Despondent after the Broncos' defeat to Melbourne in Round 15, Te Maire Martin instantly lights up when you remind him that just eight games into his return to the NRL, he’s off to Kiwis camp.
Martin, of Māori descent, played four matches for the Kiwis prior to his two-and-a-half year break from rugby league due to serious health concerns.
His last match in a black jumper was a 36-18 loss to England in Denver in 2018.
Now, with just a handful of games in the top grade under his belt, he's hoping to pick up a few ideas to get his club back to winning ways as he embarks on what is set to be an unforgettable experience — joining the wider Kiwis squad in a long-awaited return of elite rugby league to New Zealand.
Having played five-eighth in his last Test appearance in 2018, the crafty playmaker could slot into fullback, halves or even a bench utility role come game day this time around against the power-packed Tongan side.
“I’m pretty excited to be honest. I’ve been out for three years and been back eight games and being able to be in the Kiwis squad is amazing,” Martin said.
“Obviously the selectors think you’re doing something right but I think it’s more of a reflection of how the Broncos are going.
“I’m just stoked to be in the squad. Whether I play or not, I’m not too fussed. It’s a pretty good squad and whoever they choose, it will be a good team.
"I’m just really excited and stoked to be a part of it.
“I have a feeling it’s going to be a fast week, so I’ve got to soak it all in. I love being around the Kiwi boys and I’ve been in a few camps now so I’m pretty excited to tag along.”
There’s also the carrot of the World Cup squad at the end of the year, giving Martin more encouragement to build on his fitness and skills still returning to him after so long away, and the prospect of a new NRL contract with the Broncos.
But both of those ideas couldn’t be further from his mind as he prepares for a trip home to reward long-suffering New Zealand rugby league lovers after 960 days – about 100 days more than Martin spent out of the NRL – without a top-level match.
The Kiwis took down Great Britain 23-8 on November 9, 2019 in the last sojourn on home soil in Christchurch, and Martin hopes the 17 taking on Tonga can give them just rewards with a return win.
“I think the league supporters back home will be looking to deck out Mt Smart because they haven’t seen many live games for some time. It will be a good atmosphere whether you’re playing or not,” Martin said.
“It gives the younger kids something to look up to instead of watching on TV all the time. When you get a big crowd it’s such a good feeling at Mt Smart Stadium. It’s unreal.”
Match: New Zealand v Mate Ma'a Tonga
Round 1 -
Mate Ma'a Tonga
Venue: Mt Smart Stadium, Auckland
His hope is it inspires more Kiwis to play the game, and few know better than Martin about the immense talent lurking at the grassroots.
The Turangawaewae junior quietly made a return to rugby league last year with Taharoa Steelers in the Waikato Rugby League – and he will tell you he was far from the best player there.
“There’s some wicked players in that comp, they just need the opportunity that I got. There’s only four or five teams in the competition I played in last year and there’s a lot of players there that are a lot more talented than I am,” he said.
“It’s good the Warriors get to go back there too, so hopefully they get to scour some local talent because there’s definitely some good talent there.”