Rising Warriors star earns first starting spot

TEST TIME: Teenager Ben Matulino is set to make one of the toughest NRL debuts imaginable, lining up for the struggling Warriors against international backrow stars Greg Bird and Paul Gallen.
TEST TIME: Teenager Ben Matulino is set to make one of the toughest NRL debuts imaginable, lining up for the struggling Warriors against international backrow stars Greg Bird and Paul Gallen.

If a school rugby union coach in Wellington had given Ben Matulino more game time three years ago, he may have tried to become an All Black.

But that decision prompted him to accept his friend's urgings to try rugby league, and in the past week he's been rewarded with a call-up to the 49-strong extended Kiwis training squad and a first start for the New Zealand Warriors.

Matulino's defence and workrate from the interchange bench has impressed many Warriors, and last week the 19-year-old scored a first try in National Rugby League football.

That form and a rare injury to Warriors back rower Micheal Luck prompted Warriors coach Ivan Cleary to reward Matulino with his first start tomorrow night against the Cronulla Sharks at Mt Smart Stadium.

The student from St Bernards College in Lower Hutt said he turned to league only because of frustration in his attempts to play number eight for the school rugby team.

"I was playing first 15 for the school and I wasn't getting game time, I was getting like 10 minutes a game, and one of my mates asked if I wanted to play in his team," he told NZPA.

" I just went along and started playing and then got asked to trial for the Wellington league team and made it and from there it was all go."

Matulino admitted he didn't know much about the game when he started, even wondering if there was any strategy to it at all.

"I never thought sets of six were planned up, I thought it was everyone doing whatever they want," he said. "That was the hardest bit, along with getting back 10m on defence."

Matulino was signed by the Warriors two years ago. The team kept him in Wellington for a year before moving him to Auckland in November last year.

When asked what chance he gave himself of putting on a Warriors jersey this year he quickly replied " no chance".

"I was aiming for it but I didn't think I would make it. I didn't even think I would get a starting spot for the under 20s and luckily there were a couple of injuries that got me a starting spot."

Matulino clearly has a huge amount of natural talent but he says the exposure to the professional environment of the Warriors has seen his game improve hugely.

"When I first came up I was way overweight and way unfit and the pre-season did me real good," he said.

"I was willing to learn off players and how they run their lives like Ruben Wiki and Steve Price and Logan Swann.

"I think Ivan's slowly building a lot of faith in me, which is pretty good for me to get more minutes."

Matulino is well aware of the threat posed by the Sharks as they were the team he also gained his first Warriors jersey.

He will be marking Sharks captain Paul Gallen, a New South Wales State of Origin representative renowned as a fearsome defender and hard runner.

"I've seen him play quite a lot and I played against him on my debut match. He's a hard guy to tackle."

The Warriors take on the Sharks having won five of their last six matches, including home wins against the second-placed Melbourne Storm and fifth-placed Brisbane Broncos at home.

They are placed 10th but with four round-robin games to go still have prospects of taking one of the eight playoff spots as they are level on competition points with five other teams.

The Sharks do not have the same aura about them as the Storm and the Broncos but they thrashed the Warriors 24-8 in the game Matulino played and they are tied at the top of the table on competition points with the Storm and the Manly Sea Eagles.

"They've got players like Brett Kimmorley, Paul Gallen, Greg Bird, they've got a couple of big, hard-running centres, and they kick well and finish their sets well, all the things that we try and do really," Warriors assistant coach John Ackland said.

"A lot happens around Gallen and Bird, and they've got a good player at fullback who's in good form in Brett Kearney.

"They're a tough team, but so are we."