Powerhouse Panthers forward Sika Manu has revealed increased freedom and the opportunity to develop into a leader were the key reasons behind his decision to leave former club Melbourne – who he meets for the first time on Sunday at the foot of the mountains.
A member of the Storm’s all-conquering squad from 2007-2012, Manu left Craig Bellamy’s fold after last year’s grand final triumph, signing a three-year deal with Penrith. Manu said the decision was difficult, but one that was the best decision for his family and, playing under Penrith coach Ivan Cleary, something that is allowing him to better showcase his range of skills.
“Melbourne [made me] an offer, but I thought it was time to move on both as a player and for my family,” Manu, who’s scored four tries in eight games this season, told NRL.com.
“My manager had a few other offers, I think, but Penrith’s stood out. It is a different style up here. Penrith allow me a bit more freedom while Melbourne are much more structured. Ivan’s given me more freedom than I had in Melbourne.
“I’m allowed to do a bit more ball-playing – use a bit more skill. In Melbourne I… was limited.”
A 14-Test and 96-game NRL veteran, Manu said a tour of the local Penrith area with club General Manager Phil Gould helped him make up his mind.
“Towards the end of the season Phil Gould took us around the stadium and the area and we knew we could live here – I knew it was the right decision for my little family,” Manu said.
“[Gould] was pretty good – he left the decision to us. He wasn’t pushy, but he showed us everything that’s good about the area. The people are the best – they’re really friendly... we’ve found it to be the perfect area for us.
“The change has been good. It’s different but it’s a great place for me to bring up my little family. I’ve a partner Beatrice and a 19-month-old son Jordan, and we love the area. I live just five minutes from training too so it’s really handy.”
This Sunday, Manu and his teammates face the might of the ladder-leading Storm at Centrebet Stadium. It’s another huge test of character – and ability – for the struggling Panthers, currently sitting 13th on the premiership table following just two victories this season. The Wellington-born back-rower, though, insists he won’t be caught up in personal battles against his former clubmates.
“I’m trying not to think about it. I’m going to play it as if it’s just another game,” Manu said.
“It’d be awesome to get a win. That’s our goal – that’s our goal every week. We’re confident we can do it, too.
“We’re just lacking a little bit of confidence. We can play. We played a really good game [in Round 7] and we beat Parramatta by quite a bit. We obviously can play; we just need to build that confidence every week… when we get it we’ll be hard to stop.
“We haven’t won many but a few losses have only been by a few points. The future looks bright.”
The personal duels with his former teammates, though, will be hard to overlook for Manu this weekend. The men he faces-off against this Sunday helped shape him into the player he is today – and the memories he shared with them are some he’ll hold onto forever.
“In the first couple of rounds I did [find it odd playing in Panthers colours], but I’ve been here for a while now so it’s really sinking in and it’s good,” Manu said.
“[I learnt] a bit off everyone, obviously Bellamy taught me a lot, but Cooper Cronk, Cameron Smith and Billy Slater – they’re high-quality players I learned a lot of stuff of too. I’ve learned off all of them.
“[I’ve got great memories from there including] the premiership at the end of last year, all the tough pre-seasons they put us through.”
Despite the great memories and the Panthers’ poor start this season, Manu doesn’t regret leaving Melbourne. His new role at the foot of the mountains – and his increased sense of freedom – genuinely excites him.
“In Melbourne Cooper Cronk, Cameron Smith and those types of guys direct you around the park and you listen to them. You do what you’re told,” Manu said.
“I feel like more of a leader here. I’m really enjoying it.”