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Opinion

Celebrating and commiserating the career of Aku Uate

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Editor
23rd November, 2020
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It’s tough to see the team you support lose. It’s even tougher when the loss comes at the hands of your arch rivals.

Toughest of all is when the ref has made an obvious blunder, awarding the match-winning try when the player who touched down clearly spilled the pill before grounding it.

Yet when these exact circumstances conspired against my team a few years ago, I was left feeling content – perhaps even a little smug – with the outcome.

It was June 9, 2017 and my Newcastle Knights had put in one of their bravest performances of recent memory against the Sea Eagles in driving rain at Brookvale.

However, it was all for naught, with Manly prevailing 18-14, securing the victory in controversial circumstances as the deciding score came off a blatant knock on.

But before I’m driven out of town for almost – almost – cheering the Manly victory, my fellow Knights fans would do well to remember the Sea Eagle who was awarded the try.

Aku Uate.

Akuila Uate

Akuila Uate has called time on his rugby league career. (Photo by Ashley Feder/Getty Images)

The flying Fijian actually managed a double that night, showing the pace, power and finishing skills that had earned him five caps for both NSW and Australia, as well as Dally M Winger of the Year honours in three consecutive seasons between 2010-12.

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More than just a try-scoring machine, Uate was the prototype modern winger, taking hard carries from his own end and earning the respect of the whole competition, as evidenced by his 2011 RLPA Players’ Champion Award.

For the record, Aku is one of only four non-spine players to be named the players’ player in the award’s 17-year history.

His pool room also features jerseys for the Prime Minister’s XIII, NRL All Stars, Country NSW and the World All Stars.

Special mention must be made of Aku scoring 14 tries in 18 matches for his home nation because, as he recently told Newcastle Herald journalist Barry Toohey, playing for Fiji was “probably the highlight of pretty much my representative career”.

“Just putting that white jersey on for Fiji, that’s anyone’s dream back in Fiji. When you’re a little kid, that’s the dream – to play for your country. And I got to play for my country,” he said on Toohey’s News: The podcast.

That Uate would go from fulfilling his dream of playing for Fiji as a teenager to pulling on the green and gold jersey of his adopted home country a few years later does bring to the fore the representative-eligibility issue that the NRL is going to have to confront sooner rather than later.

But that’s not the point of this article. Rather, it’s to celebrate and commiserate the end of Aku Uate’s career.

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Last Thursday, the 33-year-old announced his retirement from rugby league.

First and foremost, Aku’s time in footy should be celebrated.

He had a brilliant career, playing 212 games for Newcastle, Manly and Huddersfield in the English Super League, scoring a grand total of 134 tries – a strike rate of 0.63 tries per game (that figure is actually higher if we take out the games in England).

For the sake of comparison, Billy Slater’s 190 tries were scored at a strike rate of 0.6. Maths obviously doesn’t explain rugby league, but that’s not a bad player to be ahead of when it comes to how often you could be called upon to bag a meat pie!

Akuilla Uate of the Sea Eagles.

(Photo by Kai Schwoerer/Getty Images)

This prodigious ability to find the line from pretty much anywhere on the field led to Uate earning the nickname ‘Akuila the Thriller’ and the stands of Hunter Stadium would heave to the sounds of Michael Jackson’s ‘Thriller’ when Uate was playing.

He was a fan favourite in Newcastle and while it was his bustling runs and nose for the line that earned him cult status, what ensured he remains beloved to this day was the way he reciprocated the affection, making a point of personally thanking match attendees, regardless of the outcome.

“The fans are there to watch the game – win or lose, they stick by you,” he told Toohey.

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“If you lose or win you just gotta put a smile on your face and keep shaking everyone’s hand and thanking them for coming and watching the game every week.

“I love Newcastle. I would do that every game.”

What a champion. So we celebrate.

But we never got a chance to say goodbye. So we commiserate.

The average punter obviously isn’t privy to what happens behind closed doors, let alone the enigma that is balancing the salary cap, but by midway through the 2016 season, it had become apparent that Uate was not a part of new coach Nathan Brown’s plans, despite having a deal in place for 2017.

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This was spelled out in no uncertain terms when Uate was relegated to NSW Cup.

“I shouldn’t put my head down, I shouldn’t be angry at the world because I’m playing NSW Cup,” Uate said in hindsight.

“NSW Cup was not too bad. It was rugby league at the end of the day. And that’s what I love.”

Again, what a champion. His is an attitude plenty could learn from, particularly when Uate was stuck playing reggies while a first-grade side starved of experience won one game all year.

The real shame of the situation, however, was that while it had been made abundantly clear Uate was on the outer, he was not given a chance to say farewell to his teammates and fans in a fashion befitting the club’s all-time leading try-scorer.

Akuila Uate

(Photo by Tony Feder/Getty Images)

Uate finished the year in NSW Cup and – the final insult – since his mooted departure had not been confirmed when the last home game of the season was played, Aku didn’t even receive a lap of honour and one last chance to shake fans’ hands and put a smile on a few forlorn faces.

The Knights ended up working a swap deal with the Sea Eagles, Aku for Jamie Buhrer, and while it was probably the right move for the club, it was handled the wrong way.

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So we come back to that winter’s eve in 2017 and Aku diving over in the 58th minute to take the score to 16-8 (18-8 after a successful conversion) and ultimately putting the game out of reach for his old club.

I didn’t cheer for Manly, I cheered for Aku. The humble, hard-working kid who arrived in Australia as a teenager who couldn’t read or write English and became a star of the National Rugby League and a legend of the Newcastle Knights.

Yet there he was, securing victory for our fiercest rivals.

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Fairytales in sport are few and far between – those who go out on the terms they would like are a tiny minority.

But it’s remarkably easy to ensure a player goes out with the recognition they deserve. And the Knights botched it big time for the greatest winger in the club’s history.

Luckily, there’s now time to make it right.

You can’t really put a Manly player on the back of a ute and parade him around to be lauded by the crowd at a Newcastle home game, but with Aku having hung up the boots, that particular hurdle is no longer in the way.

The club should make a point of getting Aku back for a home game next year. He may not be allowed to shake hands, but blasting a bit of MJ one last time as Akuila the Thriller waves to a legion of fans who still adore him would be a huge win for the club, the town and – most importantly – a genuinely deserving former player.