‘Just call me Manu’
It didn’t take long for Manu Vatuvei to achieve one of his first goals as a professional athlete.
In October of 2005 the then 19-year-old undertook what would be the first of countless such onerous assignments – a telephone interview with a UK-based journalist.
Having just concluded his second NRL campaign and been called up for international duty at a ridiculously tender age, the prodigious young talent’s reputation preceded him.
“Here in the UK they are calling you ‘Baby Jonah’,” the journalist offered.
“So what do you make of that?”
“Um, I just want to be Manu,” Vatuvei eventually offers, clearly a bit embarrassed by the comparison with the legendary rugby union sensation with whom he shares Tongan heritage and a New Zealand birth.
Manu got his way. The comparison didn’t linger. With two tries in the Tri Nations final against Australia in Huddersfield for Bluey McLennan’s triumphant Kiwis, Vatuvei sealed his reputation, and made his own name.
‘The Beast’ had arrived. And he wouldn’t be leaving any time soon.
Vatuvei’s ability to absorb monstrous collisions over the course of a 14-season, 259-game professional career is one of the many things that set him apart from his peers. The guy never took a soft hit-up. Ever. Every single collision was a bruising affair, with attempted tacklers often significantly worse for wear. But he also copped plenty himself. For some reason, the high tackle law didn’t seem to apply to hits on the giant winger. He would play games where opponents would fail to hit him below the eyebrows. He endured. Spectacularly. Bravely. Uncomplaining.
Vatuvei may have shrugged off his inequitable treatment, but it pissed-off his team mates. In 2014 Ben Matulino muttered darkly about the shoulder charges his mate was regularly copping and the fact the perpetrators were never sanctioned.
That weekend Matulino levelled Bulldogs prop James Graham with a beauty, copping a three-match ban.
Three years later, two of the club’s finest home-grown talents are heading for the exit door. Matulino will join Ivan Cleary’s revolution at the Tigers next season, while Vatuvei takes a bow of sorts before crossing the globe to join Salford in the Super League.
The Warriors have renamed Mt Smart in Vatuvei's honour and are doing everything possible to mark his departure in the right way – except for granting him the one thing that would actually achieve that: a farewell appearance on the pitch. Salford reportedly didn’t want any risks taken with the health of their new acquisition. Fair enough, but the deference to a commercial imperative over sentiment makes his farewell entirely less fitting.
The Beast deserves to go out on his shield, not on a golf cart, or whatever the club will mount him on for his final parade around the ground the 31-year-old has called home for more than half his life.
Vatuvei spent his last week at the club fulfilling media duties, saying his goodbyes to the fans down the barrel of a succession of TV cameras and into reporters’ dictaphones.
One of his last assignments was to film some promotional messages for the season-ending World Cup, in which he will likely make a belated farewell appearance on Kiwi soil playing for Tonga.
He is, he admits, a little nervous about his move to Salford.
It’s the first change of job description he will have had in his life, but he’s mainly nervous about making a good impression. All these years after the requirement to do so must surely have lapsed, he still feels the need to prove himself.
His last message recorded, he wanders out into the foyer of the club’s East Stand offices. A booming laugh shakes the building. The man who just wanted to be Manu isn’t gone just yet.
But he soon will be, and the chasm he leaves behind will be vast.
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