Sione Mata’utia: A young breadwinner and record breaker

I never saw Reg Gasnier’s first Test appearance for Australia back in 1959.

At the time I was a schoolkid living in the country and had to be content to listen to a radio broadcast of the match that crackled with sounds of static.

It was the First Test at the Sydney Cricket Ground against the touring Kiwis, won 9-8 by the home side.

And I knew that what was happening 300 miles away was a piece of sporting history

At the time Gaz had played just seven senior matches for St George, one for Sydney and two for New South Wales. At the time it was the quickest rise to international status by any Australian, except those in the pioneering couple of years.

For the man they dubbed ‘Puff the Magic Dragon’ (after a well-known pop song) it was the start of a glorious international career.

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He scored a hat-trick of tries two weeks later against the Kiwis and, with the passing of another week, two more tries in the Third Test.

Gasnier remains to this day the finest exponent of Rugby League I have ever seen in more than half-a-century of watching ‘The Greatest Game of All’.

When Sione Mata’utia turns out for Australia against England on Sunday I reckon I will get a similar buzz.

Balmain centre Geoff Starling was only 18 years and 178 days old when he played in the first of his two matches for Australia on the short tour of New Zealand in 1971. This made him the youngest player ever to wear the green and gold for his country.

However, Starling is not the youngest to play Test Rugby League. That honour belongs to Israel Folau who was 18 years and 194 days old when he made his debut in October 2007.

Sione Mata’utia will beat that on Sunday – he will be just 18 years and 130 days.

And Mata’utia will equal Gasnier’s record of seven Premiership appearances prior to pulling on his first Test shirt.

Jim Lisle beat that figure with five games for South Sydney in 1962 – but he was already an established Test star in the Rah-Rahs before switching codes.


The recently departed Newcastle coach Wayne Bennett reckoned Sione Mata’utia will one day be the Knights skipper, such is his maturity.

“He has wonderful attributes and the great thing about him is, I’ll imagine one day he’ll captain the Knights and be a great player in Newcastle all his career,” Bennett said.

‘‘He played fullback for us, his preferred position is centre, and he has played great on the wing.

“Captaining the Knights is a long way away for him but I’m sure one day that’s where he’ll be heading.”

What a family is the Mata’utia clan!

Peter who plays for St George (and will be Samoa’s fullback in the Four Nations) will turn 24 next month. Chanel, who made his NRL debut in the same match as Sione, is 22 and lurking in the lower grades at Newcastle is Pat, who turns 23 next month.

The four used to play backyard footy together in a modest Newcastle suburb – the eldest and youngest pitted against the two others to even up the talents.

But everyone suspects Sione and Peter had the edge – because of the former’s immense talent.

They had a tough upbringing. Their single mum, Matalena Mata’utia, taught them a credo: “It’s more important to have a roof over your head, than food on the table.”

And she worked at two jobs to provide that roof for the four boys and two nieces who could no longer be cared for by their ailing mother.

“It was important that we had each other … family was the biggest thing for us,” Peter recalled.

“To be honest, I can’t ever really remember having a proper birthday cake.

“We got no birthday presents. We just couldn’t afford them. At Christmas we got presents from the [charity organisation] Smith Family.

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“Mum did everything for us, but sometimes we couldn’t even afford to have a proper dinner.

“Sometimes it was just bread for breakfast, lunch and dinner.

“As Mum said, ‘It’s better to have a roof over your head, than food on the table’. So we sacrificed to afford a place to live.”

One gets the feeling that in the future Matalena Mata’utia, thanks to her four boys, will not only always have a roof over her head – but there will also be plenty of food on the table.