Manly stalwarts face first ever finals miss
Manly centre Steve Matai has played 220 first grade games so far in a career spanning 11 seasons – and right now he has no idea what it's like to celebrate Mad Monday after Round 26.
The hard-hitting 31-year-old has remarkably seen his side ride into September to play finals footy in every one of his 10 previous seasons of first grade.
Matai's debut finals campaign was admittedly brief – the eighth-placed Sea Eagles were dumped out in week one by minor premiers Parramatta 46-22 under the old McIntyre system in 2005 – although the history books have shown far greater successes in the ensuing years, including two premierships in 2008 and 2011.
But with his side needing little short of a miracle to overhaul a 61-point for-and-against as well as a two-point ladder disadvantage on the eighth-placed Dragons, Matai conceded he is approaching Sunday's trip to Remondis as his final game of the season.
"It's going to be pretty weird – I've never finished the competition this early," he said.
"We usually play deep into September and to be sitting at home watching will be quite disappointing."
Matai afforded himself a smile at the suggestion his battered body may enjoy the unusually early finish to the season.
"Yeah, broken nose, broken finger, thumb, ankle, I'm looking forward to a rest," he laughed. "But in saying that I'm hoping that we can make the eight."
Those admittedly long odds may well stretch to the impossible by the time the side take the field on Sunday if the Dragons win on Saturday.
"We've dug ourselves out of holes before but this is a pretty big hole. I don't know, hopefully we can get out of it," Matai said of their ladder situation.
However he was still hoping to give outgoing coach and club legend Geoff Toovey – as well as close mate, Parramatta-bound five-eighth Kieran Foran – a more appropriate farewell than what the side produced in its last two losses against the Roosters and Eels.
"For sure, especially after out last two performances, they haven't been too convincing but we want to send Tooves and Foz off on a good note and hopefully we can," he said.
Senior men Jamie Lyon, Feleti Mateo and Justin Horo are among those to have missed making the finals while at previous clubs, while long-serving fullback Brett Stewart was around for Manly's early exits in 2003 and 2004. Star halves Kieran Foran and Daly Cherry-Evans have also not missed a campaign in their NRL careers.
Winger Jorge Taufua hasn't been at the club as long as Matai but at 23 and in his fourth season of NRL with Manly is another who's never tasted the disappointment of missing an NRL finals series.
"I'm not used to going out this early and a lot of the boys here aren't so we're just going to do our best this weekend and wish for some luck," Taufua said.
"There's a slim chance we might make it but we just want to pick up. The last couple of weeks haven't been good for us. There's one more game to try and go out with some pride.
"We had a good run there for about a month and a half and the last fortnight hasn't been good for us. I can't put my finger on what's happened but the attitude and the confidence is still there within the team and we'll carry that into this week."