Mental strain leaves Warriors great Manu Vatuvei ready for fresh start in England
The desire to keep playing at the top level still burns bright for Manu Vatuvei but the departing Warriors star admits the mental strain of the past 12 months has left him ready for a fresh start.
After 13 years and 226 games at the club, Vatuvei confirmed on Monday that he would be leaving Mt Smart for Salford in the UK this week after being granted an early release from his contract.
With a club record 152 tries, the most of any Kiwi in the NRL, Vatuvei is regarded as one of the Warriors' greatest ever players, alongside Stacey Jones and Simon Mannering. However, the last two seasons have not gone to plan for the 'Beast'.
Last year, he was suspended for three games before being granted medical leave following his involvement in the prescription pills and energy saga, while he has played just 53 minutes of first grade this season following a run of knee and calf injuries.
There is no doubt the injuries have taken a toll but Vatuvei is confident his body can still stand up to the rigours of playing in the NRL. However, the opportunity for a new challenge in the Super League was too good to refuse.
"With everything that I've been going through for the last 12 months I think this was the right opportunity for myself to start fresh," Vatuvei said.
"I was still struggling a bit mentally but physically I was feeling good and wanted to carry on so I thought it was the right call to move on."
While Vatuvei was contracted at the Warriors until the end of the 2018 campaign, he had an inkling at the start of the year that this would be his final season at the club.
The 31-year-old held regular discussions with Warriors boss Jim Doyle and coach Stephen Kearney about his future before Salford came calling last month.
"I've always wanted to play out my career at the club. I wanted to finish the year at the club but things like this do happen," he said.
"I had a talk with Steve to tell him my thoughts and he just wanted the best for me and that's why he decided he wouldn't hold me back."
As the injuries mounted, Vatuvei was consigned to a mentoring role this season, which in some ways played a role in his departure, with the emergence of Ken Maumalo and Charnze Nicoll-Klokstad keeping him out of first grade.
But ever the team man, he is proud of their development and does not feel like he has been pushed out of the club.
"It is disappointing to just play one game this season but that's how it is, you can't control things like this.
"I feel blessed to have played that amount of games and to be in the game for that long. I've enjoyed every moment of my time here and I've had a lot of good moments with the boys. That's something I'll always cherish."
Vatuvei is hoping to fly out to England with his family on Sunday, and the Warriors have big plans for his farewell ahead of Friday night's clash against the Panthers.
Mt Smart Stadium will be renamed 'Manu Vatuvei Stadium' in his honour and his teammates will have his name, club number and signature embroidered on their jerseys.
While contractually he is not permitted to play, Vatuvei has been named in the number five jersey and will lead the team down the tunnel in what is sure to be an emotional end to an emotional week.
"The club has done a lot for me, it's like another family," he said. "I can never thank them enough but all I could do was go out and play my best footy and if it was a bad one I'd always try and come back the next game and make them proud.
"You always want to make your parents proud and that's what I always wanted to do for the club."
Vatuvei is yet another player who leaves the Warriors without fulfilling the dream of winning the club's first premiership. But he at least managed to play in the 2011 grand final, which he described as his career highlight.
"To be honest, I don't think I'm a club legend. I'm just blessed and lucky enough to have survived this long at one club and to keep doing what I love."