Matagi passes life's greatest test
A year ago Suaia Matagi stood at the back of the soggy in-goal area at Warrington’s Halliwell Jones Stadium, received the ball with gritted teeth and ran as hard as he could at the nearest person in a black jersey.
Led by a rampaging Matagi, that game – which opened the World Cup campaigns of both Samoa and New Zealand – turned out to be one of the most physically-bruising international clashes in recent memory, revitalising a rivalry between two sides whose links run deep yet who have only played two tests against one another.
This Saturday in Whangarei the 26-year-old Warriors prop will be involved in another meeting between the nations, only this time it will be in a Kiwis jersey and last year’s victims will become his partners in battle.
The inclusion of Matagi on the bench is one of three changes made by New Zealand coach Stephen Kearney with Issac Luke returning from suspension to start at hooker and Manu Vatuvei replacing Gerard Beale on the bench, Bodene Thompson also included as 18th man.
One of four uncapped Kiwis in Kearney’s 24-man Four Nations party when it was announced, Matagi was named in the final squads for both Samoa and New Zealand but always knew the black-and-white jersey was the one he most coveted.
"I am really happy, it's a dream come true for me just to be in the squad," Matagi said.
"I have played for years for the New Zealand residents, I was born in New Zealand so I wasn’t really worried about anything [in relation to eligibility].
"They (Samoa) understood the opportunity that was there for me. I had a good talk with [Samoa coach] Matt Parish and he understood and he said go for it."
Earlier this year Matagi, whose parents were both born in Samoa, played a big role in getting them to the Four Nations, starring in the 32-16 victory over Fiji in May which secured the fourth spot alongside New Zealand, Australia and England.
"I was totally honoured and privileged to get the opportunity once again to represent Samoa. When I went over [to Australia] I was still hurting from last year's World Cup quarter-final loss to Fiji; that was my motivation to get the win," Matagi said.
"You leave the Samoan camp with something and you learn more about your Samoan culture. I went there not knowing anything and left with huge respect for the Samoan culture.
"I am New Zealand born but I am proud of being Samoan too."
A Test cap for New Zealand two years after making his NRL debut would in some instances make Matagi something of an overnight sensation but it has been a journey unlike many in the game have ever experienced.
After serving a year in prison in 2006 for an assault he committed whilst a teenager, Matagi vowed to find a better life through a sport in which he had never once played as a youngster.
Six years after making his rugby league debut in the Auckland Rugby League competition in 2008 – and going on to win the competition's player of the year award – Matagi received a phone call from Kearney that represented the latest significant victory in his life.
"To hear the joy and enthusiasm and excitement in his voice...," Kearney told NRL.com of informing Matagi of his selection in the Four Nations squad.
"I actually rang his manager, Tyran Smith, after I'd spoken to Suaia to check whether everything was all right because he didn't say much. Tyran said he'd spoken to him and that he didn't say much because he was too excited. In that regard, that's one of the pleasing parts of the role, to tell the boys they're in the squad of 24."
Such is his appreciation for the opportunity Matagi was even somewhat star-struck when the squad took a trip to Dream World when they first came into camp on the Gold Coast. "Honestly, this has been one of my other dreams, I never thought I would be here," Matagi said in the shadows of The Claw. "I've only ever seen it on TV so when I was walking through that gate I had a little flashback, I couldn't believe it."
It's been a meteoric rise for a man who recognised he was throwing his life away with the poor choices he was making as a kid and who by taking the field on Saturday evening will further distance himself from those who tried to drag him down.
"I just thank God that he gave me the vision and restoring my dream," said the 26-year-old who has played just 35 NRL games. "In the past I ashamed my wife and I ashamed my family name by the things I've done and I wasn't really happy with my past so my motivation came from my family and the love I have for my family.
"I knew if I channelled all my energies into something positive that I could make them proud so that was my motivation. People just letting me know that I'd never make it anywhere in life, that's what got me up early in the mornings to train, it gave me that vision of believing in something that I never knew that was possible.
"That was my motivation to keep striving and people who looked down on me gave me the fuel to wake up early in the morning and go and run on the roads. Now I'm finally here... oh bro... it's unreal eh."