Matai Warrior: How Manly's star was forged in Ipswich
WHEN STEVE Matai runs out for Manly in the NRL grand final clash with the Sydney Roosters on Sunday he will carry with him a legacy forged in Ipswich.
When Matai left his home in New Zealand in 2004 as a raw-boned teenager, he had a lot to learn about the game.
But fortunately for him he lobbed at the Ipswich Jets where then-coach Trevor Gillmeister fine tuned his skills.
Now the Manly centre is known as one of the toughest players in the game.
Gillmeister was known as one of the most ferocious tacklers the game has ever seen and Ipswich Jets chairman Steve Johnson says his ethos has rubbed off on Matai.
"We brought him across as an unknown player and Trevor taught him his defence and a bit of the Gillmeister lack of respect for your own body," Johnson grins.
"Steve was always a courageous kid, but Trevor taught him the importance of impact in the collision and the transference of his body weight correctly.
"Gilly worked long and hard with him and toughened him up too when he first came over.
"He was a quiet kid and Trevor encouraged him and challenged him mentally and physically."
By the time Matai had finished the 2004 season Johnson says the transformation was complete.
"He became an outstandingly awesome defender and you just waited for his rattles...and they came regularly," Johnson says.
"Steve rang that bell continually and Gilly taught him how to ring that bell. He is a much bigger player than Trevor so he is able to stand tall, drop his shoulder and whack guys.
"Trevor came from lower and drove up because of his size. He was more about timing than your technique. Anyone that Gilly mentors defensively can hit."
Matai has done a lot of hard work and now doesn't make the timing errors he once made when he was younger.
"Steve got too brave for his own good at one stage, but over the years he has learned," Johnson says.
"He has really improved his running game as well. Over the years he has strived to get better and he has. That is one of the lessons Trevor teaches young players."
Gillmeister, now assistant coach at the Titans, says Matai was a player he "liked from day one".
"You could tell he had the talent…even though he was raw as hell," Gillmeister says.
"He always had that aggression, which is something you can't teach.
"He wanted to go home (to New Zealand) but I said, 'Hang in there and give yourself a chance because you are born with footwork and good timing in attack and defence'.
"Manly deserve a lot of credit. They have got him in good nick and he obviously worked hard to put himself in a position to play good, consistent first-grade footy.
"Blokes coming down his side of the field know they are a chance of getting hurt. That is the name of the game as far as I am concerned."
Matai didn't have it easy when he came to Ipswich either.
The club put Matai in a sponsor's house, got him a vehicle and sent him to work with Chesterfield Builders.
Former Queensland Origin hero Craig Teevan was CEO of the Jets at the time and recalls that Matai toiled away in the Ipswich heat.
"Back then Chesterfield Builders was doing a development out at Bellbowrie that involved laying a lot of turf," Teevan recalls.
"It was really tough for him - and on the odd occasion he wouldn't show because he was just too sore - but that was just Steve getting acclimatised.
"But once he did that, he did everything we asked of him and made the most of it.
"It was a pretty tough environment that we put him in. He wasn't sitting behind a desk cruising. He was away from family and battling away in front of small crowds.
"It was a bit of a wake-up call for him to get in and get his hands dirty, but to his credit he stuck at it and did the right thing. He had good goals in his life and it was good to see him achieving them.
"Steve came here for very little financial reward, but he trialled well and I think he played every Queensland Cup game that year."
While he may be a ferocious character on the field, off it Matai is a pleasure to know.
Teevan says he got to see that first-hand.
"My sons were ball boys out at Ipswich at the time and they said how Steve was always very friendly to them," he says.
"If there was a break in play he'd find time to talk to them.
"The boys remember it and that is why they have followed him all the way through."
With a young family of his own, Matai has learned how to juggle the demands of a professional career and family life.
Gillmeister says he is a great example in that regard.
"The beauty about Steve is that he is one of those blokes that can turn on and turn off when he has to," Gillmeister says.
"Every time the Titans play Manly we always say g'day. He is a nice fella and you like to see those blokes do well."