Just 12 months ago, the Parramatta Eels turned Manu Vatuvei into a nervous wreck, bombing and pressuring the NZ Warriors winger into submission and consigned him to bombing raids each week as other NRL teams tried to get the same success. He may have waited a while, but Vatuvei finally got some revenge yesterday as the Warriors minus Steve Price and Wade McKinnon did more than enough to get over the Eels in Auckland.
Manu Vatuvei had a minor relapse against the Storm last week, dropping some ball and heap pressure on his team. But this week, he was ready. Expecting the enemy to come out and test him for the whole match – Vatuvei was ready for whatever the Eels would throw at him.
Parramatta had not forgotten. Coach Michael Hagan said Vatuvei was “spoken about”. But Vatuvei said he was unperturbed.
“I knew they would try and test me out,” he said. “They were trying to put me off â€¦ they said, ‘Watch out’. I said, ‘Watch out, who cares, I’ll come back at you’.
“Last year, each time I did a mistake, I went into my shell a bit. That’s a big thing for me this year: every time I do a mistake, I put it behind me and carry on.”
Hence the TV spot and how Vatuvei, all 112 kilograms of him, was the difference here.
But his teammates weren’t bad either. Australian bookmakers believe that without Steve Price and Wade McKinnon the Warriors aren’t much of a team. That view clearly isn’t shared across the Tasman. Normally, Auckland on a sunny Easter weekend is a ghost town, but 15,250 turned up yesterday.
And the Warriors held in such poor esteem by the bookies rewarded them. Lance Hohaia was sound at fullback; the younger forwards, including debutant Sonny Fai, stood up; and the two centres, Jerome Ropati and the busy Brent Tate, were outstanding.
Everything, though, happened down Vatuvei’s left wing. Warriors halfback Grant Rovelli put up two early bombs for Vatuvei to leap for. There was a chance created by Ropati, although Vatuvei lost the ball into the arms of his opposing winger, Grothe.
Then the opening try, for which Vatuvei was to blame: Hayne made some room, but ultimately the Eels went 6-0 up because Vatuvei missed a one-on-one tackle on Grothe, who scored.
Then the Eels lobbed up a bomb. Vatuvei caught it. The crowd went wild. Vatuvei, enthused, tried to offload the ball to Ropati, and turned over possession. The crowd booed.
He was given a reprieve. The Eels countered, but Feleti Mateo’s pass to send Todd Lowrie over on the siren was ruled forward, and they remained behind at half-time.
Halfway through, and a mixed report card. But the Warriors earned full marks in the second term, racing to an insurmountable 30-10 lead by the 62nd minute, after conceding a try to Joel Reddy shortly after the break.
Vatuvei overturned that four-pointer nine minutes later. He made a big burst down the wing and ended that set a metre short of the line but won his side a penalty for ball-stealing. Then Michael Witt wafted a kick into the in-goal, where the gentle giant awaited. He touched down, raised the ball skywards, and appeared to say a silent prayer of thanks. “I always thank the Lord, first of all, for my good performance and His strength,” Vatuvei said.
By now, the Eels had quit their sledging. Tate scored and then it was all Vatuvei: a 60-metre bust to set up Evarn Tuimavave to romp through. Most of the Warriors headed straight for Vatuvei to congratulate the big man.
He fields up to 100 bombs in a regular training session, and has specialist catching drills with former Kiwi fullback Richie Barnett, who says “if he gets that right, he could be a world-beater”.
Vatuvei was bad last week and great this week. As Eels skipper Nathan Cayless said: “You’ve got to give him credit. He keeps turning up, and he had a great game today.”
NZ WARRIORS 30 (M Vatuvei 2 G Rovelli B Tate E Tuimavave tries M Witt 5 goals) bt PARRAMATTA 16 (L Burt E Grothe J Reddy tries L Burt 2 goals) at Mt Smart Stadium. Referee: S Hayne. Crowd: 15,250.