was still learning the game and everything just came to me and I didn’t know what I was supposed to do.
“I had to try and hide away from the media and I was getting punished from them and I just had to deal with it. But with the help of the club and everything they taught me, I could overcome it. I still get asked about it to this day and I’m happy to talk about it and show them how I overcame the obstacle and if I can do that, like I said, anyone else can.”
That is a sense of perspective you may not have anticipated from a man who stands at 192cm and weighs in at 112kg and who crashes into people for a living. Perhaps it’s one he would have attained as a policeman, perhaps it’s not.
Born in Auckland of Tongan parents (“my heritage is Tongan and I’d love to play for Tonga … it’s something that one day I’ll do”), he has learnt that his profile allows him to help those around him. Insiders say Vatuvei is a fixture at charity events around South Auckland but says little about it.
“When people approach me to go and do stuff, I try hard to attend what they want me to,” he explains. “I’m the type of guy who likes to give back to the community because I know how hard it is growing up and stuff around South Auckland – or anywhere. Sometimes you don’t have everything that other people have so sometimes I like to give back to them. I appear at events. I don’t have to speak, just show myself and have fun with the kids or whoever is there. I like to do that.”
Not that speaking is now a problem, as you can see. “(I’ve gaimed) a lot of confidence in speaking to other people, approaching people and all that,” he admits.
“Just doing my interviews now … from ‘yeah’ and ‘nuh’ to saying a little bit more. The game’s helped me a lot and I can pass that on to kids and people I can help out.”
Vatuvei does provide one confusing answer during our chat in the warm Auckland sunshine, while coach Matthew Elliott conducts a media opportunity a few feet away. I ask, in light of the success of the NRL Nines, whether rugby league might soon overtake rugby union for popularity in the City Of Sails.
“I think after the nines and if it continues, it will be,” he says at first, before adding: “But rugby is always the dominant sport here, like AFL back in Australia (readers, your thoughts?). It will always be second to them but hopefully we can get the game out there and have more support.
“The nines were something perfect for Auckland. To have all these players come here, 16 teams, was just a high for everyone. We even performed on the field too … even though we only made it to the semis … everyone supported every team and it was a good event.
“It’s always rugby. It’s a good comp, the rugby sevens, and for us to come out on top was really good. We need it in Auckland and we need it for the game to build in New Zealand.”
The Warriors seemed to freeze in their Nines semi-final defeat to North Queensland. There has been a pattern during their 13-a-side seasons too, to give other teams a head start and then rally for the finals. Manu has some thoughts on why it happens, and why depth in the 2014 squad may prevent the trend continuing.
“It’s always different things each year,” he says. “The main thing, normally, is injuries. Some guys – usually our main guys – get injured and it takes a toll on the team. But we’ve got a variety of guys now who, no matter what, can fit in the spot. We’re confident there.
“I think it’s how we start the season. We normally start slow and build away, make it hard for us to get there. Then we lose energy when it comes to (the finals). It’s something that I think we’ve got this season.
“I’ve got this year and next year (under contract). I’d definitely love to play my whole career here, I started when I was young in 2004 and it’s something I was just blessed.”
But The Beast is making no guarantees that at some stage, he won’t be part of that annual litany of the wounded.
“My fitness is not too bad,” he said. “I’ve got a few niggles I’ve got to get over again. It’s something I’ve got to look after and the coaching staff is doing their best to try and make sure I do everything I’ve got to do to get it right.
“I’ve always got my knee problems, that’s always been there. Every game, I play off my knees. It’s something I get used to. I know what I have to do to feel great before the game and what doesn’t work. I’ve just got to talk to the coaching staff about that and work my way through training every time.
“I’ll definitely have problems with my knee when I retire. In 10 years or a few years after my retirement, I’ll probably be on crutches or a wheelchair! Not serious about that … everything I’ve got now is little cartilage and stuff in my knee. Nothing too serious. I’ll pay for it in the long run but everything’s worth it and I’m enjoying my time in the game and my family’s having a better life.”
OK, time to hit up Manu about some newsy issues before we go. What about the investigation into Kiwis abusing sleeping pills at the World Cup? The answer here is short but telling. “I think it’s a good thing that they’re trying to crack down on it,” he said.
Russell Crowe reckons Sam Burgess may have stayed in the NRL if he could play Origin. Vatuvei was once filmed going ballistic watching his beloved Maroons beat the Blues on TV. Should foreigners be allowed to take part?
“If you were at the nines and saw how the crowd was, you should know how big (Orgin) would be (in Auckland),” he said. “It would be bigger than the nines. They would have a sell-out crowd every time if they play it over here.
“No, I think it’s fair. It’s for Aussies. It’s a game that they started and something that’s a tradition in Aussie. I’d love to play in it but I’m not too worried about trying to change the rules. We’re happy to support it and I’ll always be a Queensland supporter no matter what. Gorden Tallis was a player I loved to watch. I love his aggression.”
These are characteristics of Manu Vatuvei’s new favourite superhero. Maturity has prompted him to ditch the two-dimensional, almost emotionless, man in tights for a character more nuanced and flawed, one who is “getting angry, and quiet at some stage” – just like himself.
“I was always into my cartoons,” he says. “Now, it’s The Hulk.”
Filed for: RUGBY LEAGUE WEEK