This week’s news heralded the end of era, with Warriors club legend Manu Vatuvei – one of the most prolific try-scorers in premiership history and unique characters the modern game has seen – granted an early release to join Super League club Salford City.
Commentary Box Sports’ Editor-in-Chief Will Evans – an unabashed fan of Vatuvei – interviewed ‘The Beast’ at length in late-2015 for an in-depth feature, which has been updated for the next instalment of our Sounding the Siren series.
Manu Vatuvei released from the Warriors to join Salford in the English Super League.
— NRL (@NRL) July 10, 2017
Manu Vatuvei rose from humble beginnings to become a rugby league icon. Nicknamed ‘The Beast’ for his explosive performances on the park, the Warriors tryscoring freak’s endearingly unassuming nature has rendered him one of the code’s most popular figures – and one of its most fascinating characters.
Born in Auckland to Tongan migrants, Manu – the fourth of five children in the Vatuvei household – experienced a childhood typical of most Pacific Islanders in Otara in the city’s south: strict, modest and nestled securely beneath the pillars of family and church.
“We were a pretty average family, we didn’t have everything that we wanted but we survived on what mum and dad put on the table,” Vatuvei recalled.
“There was a lot of temptations around there, but my strong family kept me away from it.
After showing early promise in athletics, Vatuvei began playing rugby union before switching to league at age eight. Boasting the same size, power and speed attributes that would eventually carry him to the code’s heights, he terrorised junior opponents coming through the ranks with Otara Scorpions and Otahuhu Leopards – even if fitness wasn’t his long suit, describing training as “torture, but all worthwhile”.
It eventually dawned on a teenaged Vatuvei that rugby league could become his career, rather than something he did with his mates after school and on weekends.
“It kind of hit me when I made the Warriors development squad. That was when I thought if I took it serious, I could kind of make something out of it.
“I used to make the Auckland (age-group) teams when I was young, and there was heaps of guys in those teams that I thought were way better than me. So I was just lucky enough to get picked up by the Warriors.”
Cracking the big time
A keen fan of the club as a youngster, entering the Warriors’ system meant rubbing shoulders with many of his heroes – and eventually running onto Mt Smart Stadium alongside them.
“When I first started (with the Warriors) Francis Meli and Henry Fa’afili were the senior players in my position, and they were the guys that I looked up to. I was overwhelmed with all the guys that were there, like Ali Lauiti’iti, Stacey Jones,” he recalled, still starry-eyed more than a decade on.
Vatuvei made his maiden NRL appearance as an 18-year-old midway through 2004, against Souths at the Sydney Football Stadium. It was an eye-catching debut that provided several signs of things to come, with a spectacular try assist, a string of barnstorming runs and a radical bleached afro drawing plenty of attention.
“To be honest, I can’t remember too much about the game. It was a blur – I just couldn’t believe that I was on the field with all the legends of the Warriors, me with my big blonde hair!”
The burgeoning tyro was still just 19 years old and a veteran of only 17 first grade games when he received an international call-up for New Zealand’s 2005 Tri-Nations campaign. Vatuvei scored two tries in the Kiwis’ shock upset of Australia in the final at Leeds.
“Everything came so fast from making my NRL debut then getting selected in the Kiwis, I was overwhelmed again. Making history with them in the final, winning 24-0, it’s something I’ll always remember,” Vatuvei beamed.
“My first (Kiwis) roomie was Nigel Vagana, and he’s someone that I never thought I’d play alongside. He looked after me really well, took me under his wing.”
A turning point
Tries and Test jerseys continued to pour in for the giant winger, but a horror night at Parramatta Stadium in 2007 forced Vatuvei to take stock. ‘The Beast’ made a stack of handling errors – three of which led directly to tries – and was terrorised by the Eels’ kickers in one of the most notorious individual displays of the modern era.
“It was a wake-up call. I had been going away from what worked for me, catching those high balls and practising all the time. It’s something I’ll never forget, I’m happy it happened near the beginning of my career not near the end,” he recalled of the fateful outing.
In contrast to the likes of Rabbitohs winger Steve Mavin and Eels fullback Paul Carige – whose careers never recovered after infamous, error-strewn finals performances in 1987 and ’98 respectively – Vatuvei took the Justin Hodges route, and turned a disastrous game into an overwhelming positive.
“It took me back down and made me more humble again, and I learnt from my mistakes. I’m not always perfect but whenever I make a mistake, I bounce back straight away and try and do something good.”
After a week in reserve grade, Vatuvei returned to finish the season strongly – and then stamped himself as arguably the game’s premier winger in 2008. Scoring 16 tries in 17 games – including a demon-exorcising hat-trick in the final round at Parramatta Stadium to propel the Warriors into the playoffs – Vatuvei helped inspire his team to the preliminary final, before starring in the Kiwis’ World Cup triumph.
Less than a year and a half after his meltdown against the Eels, Vatuvei collected the RLIF Winger of the Year award, and was named by David Middleton as one of The Official Rugby League Annual’s Five Players of the Year – just the third winger to achieve the honour in 22 seasons.
