If there’s a Manly player who gives Brett Stewart a run for his money in terms of longevity, visibility and team spirit, then it has to be Steve Matai, especially now that Jason King and Brett Kite are out of the picture. Of course, Matai is a very different kind of player from Stewart, and hasn’t had the opportunity to prove his mettle at Origin, even if he would have been more than up to the task of an Origin centre, given the eligibility. At the same time, he’s probably had a more luminous career on the international stage, representing New Zealand between 2006 and 2010 in the Tri-Nations, the Four Nations and the Rugby League World Cup. That makes him about the most decorated international player on the team at the moment, and yet in many ways he feels more homegrown, low key and “local” than Stewart, even if he hailed from New Zealand and the Stewart brothers were born in Wollongong. At one level, that says something about the way an Origin pedigree manages to eclipse about any other Rugby League achievement – even the World Cup – but it’s also got a lot to do with the kind of personality and presence that Matai has managed to carve out at Manly.
Put simply, Matai is Manly’s resident hard man. Nobody at Brookvale knows how to dish out big hits like Matai. In fact, nobody in the NRL knows how to dish out big hits like Matai, who has faced the judiciary a record 14 times over the course of his ten year career. While some Manly players – most recently DCE, but also Anthony Watmough – have suggested that the judiciary may be targeting Matai, I’ve never found that a convincing possibility. On the one hand, nobody who’s seen Matai play can doubt that he’s one of the most aggressive players – certainly the most aggressive centre – in the game today. At the same time, insofar as the judiciary does tend to target players, it’s usually those who have some record of off-field indiscretion, or who bring the game into disrepute through their behaviour on the field. And while Matai may have been pretty grubby over the first half of his career – for a while, he and Billy Slater were head to head as the dirtiest players in the game – he’s reformed somewhat in recent years, as he’s become both a senior player at Manly, but also one of the last few members of the great Sea Eagles generation that emerged under the House of the Stewarts.
At the same time, what makes Matai so incredible as a player is that this increased discretion has actually made him even more of a formidable presence on the field. Put simply, Matai hasn’t become any less brutal, but has managed to be more judicious in his brutality, which has also seemed to make him even more charismatic as a hard man in the process. One of the paradoxes of NRL is that it’s the players who seem most anxious to put on some kind of macho front – I’m looking at you, JWH – who often have the least charisma on the field, just because you’re always aware that they’re putting on a show. At the same time, Matai’s theatricality is part of his entertainment value as well, but whenever he dishes out a big hit you sense that he’s doing it for the fans and the team, rather than to cement his own self-image as a hard man. For that reason, Matai is a bit of a special case in the NRL: a hyper-aggressive player who doesn’t really have a hyper-aggressive manner, and who doesn’t exude the brute macho aggression that so many other footy players seem to find it necessary to cultivate. If anything, Matai always has a bit of a playful, comical, quizzical manner on the field, with the result that his big hits always come as a bit of a surprise, even if part of the reason you’re watching the game is to see him do his thing. In fact, his big hits often seem to take his teammates by surprise as well, with Watmough, DCE and Stewart all having commented in interviews on the sheer unpredictability of Matai at his best. Watching something surprising go down in NRL is always fun, but watching a whole team register their surprise and channel it into their play is something else entirely.
In that sense, Matai is perhaps one of the best poster boys for the NRL at the moment: a one-team player who’s managed to keep a low profile while dishing out some of the most brutal moments in the last decade of the game. One of the weird things about NRL is that it is defined by its excess, which is perhaps why the shoulder charge has become so controversial. For my money, most of the greatest NRL players have got to where they are by finding some way to be flexible with the rules, and part of what distinguishes a good NRL player from a great NRL player is how well they manage to strike a balance between flexibility and respect, knowing when to cross the line but also when to toe the line as well. To some extent, that’s a matter of maturity and restraint, and Matai seems to have nailed the balance about as well as anyone could, somehow managing to come off as both emotional and restrained during his biggest and brassiest moments. To put it another way, Matai’s not really a player who seems to hold grudges, or at least personal grudges, since part of the fun of NRL is the way in which players form professional grudges with other players and teams over the course of their career. Of course, the distinction between a personal and professional grudge is a bit arbitrary, and hard to fully define. However, I think that sledging can sometimes make it a bit more personal – and it’s noticeable that Matai rarely ever engages in sledging, instead letting his body do the talking.
