Steve Matai's continued presence in the Manly Sea Eagles backline has forced Dean Whare to trade Sydney's northern beaches for landlocked Penrith but the trouble-prone former Kiwis centre at least provided the test debutant with an ideal parting gift.
Whare doubts he would be making his senior international debut against the Kangaroos in Townsville on Saturday night had Matai not again been dogged by injury and suspension during an NRL season where the veteran had hoped to rekindle the Kiwis component of his career.
"I played most of my games due to Matai being injured or suspended. I've got to thank him for giving me that opportunity. I owe Steve everything," the Rotorua-born 22-year-old admitted as he reflected an unexpected milestone.
Matai's fractured thumb, suspensions and more collateral damage late in the Sea Eagles unsuccessful campaign enabled Whare to ultimately make 20 appearances and sidestep the dreaded 'second year syndrome'.
Injuries to Brett Stewart and David Williams also allowed the former Junior Kiwi to fill in at fullback and on the wing, though it was at centre where he forced his way into calculations for the one-off trans-Tasman international at Dairy Farmers Stadium.
Whare suspected the Kiwis selectors had been monitoring his progress since he cracked the Juniors in 2010 but after playing only five games in his maiden NRL season last year he put test ambitions on hold until Matai got in varying degrees of strife.
"I knew I had to get some game time in the NRL to even be a chance of making the Kiwis side and fortunately I got the opportunity this time," he said.
"New Zealand was the last thought on my mind, just to getting into the (train-on) squad was overwhelming.
"I didn't want to be a last resort or a passenger so when I made the final 19 I was over the moon and now I can't wait to get out there."
Whare was comforted by the fact he has built up a rapport over the last three years with Kieran Foran, who returns to the halves after missing April's Anzac Test with a hamstring strain, while he was also familiar with wing partner Gerard Beale though age group footy although they were always on opposing sides.
Four-test rookie Beale and Whare mark up against the Morris brothers Josh and Brett, so they at least avoid superstar Greg Inglis - not that the newcomer is daunted by the occasion.
"I'm just going to try and have fun and not get too nervous," said Whare is due to relocate to Ivan Cleary's Panthers because a permanent midfield role at Brookvale is blocked by Matai and former Kangaroos international Jamie Lyon.
Matai, meanwhile, has been a source of encouragement since it became apparent Whare was edging closer to a test jumper.
"He's a good talker and he's told me not to not get over confident or too nervous. He said 'congratulations', he's really happy for me and can't wait to watch me on TV."
Whare has no fears about entering the Cowboys' cauldron - he scored a hattrick on debut against North Queensland May 2010 - a match Manly shaded 24-20.
And nor does the prospect of performing the haka faze the player who used to lead it for the Junior Kiwis.
"I've been doing the haka every time the Kiwis do it on TV; I do it at home with them so I can't wait to do it again."
- © Fairfax NZ News
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