Mateo the character the Warriors needed

Wayne Bennett wanted it at Newcastle, so he brought in Willie Mason. The Tigers have it in Beau Ryan, the Roosters in Jared Waerea-Hargreaves. It’s a player with a character that can transcend 25 other voices and break the ice – a personality that brings something a little different to the dressing sheds.

From the outside, there’s no denying that the Warriors have a host of cheeky blokes to generate the laughs at the club. But sometimes a big personality comes from the unlikeliest source.

“Anywhere Feleti’s going to go, he’s going to be the centre of attention. He’s one of those guys that everyone loves being around,” says Parramatta prop Tim Mannah of his former team-mate Feleti Mateo. “He and [Krisnan] Inu left Parra’ at the same time, and they both have that kind of personality that adds a lot to the team.

“Feleti is one of those players that on the field he can create a lot with his skill as well. He’s been doing really well at the Warriors and I think he adds a bit of an X-factor to any team he’s in.”

Mateo’s ball skills have long been talked about, but his off-field persona, not so much. But you only need to chat to him for a few minutes (or check out his Twitter account) to get the feeling that he’s someone that can command a room.

Far be it for Mateo to give himself a rap, though. Instead, he points to a culture at the Warriors that has been built from many years of close contact.

“You feel really close to the boys over here. I think it’s because there are no other teams here, you don’t have a chance to interact with any other players from other clubs,” Mateo tells Big League. “You’re forced to see those blokes every day and hang out with them away from training. You get to know them more, and their partners and kids. The relationships become a lot stronger and it’s going to help you on the field.”

This is Mateo’s second year at the Warriors, and with a Grand Final appearance right off the bat in 2011, his on-field performances have been helped along by the strong bonds he’s formed living in Auckland.

I’ve settled here with my fiancé, and I really love the club and the city,” he says. “The weather’s not too good at the moment, but you get to go to training every day and the guys really brighten everything up. I think we’ve got a really good culture at the club, and that’s what I loved when I first signed to come here. There’s no one that’s cocky or anything like that, everyone is really humble here which makes it easy to get along with everyone. When it’s time to work the boys really put their heads down and go.

He’s fitted in so well that the locals mistake him for a Kiwi. The Sydney-born and -raised son of a Tongan father and English mother still has to remind people he can’t pull on the all black strip.

“I have a lot of people say ‘Kia Ora’ to me, until they hear me speak,” Mateo says with a laugh. “If they don’t get the accent I have to fill them in and say, ‘Nah this isn’t home, home is Sydney’. I fit the script pretty well with the tattoos and skin colour, but not many people know that I don’t actually have a New Zealand background.”

Mateo’s eligibility has long been the subject of intense discussion, with the 27-year-old forced to give up his mantle as captain of Tonga to declare his allegiance to Australia in order to be in with a chance of playing State of Origin.

Still, playing for the country that forms a big part of his cultural heritage is something that Mateo will always cherish, and something he learned from as a player and a person.

“Representative-wise I think if anyone can say they captained their country, it’s a great feat,” he says. “I haven’t got a win as captain for Tonga yet, but definitely leading the boys out there and leading that anthem, they’re really proud moments that I’ve had in my career. I hold that jersey pretty close to my heart.

“Just the experiences you have in camp with the boys, it’s a different feeling to NRL. You really hold onto those memories.”

In the meantime, those experiences have helped him play some of the best footy of his career for the Warriors – and the personalities at the club know what’s required of them to make another amazing run to the finals.

“It’s always in the back of our minds. We’re capable,” Mateo says. “Teams we’re playing are pretty aware of how dangerous we can be when we put it together. The encouraging sign is that we’re not playing to the best of our ability, but we have confidence we can reach our full potential.”