In some ways, that’s part of what distinguishes Matai from Slater. While there was a time when the two players seemed like the grubbiest players in the NRL, there was always an extra level of grubbiness to Slater’s game which – to my mind – was associated with his vicious sledges, culminating with his dig at Cory Paterson’s clinical depression in 2010. Sure, Matai may have sledged Mitch Allgood pretty hard, but part of the reason that got so much media coverage was because it was a bit of an anomaly. At the same time, it took a lot of restraint on Matai’s part not to launch back when Allgood hit him in the face during that iconic 2013 game. Watching Matai and Allgood in action was a bit like watching Matai facing his younger and more impulsive self, although even a younger and greener Matai would have been unlikely to lose it as messily as Allgood did that night. To his credit, too, the sledges made against Allgood were more in jest than in aggression, designed to show Manly players and fans that he was prepared to channel his frustration back into good gamesmanship rather than let it fester as the ongoing personal feud it could easily have been. Two years down the track, everyone remembers the Matai-Allgood standoff, but nobody really thinks of them as enemies, which probably has a bit to do with Allgood moving to Hull, but also comes down to the way in which Matai handled the whole situation as well.
In fact, you’d be hard pressed to find anybody in the NRL who really considers Matai an enemy. If anything, most players see him as a bracing challenge to their own gamesmanship, while even his victims have a kind of admiration and respect for his play – not the kind of respect that comes from fear, but the kind of respect that comes from knowing that even the biggest hit you might cop isn’t going to be personal. One of the biggest NRL spectacles this year was seeing Dave Tyrrell floored during Manly’s clash with the Rabbitohs in Round 16, and yet even in the context of the current Souths dynasty there was a bit of a tacit assumption that copping one from Matai is for the good of the game and is to be expected, really, if you show up to play Manly. That ability to be good-natured, unaffected and yet brutal at the same time is all the more remarkable in that Matai cut his teeth with Sonny Bill Williams and Willie Mason in Auckland, both of whom are players who often seem keen to cultivate just the kind of hard man persona that Matai doesn’t seem to need. Of course, SBW has pulled it off more than Mason, fusing it with a high culture Rugby Union profile even as Mason has come to feel like the dregs of the NRL, shipped around from one outfit for another, and a constant pain to players, coaches and fanbases alike. Yet what SBW and Mason share is a “tough” persona Matai hasn’t ever really seemed to need to depend on, just because he’s got a natural toughness and vitality that’s lasted all these years.
For that reason, Matai often feels like a younger player than SBW and Mason – as well as virtually all the other Sea Eagles – despite the fact that he’s been with the same outfit for a decade and is nearing the end of his rep footy career. Since the professional lifespan of a footy player is so short, the development of their professional personalities tends to be more condensed as well, with most players hardening, consolidating or maturing at a remarkable rate, or else devolving into indiscipline more visibly than might occur over a longer time period. While Matai certainly has become less grubby over the last couple of years, his persona has never really changed – or felt the need to change – from his first appearance at Brookvale in 2005, just because it finally feels as if there is no persona, attitude or theatricality here, just a brilliant player who loves his footy and gives everything to it. That’s not just rhetoric either, since there’s no player in the NRL who’s injured as frequently as Matai in his efforts to muscle up the defense for his team. If his judiciary appearances are unprecedented, then so are his injuries, especially his shoulder injuries, and while they’ve become a bit of an in-joke in NRL circles and Manly forums, it’s also generally understood that these are actually real injuries, and that the reason Matai keeps on sustaining them – or never fully recovers from them – is because he gives 110% to every game in which he plays. In my previous post on Brett Stewart, I wrote that one of Stewart’s gifts is his ability – like Hayne in the NFL – to play every match as if Origin is at stake, and that gift is perhaps even more pronounced with Matai, if only because he’s never had the chance to play for Origin in the first place. While there’s been a lot of recent debate about whether New Zealanders should be allowed into Origin, the elephant in the room is that there are a great number of Kiwis – led by Matai, but also including SBW and RTS – who are already giving an Origin-like performance in their rep footy careers, or in other codes and on the international market, begging the question of why Origin itself lags so far behind.
