Steve Matai is trying to shed his image as an angry young man - and the fact he's among the NRL's longest-serving elders aids his cause.
But old habits die hard for the 144-game veteran, he's still missed two games through suspension so far this year.
Rising 28, he is showing signs of mellowing with age, the high tackle he was penalised for during Manly's loss to the Bulldogs last Friday night was innocuous by his standards, an irrelevant offence in the context of a Greg Inglis shoulder charge on Dean Young and Travis Burns' dangerous shot on Martin Kennedy later in the round.
Matai has not made a contribution to the shoulder charge debate this season, given his injury history and a desire to resurrect his international career the 12-test Kiwi appreciates the value in keeping his body right and nose clean.
“I've been pretty good. Fingers crossed nothing happens,” he said before heading to Perth for the first time, the venue of Saturday's round 21 clash with the Warriors.
Matai was a casualty of the 2011 grand final rematch at Eden Park in round one when he broke a thumb during the second half - an injury that sidelined him for four games.
And as far as judicial impediments go he was suspended for two weeks for a swinging arm that knocked out Penrith's Danny Galea in May.
His prior record - including a seven-match ban for a high shot on the Bulldogs Michael Ennis in the final round of the 2010 season - meant lodging an early guilty plea was the wisest course of action and since then Matai has been on his best behaviour.
The Ennis suspension was particularly costly for Matai, it ruled him out of that year's Four Nations tournament, and when a neck injury sidelined him from the 2011 competition it appeared the test component of his career had stalled.
However, Matai still harbours ambitions of making the lineup for October's trans-Tasman test in Townsville and then the World Cup defence 12 months later.
“For the last few years I've missed out through injury and suspension. I'm hoping to get my body right and hopefully things fall into place after that,” he said.
Even the World Cup final win over the Kangaroos in Brisbane four years ago was bittersweet for Matai, a spectator after he suffered a neck injury playing England.
“My last test was 2009 so it's been a while,” he said.
Shaun Kenny-Dowall has one centre berth nailed down but the other has been open - Simon Mannering filled in during April's Anzac test - so Matai has everything to play for over the duration of the regular season and, presumably, the finals series.
- © Fairfax NZ News
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