Why lock is key to Parramatta's season

His style is reminiscent of locks of old, and Feleti Mateo could be the crucial element to the Eels’ premiership charge. Joe Barton reports for Big League magazine...

Premiership favourites leading into Round 1, Parramatta were ambushed by a St George Illawarra side hell-bent on exacting revenge for their contribution in ruining the end of Wayne Bennett’s first season at the club.

It will not be enough to send fan expectation into a tailspin just yet – at least the sane ones who know competitions aren’t won in March – but they will be quietly wondering whether the “spark” that ignited them last season is still flickering somewhere.

The key to finding it could rest with the mature young bloke in the pack who will never get cornrows because his “mum would hate it”. A local junior and self-proclaimed hip-hop superstar of the NRL, Feleti Mateo is more than happy to proclaim he enjoys the added pressure.

“We have pressure when we’re under the pump and pressure when we’re going good,” Mateo laughs. “I don’t mind it either way – I’ve had pressure on me when we weren’t going well, so it goes both ways.”

Parramatta fans know Jarryd Hayne is their superstar at the back, but Mateo is the man who gives them the edge over rival teams – because while most sides these days have a dynamic fullback, nobody has a lock forward quite like Mateo.

A quick scan of the teamsheets sees less and less “traditional” locks – Great Britain prop Sam Burgess made his NRL debut last weekend, former Queensland prop Nate Myles did the same for the Roosters; most teams plug jersey 13 with a hard-working tackler.

But the 24-year-old Mateo is a throwback to the great locks of the past few decades, where attack was as important as defence.

It brings a smile to the face of arguably the greatest ever lock forward to grace the rugby league field – Canberra’s Brad Clyde.

“I always viewed the lock position, even back to when I was playing and prior to that, was that it was a link between the forwards and the backs,” Clyde explains.

“But for me, the lock has got to be a footy player – he’s got to be able to understand the game and adapt accordingly to his style.

“He has to be creative, he has to be out there enjoying his footy; that’s my style of lock.”

All attributes Mateo has in spades.

“He certainly has a lot of skill and has proven himself at this level…I see him continuing to grow,” Clyde adds.

“He’s still got quite a lot to learn in the game, but as far as his style and everything goes, he could find himself in the backs or the forwards and I think that is an important ingredient when you’re picking you’re lock.

“You need one of those all-round players who lend themselves to helping the team however the game evolves.

“Feleti is exciting though, I certainly hope that he’s around and we’re talking about him as one of the great lock forwards over the next five years, because he has been blessed with a lot of those credentials, the natural skills.”

Mateo’s natural ball skills; his ability to stand in traffic and hang onto the ball with one hand making it look like a cricket ball before flinging it to an on-rushing opponent has been honed on the basketball courts at Lalor Park where he still regularly throws down with his brother.

The Mateo boys go one-on-one imitating their favourite players – Feleti normally assumes the role of the best player in the NBA, Cleveland Cavaliers star LeBron James, who is himself well known for his incredible feats of athleticism.

“I sort of mix my game up week-to-week, I call myself LeBron and Carmelo (Anthony),” Mateo reveals when asked to describe what he brings to the court.

“So I just mix it up and try to shoot the jumper or take it to the hole…I’m happy with whatever. If it goes in then that’s what counts.

“I play a fair bit of basketball, just streetball down at the local courts where I live. It seems to help with the hand-eye coordination and letting go of the ball.”

Mateo readily admits last season’s dramatic revival came off the back of Hayne’s freakish purple patch of form, but this season he wants to be at the centre of any similar runs.

The Tongan international was Parramatta’s best on ground in last year’s grand final loss to Melbourne and was again among their best as they fell short against St George Illawarra in the nail-biting Round 1 clash last week.

But can he keep lifting his game to new heights?
 
“I hope so, because I’m not planning on changing anything too much. I am going to play the same way I usually play and hopefully produce some more of it, the big aim for me is to increase my minutes and have quality while I’m out there,” says Mateo, who played 53 minutes and made 35 tackles against the Dragons.

“I’m obviously more notable for my attacking game, but Ando (coach Daniel Anderson) has just said that if I can be sound in defence and do my job, that’s all he is asking of me.

“I know I’m not going to smash anyone or anything like that, but if I can hold my spot in D and do my job, then hopefully I can work on my attacking game.

“I’ve played the same sort of role at Parramatta for the last few years, and don’t think it is going to change.”

Captaining his country in the off-season became one of the highlights of Mateo’s burgeoning career, but the gifted playmaker is still torn between wearing the red and white of Tonga and the sky blue of NSW.

Mateo added to his national caps when he captained the Tonga in the Pacific Cup late last year, an experience he describes as “very special”, but he refuses to let go of his goal of one day representing his birth state in rugby league’s toughest arena.

“I still want to play Origin,” he explains.

“It was great to play for Tonga, and to captain them was a bonus too, so it was a shame we couldn’t get a win…but my ambition is to play Origin this year.

“Whether it happens or not is a different story. I’m just going to work towards that and maybe put my hand up for City-Country when that comes along.

“I’m not going to say too much, but if I can put some good games together at the start of the year maybe I can get my name tossed up at the right point in the year.

“Everyone dreams to play Origin, and it’s still one of my dreams. I’m still eligible, so if it comes around of course I’d love to play.”