And I reckon that if Origin were opened up to New Zealanders tomorrow, Matai would be one of the first contenders for the Blues (assuming he chose to play for the Blues, since the opposite is too confronting to contemplate for a New South Wales supporter). On the one hand, it’s bizarre to think that players like Jennings are being offered as the crème de la crème of NSW centres when we have footy legends like Matai in our midst. At the same time, the fact that Matai has done so little – or needed to do so little – to solidify his hard man persona means that there’s something perenially youthful about his presence on the field. Blessed with the energy and vitality of a young player, but the maturity and discretion of a seasoned player, he feels timeless as a player and timeless as a Manly fixture as well. One of the interesting things about seeing Marty Taupau at Manly next year will be how these two hard men relate to each other, since there’s something a bit more cultivated about Kapow’s hardness that makes for a bit of a contrast to Matai. Sure, he can deadlift better than anyone else in the NRL, but Matai is the kind of player who doesn’t even need that statistic to command the field. Add to that the fact that Matai excels at taking on some of the duties – and certainly the defensive intensity – of both lock and prop, and it’s going to be fascinating to see how these two giants of the game negotiate each other over the next year.
For my money, Matai will be something of a mentor figure to Taupau, as well as for Dylan Walker, since he’s effectively the unofficial captain of the centre and midfield, just as Stewart is the unofficial captain of the back and Jamie Lyon is in charge of the lot. At the same time, there’s something about Matai that lends itself to mentoring, since, at this end of the day, this is one of the NRL’s premium gentleman players, which doesn’t mean that he holds back in his game but that he knows how to make the biggest and baddest hits without ever sinking into poor sportsmanship, or creating personal enmities, which is about the biggest ethical achievement you can have in a game like Rugby League. Of course, Matai has sometimes crossed the line, but he’s given as much as he’s taken. After all, he’s about the only proponent of the shoulder charge who’s committed to it with enough conviction to pretty much permanently damage his own shoulder in the process. While I’m not sold on the shoulder charge – I personally think it has no place in the game – there is something to be said for a player like Matai who advocates the right to cop a shoulder charge as much as the right to dish one out. And, at the end of the day, it may be the way in which Matai opens himself up to big hits that makes him such a democratic player as well. Certainly, it’s what makes him such a dynamic player, stepping out of the normal mode of play to thrust himself into high-risk situations that might just as easily fall flat as deliver, which of course makes them all the more breathtaking and surprising – both to his teammates and his fans – when they do deliver, as they do most of the time.
Watching Matai in action, then, is close to watching the spirit of Rugby League, which perhaps explains why he has one of the most enduring and solid reputations. While a huge number of footy fans hate Manly, it’s hard to find many who hate Matai, even if they wince every time he turns up against their team. In an era where self-styled hard-men players have turned the shoulder charge into a bit of a boutique item – a man-bun for the footy field, a part of their macho brand – there’s something about the matter-of-fact, workmanlike way in which Matai uses it that also makes it feel like he doesn’t need it as well, since he’s got the resourcefulness that would allow him to dish out or cop a big hit out of about anything. In fact, at his best, Matai’s game almost seems to suggest that the great secret about NRL is that it doesn’t need the shoulder charge – and the ridiculous, unjustifiable risks that it brings – to continue to be the hardest and most ingenious of football codes, since there’s something about the spirit of the game, when embodied in the right way, that can produce the same amount of brutal ingenuity and physical power without the attendant risk. In that sense, Matai feels both somewhat old-fashioned and ahead of his time, as befits a one-team player in an era where that kind of commitment has come full circle and started to feel radical, rather than antiquated. Even if Matai has sought release at various times from his Manly contract, he’s always come back to Brookvale, and that’s more than enough – or almost enough – to compensate the Sea Eagles for the mass exodus of players over the last year or so. Genius players come and go, but there’s something about a Matai that seems like a once-in-generation opportunity, making him feel more precious with every Manly year that passes.