Gang life in New Zealand.
The young people immersing themselves in that lifestyle walk down a path of violence, drugs, alcohol and ultimately incarceration. It’s a downward spiral that can mark their papers for life – preventing them from fulfilling their potential.
Yet within the ranks of the Eels forwards this year there are two key members who spent their formative years doing wrong on the streets of Auckland. It’s a testimony to their character that such a past was left behind, but not forgotten. Manu Ma’u and Suaia Matagi share more than just the colours of the Eels jersey. They share a pride that comes from proving that they are more than the youths who spent time behind bars.
Their stories are inspirational.
A Common Thread
Manu and Suaia were both born in 1988. Of Tongan and Samoan heritage respectively, they each found a second family in their street gangs. Fuelled and blurred by a regular diet of alcohol, acts of violence became commonplace. Neither had little ambition outside of the streets, and little fear of the repercussions of this lifestyle.
Yet an inevitability awaited them both.
Revenge would be the motivation. Delivering street justice their downfall. Arrests and imprisonment for their acts of violence saw each enter the prison system as teenagers. Suaia Matagi received his sentence in 2006 at just 17 years of age. Manu Ma’u was arrested and convicted of his crimes at only 19.
Reality kicked in. No prison system, particularly one in New Zealand, is a place to be when you’re so young. Seeing the pain of separation in the eyes of their family and loved ones, a determination to change set Manu and Suaia on a path to better lives. It would be no overnight change. It would require faith, goal setting and hard work. There was time to be served and challenges on the outside.
But above all else, these men had a common ambition – they would not be defined by their acts as misguided youth. Their lives moving forward would prove that.
(The terrific TVNZ Sunday program’s report on Manu Ma’u is not currently available but you can learn more about Suaia Matagi’s story here)
Take No Prisoners
“Crash” – it’s the name of a popular New Zealand prison game, a no holds barred contest in which the inmates challenge themselves by charging into a line of their peers and taking whatever that delivers. That meant plenty of elbows and knees – there were no referees on the concrete fields of the “big house”.
This “game” earned prison yard respect for both Ma’u and Matagi, and sparked the flame of desire to take their physical blessings to the NRL. Neither man had a strong background in organised sport. Ma’u had played football without any ambition and Matagi had not played competitive footy at all. For blokes in their late teens behind bars, these were lofty ambitions. Their prison mates may have shared their faith, but few others would.
On The Outside
There was a harsh truth to be faced by these men on their release from prison. Supporting their families and achieving their goals would not be easy. Getting work is no cakewalk for someone just out of gaol. Each worked in different jobs to put food on the plate. The rugby league journey would have to start at the local level. Their footy began successfully and earned them exposure through their respective appearances with the Auckland Vulcans, the Warriors feeder team in the NSW Cup.
Yet there was still a price to pay for wrongs of the past. Visa restriction barriers would prevent Ma’u and Matagi from entering Australia. There’s not much of a future in the NRL if you’re not permitted to walk on Australian soil. But these men were made to crash through barriers. With their faith, determination, family support and some representation from people who believed in them, visas were issued and NRL contracts were signed.
It’s unbelievably impressive to go from a background devoid of organised sport to be a leading player in Auckland’s Fox Memorial Cup. Yet that’s what Suaia Matagi achieved soon after his release from prison. New Zealand Residents and Auckland Representative team selections followed from 2009 to 2012, and during that period he made appearances for the Auckland Vulcans, the Warriors NSW Cup team.
Following visa clearances and some barnstorming appearances for the Vulcans in 2012, Matagi earned a 2013 NRL contract with the Warriors and made his first grade debut against the Bulldogs on May 11 of that year. Eventually, he would notch up 36 appearances for the Warriors from 2013 to 2015. International honours for Samoa (5 caps) and New Zealand (1 cap) would be proud moments during his tenure. His time there would end with a 2015 mid season transfer and a trip across the ditch to the Roosters.
Matagi’s shift to the tri-colours would only be fleeting. After seven appearances at the back end of 2015, the stocky prop moved to the foot of the mountains, becoming one of the mainstays in the Panthers 2016 team. With a total of 23 appearances for the season, it came as a great surprise that he was no longer a high priority for the Penrith club. His acquisition by the Eels made few headlines but left plenty of smiles at the Saleyards headquarters of the blue and golds.
At 107 kg and 179cm (or around 5ft10 on the old imperial scale), Matagi is a compact and robust prop. He has surprising pace for someone who plays in rugby leagues engine room and the Parramatta faithful can expect high impact collisions in both attack and defence. He has the ability to ball play before, at, or in the line, a skill which will be welcomed into the Eels pack. His highlights package from his days at the Warriors leaves no doubt as to why he held cult status with their supporters. His brief appearance for the Eels at the Auckland Nines was a taste of things to come.
Like Matagi, Manu Ma’u would have to begin his rugby league career in the Auckland domestic level upon his release from prison. Although Manu’s background included the famed rugby league nursery, St Pauls College in Auckland, football was nothing more than an outlet for his anger. He was quoted as saying, “it was more of a negative thing”.
Unlike Matagi, visa clearances did not take Ma’u from the Vulcans to the Warriors. Instead, through the persistence of his management, Peter Nolan, Anthony Field and the Parramatta club, Manu journeyed to Australia in 2013. His debut appearance in Eels colours in Round 1 of 2014 would ironically be against the Warriors.
There would be very little about Manu’s career with the Eels that supporters would not be familiar with. (For those who enjoy a highlights package, a 2015 compilation can be viewed here.) Under the guidance of Brad Arthur, a man much loved by Manu, the back rower has made 57 top grade appearances for the club. International honours for Tonga (2 caps) and New Zealand (6 caps) have been richly deserved, as was the 2016 Ken Thornett Medal, awarded by his peers as the best player at the club.
It’s little wonder that he’s so highly regarded within the club. At 184cm and 105kgs his size and agility are a constant menace to defences as is his ability to promote the ball in traffic. Ball runners fear his punishing hits. Furthermore, Manu’s good lateral movement, so essential when defending out wide, provides the versatlity for him to shift to the centres to cover injuries.
On a personal note, I was fortunate enough to attend the Thornett Medal night and witness Manu’s acceptance of the award. This bloke is a humble, quietly spoken individual, and he needed few words to express his feelings about what the award meant to him and his admiration for Brad Arthur. Before congratulating him, I watched as he took a quiet moment to look at the medal hanging around his neck. Maybe he was reflecting on the journey he had taken to reach such a proud moment. I think I had a tear in my eye.
As Matagi and Ma’u approach the 2017 season, there’s little doubt that they’ll focus more on what lies ahead rather than what’s been left behind. Is it destiny that the two find themselves at the same club, continuing their inspiring journey? The lesson for others, as these men crash through the defensive line barriers on the field, is that you can break down the barriers of a past that threatens to define you. You can create a new legacy to be proud of. Just believe!
Images courtesy of the NRL and the Parramatta Eels