Sione Mata’utia made his NRL debut for Newcastle in July 2014, one month after turning 18.
If Wayne Bennett had his way, it would have come a lot earlier that season, but NRL age restrictions prevented it.
Wearing jersey No. 20 and playing fullback, the teen sensation helped a spare-parts Newcastle team shock the Sydney Roosters 16-12. Afterwards, Bennett, in his final season as Knights coach, famously and prophetically described Mata’utia as a future captain and club great.
It is only fitting then that Bennett will be at ANZ Stadium on Friday – albeit in the South Sydney coach’s box – when Mata’utia, two weeks short of his 23rd birthday, plays his 100th NRL game.
“I’m just so grateful for the position that I’m in, and it’s crazy how far it’s come,” Mata’utia told a media conference in Newcastle on Tuesday.
The youngest of four brothers who all represented the Knights, the South Newcastle and Raymond Terrace junior enjoyed a whirlwind start to his senior career, playing just seven NRL games before representing Australia in the Four Nations tournament later that year.
At the age of 18 years and 129 days, he became the youngest player to represent his country when he ran on for the Kangaroos against England at AAMI Park on November 2.
There have been more troughs than peaks since then as the Knights endured the leanest stretch in their history, finishing last in 2015, 2016 and 2017.
He and brothers Chanel and Pat were caught in a contractual tug of war between Canterbury and Newcastle, which the Knights eventually won, he suffered a series of career-threatening concussions in 2017, and fell out of favour with representative selectors after switching to the forwards.
Still, he smiles when he reflects on his career so far, and feels certain the struggles of the past will only make any future success taste sweeter.
“It was a rocky road there,” he said.
“My debut was a roller-coaster, [playing] those seven games into some representative games, and the tough years to follow after that which I didn’t really see coming as a young kid.
“Those three or four years were very tough for the club, and the town as well, [but] we had plenty of support and they ride the highs and lows with us as well.
“To still be here after those years and seeing some positive results is pretty satisfying, and I’m very proud of the boys’ efforts in the last couple of years.
“We’re still moving forward and still got a lot to improve on and I’m just grateful I get to do what I love to do every day, and that’s playing footy.”
Mata’utia feels indebted to his mother, Matalena, for ensuring he and brothers Peter, Pat and Chanel got to all the training sessions and games they played as children, and sisters Sylvia, Josephine and Jana “for always helping out”.
His family now includes his fiancée, Hannah Eyles, and their 18-month-old daughter Amiyah, and they all continue to inspire him as he plays his part in Newcastle’s revival.
Mata’utia though of hiring a coach to transport his personal cheer squad – “about 35 on my side and 10 or 12 more on my partner’s side” – to Homebush to witness his milestone game against the Rabbitohs on Friday.
“But it came out a bit expensive so I told them they have to drive down now,” he laughed.
Though he came close to joining the Bulldogs earlier in his career, Mata’utia never wanted to leave and has no intention of leaving the Knights. Contracted until the end of 2021, the versatile utility wants to be a member of the next Newcastle team to win a premiership.
“I definitely want to be a one-club man, that’s for sure,” he said.
“It was always a thing for us brothers to stay in Newcastle. I think that was first and foremost … and it’s hard to leave.
“We grew up here and my Mum was here at that time. We nearly left, but thankfully there were other plans sorted and we got to stick around, and I’m very happy that we did.”
He also still yearns to wear the green and gold again, or represent NSW on the Origin stage.
“I couldn’t explain the feeling of playing for Australia, but it’s a feeling I want to have again,” he said.
“It’s a very addictive feeling but I’ve got a lot of hard work ahead of me. Every week, every year, there’s new players coming in producing good talent, but that’s the challenge ahead of me.”