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Who on earth is Manu Ma'u?

This is what second chances look like... Suaia Matagi (left) and Manu Ma'u (right) have overcome a heavy past to be where they are today. Copyright: Ricky Henry. Credit: Ricky Henry. Copyright: Ricky Henry.

It's the million dollar question that has left each of the four teams that have encountered this unknown New Zealander so far in 2014 not only scratching their heads, but licking their wounds. 

Eighty minutes of manic destruction was all it took for Manu Ma'u to prove his worth in the NRL, forcing the Eels to lock in this diamond in the rough for another two years and, in the process, ensure that it won't be long until we're all fully acquainted with who this emerging star really is. 

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To be fair though, we're lucky to know as much as we do as it is, for it wasn't so long ago that the question was "where" as opposed to "who" with Manu Ma'u. 

The mystery of a second Kiwi 'Beast' named Manu, who apparently had just come out of jail, had been doing the rounds for so long that it fast became some mythical, legendary folk tale in New Zealand. 

"He played local footy, just back here in New Zealand [but] he was too good for that," says his old coach, Ricky Henry. 

"And then he played Auckland Vulcans and again, I thought he was too good for that as well. He was making NSW Cup Team of the Week every second week and that was because every second week he wasn't playing because of visa issues.

"So when we went to Australia [without him], teams would ask me where the back-rower was. Obviously they did video and picked him out as a danger and each time we went over they were looking for him. 

"We didn't want to go into too much detail with his past so we said we didn't know."

And that's probably the first thing you'd want to know about Manu Ma'u. 

Six years ago, the former Auckland gangster was sentenced to a Waikato jail for his involvement in a messy party altercation that began with his brother being stabbed in the arm. 

But the subsequent three years inside a prison cell changed him from the violent, excessive drinker he was in his teens, to the humbled, determined player you see today. 

A former Warriors under-20s squad player that never made the paddock, he was released from jail in 2009 and immediately began to rebuild his life under Henry with the Vulcans.

"When he came out, the word that I always got in was that he'd settled down and was focused. I think it definitely changed him for the better," Henry said. 

"I've seen him a few times now, he's focused and he wants to succeed but he's quite humble.  As a person off the paddock, he's really respectful. The guys that I spoke to, they gave him glowing references and no one said a bad word about him. 

"Every time he played, he was a good player. He played with a lot of passion. Everyone deserves a second chance and I was happy to give him that."

Ma'u eventually received visa clearance last year, surprising a Wentworthville Magpies squad mid-season that had heard of - and maybe not believed in - that mysterious Auckland Beast that was soon to arrive on Aussie shores. 

"When I first heard about him, about the stuff he did in New Zealand, I was pretty scared," says teammate Ken Sio. 

Adds Kenny Edwards: "We knew he was coming. When we turned up to pre-season, there was a locker there for a bloke Manu Ma'u and no one really knew who he was," he said. 

"He didn't turn up til halfway through the season. I remember he was sitting in his change room, we were all on one side, he was sitting on the other side by himself. 

"Me and Manu are pretty close, [I'm] probably the closest with him in the whole team. Me being from Auckland, I went over and said hello to him. He was pretty quiet. 

"I remember our first game together, we were both playing for [Wentworthville] in reserve grade. He missed a whole pre-season, didn't play the whole year, he come in like round 16 or something, played his first game and he killed it. 

"He turned up in really good shape. He turned up with the attitude that he's going to make it, no excuses. He's put in all the hard work and he's starting to reap the rewards now."

Ironically, Ma'u's first big shot came back in February at the very place he wanted to leave in his past. A team walk led him past the Auckland courthouse and security guards that changed his life. 

And it was there, at the Auckland Nines, that he had been reunited with another man who inspired him to chase his rugby league dreams, despite already being 25.

Warriors prop Suaia Matagi had already shown the way for Ma'u, turning his life around after a year in prison for assault to make his NRL debut in 2013 before representing Samoa at last year's World Cup.  

"The other one person that I think really helped him as well was Suaia Matagi. They were both in my team, and trying to get their visas," Henry said. 

"Steve Brewster, who was associated with the Auckland Rugby League, he started the ball rolling with their manager Tyrone Smith to try and get the guys to travel. 

"They drew inspiration from each other. When they saw each other in the Nines, it was a proud moment for them because only two years ago, they were at a local footy ground going through pre-season training. 

"It's pretty inspiring stuff for those guys, who are the same age, to both make it and then they played Nines. They've come along way and they both recognise that. It's a great story. For anyone that has dreams of trying to make it, they're two guys they can aspire to." 

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