Mature Mata'utia braced for biggest Test
It's been a big three months for Newcastle youngster Sione Mata'utia.
The Raymond Terrace junior only turned 18 in June. In 2012 he was playing Harold Matthews Cup – the NSW under-16s competition – and last year was still playing SG Ball, the NSW under-18s competition.
Had it not been for injuries to incumbent Knights wingers James McManus and Akuila Uate, Mata'utia – who spent most of 2014 in the Knights NYC side – almost certainly wouldn't have been called up to make his NRL debut, which happened in July, in Round 20 against the Roosters.
He probably wouldn't have had the chance to score seven tries in seven NRL games to help the Knights finish the NRL season strongly.
He probably have wouldn't have been the surprise bolter of the Kangaroos train-on squad and the Prime Minister's XIII, and consequently not had the opportunity to impress national coach Tim Sheens with his maturity and professionalism in Papua New Guinea.
Which in turn means he probably wouldn't have had the chance to become Australia's youngest-ever Test player against England a fortnight ago, aged 18 years and 129 days, eclipsing Israel Folau's seven-year-old record by 65 days.
He added a second Test cap a week later, against Samoa – the country of his parents and his heritage – an experience he readily admits caused mixed emotions for him.
In those two Tests Mata'utia has looked right at home, producing some good takes under the high ball and getting through plenty of runs, racking up 239 metres from 20 carries.
But if you really want a sign of Mata'utia's maturity and composure, look at the way he cost himself a first ever Test try last week.
In a game in which fellow rookies David Klemmer and Josh Mansour eventually crossed for their first tries in green and gold, not even two minutes had elapsed when a strong charge and offload from fullback Greg Inglis inside the Aussies' half sent the 18-year-old streaking down the right touchline.
Showing plenty of toe, Mata'utia found himself one-on-one with Samoa fullback Tim Simona – with Cooper Cronk looming on his inside and some open paddock and the corner post beckoning him to his right.
The temptation to shoot for glory must have been immense and there's every chance if Mata'utia hit the afterburners and backed himself he may have got there.
Instead he drifted right, held up the pass, drew the fullback, and at the last instant fired it inside to earn Cronk a guaranteed four points.
That play – selfless and perfectly executed – should, as much as anything he's displayed so far, show why he is so highly rated by those in the know.
"Yeah, I was thinking about it!" Mata'utia laughs when asked by NRL.com whether he was tempted to hog the glory.
"I was just saying to Coops before – what would it look like if I had've gone for it and got tackled short?
"I'm big about my looks and I wasn't sure if I wanted to do that so I just gave it to Coops," he says with another grin.
"That was the important thing for the team, I just wanted someone to get there and I had Coops pushing up on my inside. It was a good run from GI too."
Mata'utia – who, arguably, was caught out once in defence on debut coming in on England centre Dan Sarginson allowing Ryan Hall to score – says defence was the main focus for him after the first game.
"There was some stuff that me and my edge had to work on [after the England game], especially in defence. There were some compliments too but there were areas I needed to work on and hopefully it showed [in the Samoa game]," he says.
He adds the reality of being a Test player had only started to sink in after that first game.
"It was a good experience and something I'll remember forever. To get a second jersey was awesome; I didn't expect it – you're not expecting to play every game as a junior. But it's been good so far.
"Next week is going to be a big one, hopefully playing my first ever Aussie final, first ever Four Nations final, it's going to be a big learning curve for me. I just can't wait to enjoy the experience and that's what it's all about, having fun and getting the experience. And I hope I get a meat pie!"
Reflecting on the vanquished Samoan outfit, Mata'utia was clearly torn over the somewhat bittersweet victory, which came in front of a vocal Samoan contingent at a packed WIN Stadium at Wollongong.
"Both my parents are Samoan. The crowd weren't holding back with a bit of sledging but it was a good experience. I had mixed emotions during the anthem and the haka but it was a good learning curve for me.
"I was born in Australia but at home we speak Samoan; my parents speak Samoan. It was a bit difficult but I chose to play for my country in Australia and I backed myself there and I'm glad I chose it because we're into the finals."
But he is also proud of what Toa Samoa was able to achieve in the tournament, going agonisingly close to wins over both England and New Zealand.
"They weren't here just to fill numbers and they showed that. They were here to compete. They were very unlucky to lose the first two games but that's footy too. That just shows the competition has risen a bit."