Manu Ma’u is on his way to Super League next season. Hull FC fans can rub their hands in anticipation. Everyone else better find somewhere to hide!
Words: Matthew Shaw
A sudden dose of intimidation ignited in my core as the phone dialled out to Manu Ma’u. Ma’u is proclaimed the scariest man in the NRL. A man who, a few days earlier, had not only squared up to top NRL enforcer David Klemmer, but then searched him out and stared into his soul with his dark, terrifying eyes. The tattoos that creep out of his collar up to his neck and the scar under his right eye where titanium plates are fitted into his face add to the frightening presence. Andrew Fifita, one of the most destructive, dominant forwards in world rugby, admitted to ‘sh*****g bricks’ when asked to call Ma’u and see if he would be interested in playing for Tonga by head coach Kristian Woolf.
Now it was my turn. And I know how Fifita felt. My job was to grill him on his reasons for leaving the NRL, his time spent as a gangster on the streets of Auckland and in a prison cell. The dialling tone stopped. Ma’u answered. The anxiety increased.
“Hello,” he said inquisitively, with a sternness in his voice. After a few minutes of small talk, any preconceptions were quickly out of the window. Ma’u was keen to talk about Warrington’s Wembley success, his birthday weekend and more.
What you see on the field is not what you get off it. “I just laugh the reputation off,” he says with a deep chuckle.
“People mention the eyes to me all the time. But it’s not an act. If you look at any family photo, we all look the same.
“On the field, business is business. It’s game time. But what happens on the field stays on the field with me.
“I’m a normal bloke. I enjoy being with my mates and my family. I enjoy having fun and good company. It’s not true.”
Not that he’s lived a normal life. Far from it. Ma’u didn’t make his NRL debut until 2014, at the age of 25. There were several reasons for that, but the main one was the fact he spent 22 months in prison. A teenager at the time, he was charged with grievous bodily harm and wounding with intent to injure following his part in a mass brawl. He was sentenced to two years and nine months in prison.
“I fell off the rails in my teenage years,” he said.
“I got into trouble with the law hanging around with the boys. Instead of going to rugby training I’d be getting on the piss with the boys. I’d just get up to mischief. I look back at it now and it was just stupid, a waste of time. There’s nothing I’m proud of. A lot of teenagers go through it and it was just a phase for me. I’m glad I grew out of it and realised it was a waste of time.
“It wasn’t until I was in prison that I realised things had to change. I really hit rock bottom in prison. There was only way and that’s to go up.
“Me and my brother were both in the same prison unit. I could see my brother was making changes. He was reading books, changing his behaviours and focusing on training. He was really disciplined. When they unlocked our cells, he made me get up and train. It helped me become more disciplined and changed my mindset. That was when I had that change. It helped me when I got out, I became more focused and made me want to make my family proud. As you can imagine, having two sons in prison at the same time was a struggle for my mum back at home. The family was struggling while we were doing prison time and that hurt me.
“When you join gangs, you’re just street hooligans. There wasn’t much to it until we started doing serious crime. Stuff like assaults, GBH, some of my friends did armed robberies and stuff. I don’t want to speak about it too much. I’m just grateful none of my friends have died.”
When he was released in 2009, Ma’u knew he couldn’t change his past but that he could shape his future. So he returned to playing Rugby League and used it as a platform to rebuild himself. “A lot of the players I played with were making their debuts at 18, 19, 20. I was 22-years-old playing park footy thinking my rugby career was going nowhere.
“But I just had to keep playing. When you have that dream of playing NRL as a kid, you always carry that in the back of your mind. Every time I played, I knew I just wanted a crack. I was just playing in New Zealand playing park footy.
“When I got told I was going to play in the Warriors feeder team, to me, that was the best I was going to get, to just be amongst some NRL players. “But for some reason I just kept hanging in there. A lot of players I’ve played with stopped because they thought the dream was over. For me, I had that no-quit mentality. I didn’t just want to end it there.
