The New Zealand Warriors in 2019, much like almost every year in the history of the club, were consistently inconsistent.
Manu Vatuvei plays his 200th NRL game for the Warriors this Saturday night and it’s a significant achievement for the Warriors – as well as the man fans fondly call ‘The Beast’.
Many milestones seem to be talked up more than they warrant in the modern game, but the fact that Manu becomes only the third Warrior behind Stacey Jones and Simon Mannering to bring up his double century with the club is just one of many reasons why Saturday night is significant.
It was back in 2004 that Manu kicked off his NRL career with the Warriors against South Sydney. He made his Test debut the following year and for most of the last decade he’s been regarded as one of the most dangerous wingers in the NRL. He scored his 138th try for the club on Monday night against Melbourne, but that brilliant strike rate doesn’t do him justice. It doesn’t take into account the huge number of tries he’s also set up – especially since he’s become one of the best in the game at tapping back cross-kicks to give his teammates.
As Manu has developed as a player and a person, much of his best work at the Warriors hasn’t been obvious from analysing the on-field statistics. He has become an inspirational figure for teammates and youngsters at the club. He provides a down-to-earth role-model for most young Polynesians that begin at the club with intentions of kicking on to the NRL.
He’s someone they can relate to that’s proven that with the right committment local talent can come through the Warriors development squads and kick on to a lengthy and lucrative NRL career.
On the field Manu’s dynamic combination of his size and speed have been what have made him so lethal and why he’s commanded so much respect from opposition teams throughout his career. Comparisons to Jonah Lomu haven’t been far off the mark.
Manu’s health and the longevity of his career have meant he’s probably been able to improve many of the weaknesses in his game, like taking the high ball. His judgement in defence is a lot better than Lomu’s by the time his career ended.
In last year’s Four Nations final, Manu proved he is still a match winner at international level and that he still has enough speed to remain one of the most destructive and dangerous wingers in rugby league. More significant than Manu’s natural loss of speed over time has actually been the fact that most NRL teams have at least one winger over 100kg in their ranks now. This is largely to do with Manu’s influence.
Fortunately the Warriors in recent years have left Manu on the wing, despite many people calling for him to move into the forwards. Calls came for Jonah to make a similar move late in his career. To have moved into the pack would surely have limited the amount of times per match that Manu could get himself in the position where he’s most effective – when he can isolate defenders one on one on the ground or in the air.
One of the many reasons the Warriors’ coaches have been reluctant to move Manu from the wing has been the limited amount of classy wingers that have emerged through their ranks. The fact that Bill Tupou played 62 games for the club between 2010 and 2013 – along with their use of a tradesman like Jonathon Wright on the wing at the moment – is testament to that.
As he nears the end of his career the club needs to ask where they get the next ‘Beast’? New Zealand is a country that produces an astonishing amount of fast, powerful outside backs in rugby union so somehow the Warriors need to find a way of tapping in to some of that raw talent. Taking the gamble of signing a couple of Super rugby wingers or even looking further afield to the islands could be two ways the Warriors can secure some better wingers in the future.
Like many great players, it’s often when Manu is injured or unavailable that his value to the team becomes most apparent. Life without Manu is a proposition that Warriors fans aren’t ready to consider yet though. Even when they lose, he’s still able to give fans a few memorable moments like his bone-crunching tackle on Billy Slater at the weekend.
His exciting play on the field combined with his charismatic personality off it mean it’s very likely that a huge crowd will be there at Mt Smart Stadium this Saturday night to support him when the Warriors take on the Wests Tigers. This will be justified recognition for the man who encapsulates all the best things that the Warriors club has to offer.