If Rugby League has a tragic hero, then it’s Reni Maitua. At least, he’s a pretty good contender. Bouncing around between a whole host of positions – including backlock, lock forward, centre and five eighth – he’s the kind of player who always felt a little bit homeless with whatever team of the month he happened to be affiliated. Of course, that made him a player who always felt like a fixture on the field, rather than a fixture in any one team, someone you were bound to see out there somewhere around the centre, if you watched enough games. Even during his periods away from NRL, he always seemed to be present, which is perhaps why it felt so confronting when he finally packed it up and headed for the Salford Red Devils in the European Super League, although it was definitely worth it in terms of the stability it seems to have brought him. I’ve tried to think about what it is that made Maitua’s on-field and off-field career so poignant and compelling, since, in some ways, it’s not that different from a host of other footballers: depressive tendencies, self-destructive behaviour, and an addictive fixation on the game that sometimes sidelines into less manageable addictions as well.
In part, I think it’s because Maitua was one of the ultimate gentleman players, always courteous and cordial on the field despite being a pretty formidable unit by the time he arrived at the Bulldogs for the last phase of his Australian career. At the same time, there’s something poignant about seeing a genius player who doesn’t quite live up to their genius all the time. It makes them more human, and their genius more special, especially compared to some of the tanks in the game that seem to soldier – and shoulder – on no matter what. In that sense, I tend to think of Maitua in the same class as Chris Sandow, Brett Stewart, Jamal Idris and even Jarryd Hayne in the down period with the Eeels before he made the switch to NFL. All are players whose talents haven’t always burned quite as long or as consistently as they might, even if they have burned twice as bright when they’re really on fire.
If I’m honest, I think that I’m also a bit cynical of the way the NRL pulls out the Depression card to excuse players’ off-field indiscretions. Obviously, Depression is real, and Maitua’s contribution to raising awareness is really great, but it seems like there’s a bit of a cycle whereby a NRL player commits an indiscretion – think Shaun Kenny-Dowall, or the Fifita brothers most recently – and then suddenly the news cycle shifts from their victims – spouse and local refs, in the case of the above – to their own ongoing struggles with mental health. I’m the first person to say that SKD and the Fifitas are great players – charismatic players – but there’s something about the way the NRL co-opts mental health right at the very moment of their indiscretions that I find, well, a bit suspect. Just my opinion. But in the case of Reni Maitua, I never sensed that there was that kind of agenda at play – he wasn’t a footy player who brought out his Depression when it suited him, to excuse an offence, but was front and centre about it as a major part of his life, especially when he was at the Kennel.
There’s a kind of dignity in that that I really respect, which I think gives Maitua a real gravitas, even or especially in the wake of his departure for England. It doesn’t hurt, either, that Maitua is by all accounts the Greek God of League, photogenic in ways that make his struggle seem that little bit more sublime. It makes me thing of a Footy Show segment I watched a while back in which Daniel Mortimer (I think?) interviewed the Dogs about Maitua. While they all found stuff to say about his game, they all ended up on pretty much the same note: “Well, yeah, he’s stunning.” At the end of the day, NRL is a visceral sport, but it’s also a really visual sport – and when a player’s got the kind of commanding stance, stare and sheer presence of Maitua, it sets them above the rest of the pack, makes it feel as if they’ve got their sights set on the horizon. And now that Maitua has crossed the horizon, it’s hard not feel that he’s a bit displaced, but also that he was most at home when he was displaced as well, League’s ultimate journeyman, and one of the most rewarding footy players I’ve seen on the field.