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Surely Sione Mata'utia has appeased footy gods by now

Surely the debt has been settled.

If Sione Mata’utia had to pay a high price for such a charmed start to his career, he must have appeased the rugby league gods by now.

At the end of 2014, aged 18 years and 129 days, and after just seven NRL games for Newcastle, the prodigiously talented teenager became the youngest player to represent Australia.

Those dream days were followed by three nightmare seasons in which the Knights finished last.

To add injury to insult, in 2017, a series of head knocks and concussions threatened his career.

But as the Knights count down the final days to the start of the 2019 season, and 22-year-old Mata’utia looks to tick off the 10 games he needs to reach his 100th in the NRL, he is entitled to believe there are better times ahead.

"They were just the cards we were dealt. It was pretty tough but we took a lot out of those years, and the thing I do remember was it was still fun," Mata’utia told NRL.com.

Knights season preview - NRL Teams

"Being so young, you’d still rock up at training with a good attitude because you wanted to learn.

"There was one season there when we only won one game so it was very tough at times, but we got slowly better and better and we took so many lessons from those years and I think we’re better players for it now."

Mata’utia played in the back row against the Dragons and at left centre against the Sharks in Newcastle’s trials, but he is not guaranteed a place in Nathan Brown’s 17 for the season-opener against Cronulla at McDonald Jones Stadium on Friday night.

He is OK with that.

It motivates him to become better.

"This pre-season has been pretty challenging for me personally," Mata’utia said.

"I’m one of the only players still here from 2014 I suppose.

"In those first few years, not that I ever thought I was guaranteed a position, but I always knew I was probably in the top two in whatever position I was going to play. But this time around, I’ve really got to fight for a position and I’m not guaranteed a position for round one, or throughout the season.

"This time around, there’s a lot more challenges because there’s a lot more talent, a lot more experience, and it’s been pretty cool to see how I’ve taken that challenge on.

"Brownie told me from day one at pre-season training that I had to knuckle down and really work hard and that changed me a lot as a player, and I’ve learnt a lot of lessons from that."

Brown explained Mata’utia, who is engaged to schoolyard sweetheart Hannah Eyles and is the father of their 15-month-old daughter Amiyah, has grown up on the field, and off it.

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The bumps and bruises he received in those Newcastle teams that took beating after beating have toughened him up.

That boy is now a man.

"Sione achieved a lot and got given a lot after a very, very small amount of games, and he was probably thrown into the wolves a bit into a club that was struggling, so I’m really confident Si’s going to have a good year this year," Brown said.

The Knights won just one game in 2016, and of the 16 games Mata’utia played that season, their 18-16 victory over Wests Tigers was not one of them.

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"I think apart from his first five or six games, Sione has been in a team that’s struggled, and he was a young kid in a team that struggled," Brown said.

"He got his role with Australia at such a young age, before he really matured or played a lot of good footy, where most people represent Australia after they’ve played a number of years of good footy.

"So everything happened very young for him, and with that weight of expectation and money, that can probably be not a fair task for a younger player, especially at a struggling club.

"But where he’s at now, for me, he’s up near 100 games already, so he’s played a lot of footy, but now he’s very, very stable, and his off-field is really stable.

"He’s gone from being the young kid, like all young kids and larrikins, to now being settled. He’s got a partner, he’s engaged and he’s got a little one, so that part of his life is really, really stable now, and I reckon that’s what’s going to benefit his footy the most.

"As well as that he gets to play with blokes like Dave Klemmer, Timmy Glasby, Mitchell Pearce – blokes who have been big achievers in the game – and he gets to see how those blokes prepare."

Making good on former coach Wayne Bennett’s 2014 prediction that he was a future Newcastle captain, Mata’utia indeed skippered the Knights in 15 games in 2017. Many of those were in the pack but he now feels equally comfortable in the forwards or at centre.

"I’ve come to accept that I can play two positions fairly well," he said.

Dejected Knights Sione Mata'utia and Mitch Barnett.
Dejected Knights Sione Mata'utia and Mitch Barnett. ©Shane Myers/NRL Photos

"Centre was a position I played a fair bit of as a junior so I could fall back to that naturally, and back row is something I’ve learned in the last two years and I feel like I’ve started to feel more comfortable there and know my role.

"I’ve got two positions now, so let’s just leave it at that."

The youngest of four footballing brothers, and the only one still playing for the Knights, he enjoys the extra responsibility of being one of the club’s leaders – despite his age.

"It’s weird for someone like Beau Fermor to come up and ask me for tips when I’m only a year older than him, so I still wig out a little bit at that," he said.

"I’ve accepted that role to try and be a young leader, but it’s good to have so many experienced players around here now.

"They take most of the reins with that and we’re just in the background helping out the other boys, so I guess I was just pretty fortunate to start playing so young."

Though Pearce has been named Newcastle’s sole skipper for 2019, Brown expects Mata’utia will still have a role to play as one of the club’s leaders.

"There was a time there where he was probably our most experienced player nearly, and at a young age, so it was probably a little bit too much responsibility placed on him," Brown said.

"But it was what it was where the club was, but now he’s got some good leaders to look to.

"They can support him but he can support them as well, and long-term, I’m sure he can see himself playing a big part in the club’s future."

Mata’utia misses playing with his brothers, but cherishes the times they were all at the Knights.

I should have been taking the off-field more seriously and having fun on the field.

Sione Mata'utia

They still inspire him, and make sure he keeps smiling.

"Chanel and Pat have gone back to the local league here, and it’s good to see my older brother Peter over there really enjoying his footy playing Super League [for Castleford]. That’s something I’ve taken from him, to really enjoy my footy," Mata’utia said.

"The last couple of years, there were a few times when I took it a bit too seriously. My off-field wasn’t as serious as it should have been so I had things the wrong way around.

"I should have been taking the off-field more seriously and having fun on the field, so that’s been a big focus of my pre-season.

"Having a little one with my partner, moving out together, it’s keeping me really grounded and it’s been fun playing footy in our trials so far."

If the rugby league gods are fair-minded, Mata’utia must owe them nothing.

Surely his ledger is square.