One of Vatuvei’s most admirable qualities is his ability to bounce back from a shocker and produce an out-and-out blinder a week later. After a mistake-riddled effort in the Warriors’ 2011 qualifying final thrashing at the hands of Brisbane, he was outstanding in their epic semi-final comeback against Wests Tigers the following weekend, before playing a vital role in the club’s charge to the grand final.
While he has a legion of fans, there’s still an army of critics that continue to focus on his handling lapses and perceived defensive deficiencies – despite the massive improvements Vatuvei has made in both areas, his phenomenal tryscoring strike-rate and the monumental amount of work he does carting the ball out of the Warriors’ end.
The 112kg, 193cm powerhouse has demolished the record books in the same manner he does opposition defences. Vatuvei has scored a club record 152 tries in 226 games – the most ever by a non-Australian player – and sits equal-10th in premiership history. In 2015, he became the first player to notch 10 tries in 10 consecutive seasons. Vatuvei also owns the New Zealand Test tryscoring record with 22 touchdowns in 28 appearances for his country.
True to character, Vatuvei plays down his glittering list of record-breaking efforts.
“I think when I’m retired I’ll reflect on all those achievements, but there are times when I sit back and wonder to myself how I achieved it and how blessed I am,” he said.
Injuries take hold
Although Vatuvei’s career has been regularly punctuated by leg injuries, he is one of just four players to break the 200-game barrier for the Warriors – but a shoulder injury ended his 2015 campaign early and restricted him to just 16 games, his lowest tally since become a permanent fixture in the top-grade side.
“It was really tough. This has been tougher than all my other injuries, because I still had that desire and that fire burning in me that I still wanted to play, so this injury took a lot out of me,” he lamented.
The following season – one punctuated by further injuries, his involvement in an off-field incident and a subsequent spell from the game to focus on personal issues – Vatuvei played on 15 games for six tries.
In 2017, ‘The Beast’s’ on-field contribution to the Warriors’ NRL cause has consisted of just 53 minutes in a dismal loss to Canterbury in Dunedin.
But he has still fulfilled his role as a leader off the paddock.
Club leader, family man
Aside from his role as a tryscoring, metre-eating machine on the paddock, Vatuvei takes great pride in his role as mentor for the Warriors’ younger brigade – in particular for the sizeable contingent from Pacific Island backgrounds.
“When you become a senior player you look to help all the young kids because that’s what I looked for when I first came to the club. Stacey (Jones), Awen (Guttenbeil), Henry (Fa’afili) and Francis (Meli) looked after me.”
Vatuvei’s blockbusting on-field attributes, along with his regularly-changing hairstyles, giant grin showing off a clutch of gold teeth, and his heart-warming laugh are integral to the rugby league persona so many know and love.
But dig down to big Manu’s core, and it’s obvious his family – wife Jen and three daughters, Makayla, Savannah and Eva – are his inspiration for strapping on the boots, playing through injuries and putting his patched-up body on the line week after week.
“They’re my motivation every time I play. Every time I go on the field, I give them a call and make sure they’re alright,” the NRL Women In League’s ‘Favourite Son’ of 2014 revealed. “They’re the ones that have sacrificed for me, so all I can do is go out there and perform and make them proud. It’s another reason why I like to do what I do.”
“It has been tough – I’ve missed two of my kids’ births (while away with the Warriors). But it’s just a blessing to do what I do and still have them in my life. I try not to tell them that I missed their birth – I don’t want to make one of them feel less special than the other!”
Likewise, he names his father, Siosifa, as the greatest influence on his career, other than his wife and kids.
“My dad, he’s the one the sacrificed a lot. He took me to every training session, he’s the one that when I was young he’d make me breakfast before I’d go to a game.”
His parents’ preservation of the family’s Tongan legacy is an aspect Vatuvei has come to appreciate more and more.
“It means a lot to me. I was born and raised in New Zealand and not knowing my culture that well, my mum and dad taught us a lot of things about our heritage. We were weren’t allowed to speak English at home, so it was good because it taught me how to speak Tongan properly.”
“I was lucky enough to go back to Tonga and see everything and experience the culture. How they live and how they do things over there.”
Vatuvei also revealed he was desperately keen to eventually follow in the footsteps of many of his former New Zealand Test teammates in representing the island nation of his forefathers – after his commitments with the Kiwis have finished.
“It’s always been a dream to pull on that red and white jersey,” he enthused. “Hopefully one day, when I know the Kiwis are looking for something different, I’ll definitely try and play for Tonga. It’s always something I’ve wanted to do, represent my heritage.”
It’s a dream he ultimately achieved in 2017, scoring a try in Mate Ma’a Tonga’s 26-24 win over Fiji in May. It’s a bright spot in what has been a difficult farewell to rugby league Down Under for Vatuvei…though the cult hero will no doubt created many more indelible memories during his stint in Salford.