League's parochial nature shackles 'The Beast'

06:52, Jun 22 2013
Manu Vatuvei
TRY TIME: Manu Vatuvei points skyward after scoring for the Warriors.

Manu Vatuvei. Massive, blockbusting. At his best, one of the most destructive players in rugby league.

That great, curly mop of hair, the gold-toothed piratical smile, the finger pointed at the heavens after another leap skyward, followed by yet another National Rugby League try.

Manu the Magnificent, there remains something human about him.

He appears untouchable at times on the footy field, but appears to be approachable off it.

And like those players we hold special in our hearts, there are flaws.

Like other big wings he can be slow to turn. He has struggled at times under the high ball, something opposition teams have cruelly exposed. His hands have let him down.


Sound familiar?

They said the same things about another New Zealand-born wing of Tongan extraction, Jonah Tali Lomu.

But while Lomu developed into an even bigger presence off the paddock - a worldwide figure who transcended rugby union to join the likes of David Beckham and Tiger Woods - Vatuvei will be forever shackled by the provincial nature of the code he plays in.

League is practised intensely in only small pockets globally, Australia's eastern seaboard and northern England really, and it would take a very special player indeed to levitate above that.

Jonathon Thurston might just be the best footballer in either rugby code - a once in a generation player - but he's not good enough to rate as an international sporting personality.

Vatuvei may be big in Auckland, and known throughout New Zealand.

Australian rugby league followers will be aware of him, but most of their compatriots will be blissfully unaware.

And yet he has the same raw material that Lomu had.

The size, a shelf full of brilliant video highlights, a natural humility.

At 27, the 1.89-metre, 112-kilogram gentle giant should be at the peak of his powers - both in a footballing sense and a commercial one.

Maybe he's being undermanaged, maybe he's at ease living only on the periphery of the limelight. Perhaps the thought of being another Sonny Bill Williams is enough to straighten that Einstein-like 'do.

Maybe he should try his hand at union.

The Australians have not been shy in enticing the biggest stars and the best outside backs of the NRL across to the 15-man game, the likes of Wendell Sailor, Timana Tahu, Lote Tuqiri and now Israel Folau.

There is a suspicion they have not converted because of a desire to try their hand at the game they purportedly play in heaven.

The monetary benefits involved in non-salary capped union, the ability to cash in on opportunities not just in their own country, but on a global stage, can't be ignored.

Vatuvei would be an incredible presence on the end of a Blues backline, but it would seem unlikely.

That's no bad thing, rugby league needs its heroes in New Zealand, and Vatuvei is undoubtedly one of them.

Despite that he does often come in for some rough treatment, particularly from his own.

Many would like to see him convert not to union, but into the forwards where he would be a hulking ball runner.

But whenever one of his team mates, or the Warriors coaching staff, is asked about it, the disbelief in their voice is palpable.

Why would anyone take a world-class wing and send them into the middle of the park to live with the cattle?

Why would you put a thoroughbred in the same paddock with the clydesdales?

There's also a question mark over whether the Warriors should be investing the greater part of their salary cap in a wing - a finisher rather than a creator.

Those same players would probably say the same thing - we'd rather be playing with him than against him.

So Manu, 159 games for the Warriors, 20 tests for the Kiwis and counting, will remain where and what he is.

Which is, after all, pretty good.

The Southland Times