“Then one day I got a random phone call from Tyrone Smith, who’s my manager now. He was in Australia and he said he’d seen me play a few games and thought he could get me a contract somewhere. I didn’t believe him. I was playing for the Warriors’ feeder team in New Zealand.
“But he told me to give him a couple of weeks. Then he told me Parra were interested to give me an opportunity with the club. Everything is history.” His rise thereafter was meteoric.
Although it took him 12 months to get a visa, Ma’u eventually went to Australia and fulfilled a lifelong dream in 2014. Within three years he had played for both Tonga and New Zealand. Now, at the age of 31, Ma’u continues to live his dream as an NRL player. But he’s about to throw it all away to take up a contract in Super League. What makes the decision more perplexing is Ma’u had plenty of opportunities to stay. His move to Super League isn’t out of necessity, a reluctant move to continue his career. In fact, clubs down under were queuing up for him.
“Erm, a few things man.” Hesitancy enters Ma’u’s voice before a pause.
“Sorry, this is a hard question for me to answer.
“To be honest, I wanted to stay at Parra. “They helped me get my life back on track. For them to help me come from where I have, my relationship with them is very deep. Most of the boys I started playing with have left. I’m one of the senior players there now. Seeing the kids come through the ranks, it’s pleasing to know that they’ll be in good hands. “This club helped start my career in 2014. It’s a deep relationship. I told them straight up I didn’t want to leave. “But they just offered a one-year deal. I wanted to look beyond then. I couldn’t see myself playing for another NRL club.
Parra have done so much for me, I just couldn’t do it. The move to England was at the right time. My kids are still young, I’m still playing decent footy and I know I can help when I come over.”
Ma’u says Hull FC’s offer was too good to refuse, but his decision to join Hull wasn’t based on money. When speculation leaked that the Black and Whites were interested, other Super League clubs took note. But Ma’u didn’t speak to them. He didn’t chase money. Hull had been in pursuit of the 31-year-old for almost a year. Once the decision was made to leave Parramatta, he honoured Hull’s efforts and signed without trying to play them off against other clubs.
“I’m big on family. I’m a family man. When I spoke to James Clark and Lee Radford, I could just tell when I was speaking about the club it was family orientated. “They were big on families being involved in the club. That stuck with me. I’m a big believer in clubs bringing players together.
“It was a very long process. They kept coming back to me with an offer, my manager kept telling me about the deal but I wasn’t ready to make the move, just because I had a lot of things going on and I wanted to stay in the NRL and see how far I could go. Winning a Premiership with Parra was on top of my goals. It was a hard decision to move away from that, and for my family with kids and stuff. But when I made the decision the world was off my shoulders.
“I always knew I wanted to play Super League. Now everything has happened and the deal is signed, me and my family are looking forward to it. I’m looking forward to the challenge and to challenge myself coming over to a new environment and seeing the other side of the world.”
The challenge for Ma’u is to now make Hull his home, and for Hull, the task is to provide Ma’u with everything that made his love with Parramatta so deep-rooted. On the face of it, the two appear to go hand in hand. Just don’t expect Ma’u to make as many friends on the field as he does off it. “Coming over here, I’m sure there’ll be some words and actions exchanged on the field. “But it’s just part of the territory, I guess. I’m ready for it.” It’s hard to imagine anything or anyone will unnerve him. This is, after all, a man known as the Tongan Terminator.
“I played an international game against Samoa and I went to make a tackle on James Gavet.
“But he stepped off his left foot and his knee got my cheekbone and my eye socket. It was a flush hit and everything broke, fractures in my eye socket and cheekbone. So I’ve got some plates in there. “One of the guys said I was the Tongan Terminator and it just stuck! “People seem to like it, I know Hull have called me it too. I’m really looking forward to getting over.
“I’m looking forward to working with Lee and getting to know all the players. I want to be around the fans, I’ve heard a lot about them! “The boys reckon they might be singing some chants about me which is going to be different. But I can’t wait to get going.”
First published: Rugby League World (Issue 461|September 2019)