Robert Dillon: Sporting Declaration

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Robert Dillon: Sometimes we forget Sione Mata’utia is only 21 YOUNG VETERAN: Sione Mata’utia has appeared in 71 NRL games and three Tests for , yet is still only 21. Picture: AAP
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TweetFacebookSOMETIMES it’s easy to forget that Sione Mata’utia is still only 21.

At an age when many players have barelyemerged from under-20s and are takingtheir first tentative steps in the world’s toughest rugby league competition, Mata’utia is a young veteran participating in his fifth top-grade season.

With 71 games to his name, he is the most experienced player of his generation. To put his career thus far in context, he has made more appearances than Cameron Smith had at the same age.

If he can avoid injury, the youngest of four brothers can potentially become the longest-serving Knight of all time. The 257-game club record held byDanny Buderus would appear well within his capabilities.

Yet while every club in the NRL would love to have a player of Mata’utia’s potential on their roster, the unique manner in which he burst onto the scene createda level of hype and expectation against which he is now inevitably, if unfairly, measured.

Just days before the former n Schoolboys captain made his NRL debut in 2014, then Knights coach Wayne Bennett had no qualms about predicting he would be a “great player” and future leader of his club.

Seven games and seven tries later, another of the modern-day tactical maestros, Tim Sheens, selected him in the n squad for the end-of-season Four Nations series, in which he played three Tests, scoring a try in a 22-18 loss to New Zealand inthe tournament decider.

In the process, Mata’utia became the youngest-ever Kangaroo, eclipsing the recordheld previously by Israel Folau, and before him, by Brad Fittler.

To consider Sione’s subsequent progress, it is perhaps worthwhile comparing him to Folau and Fittler at the corresponding points in their careers.

After debuting for , both Folau and Fittler immediately established themselves as State of Origin and Test regulars.

Fittler proceeded to become one of the all-time greats, while Folau was on a similar trajectory until he defected to AFL and rugby union.

Mata’utia, in contrast, played in the All Stars exhibition game last year but otherwise has notbeen sightedon the representative radar.

He has plenty of years ahead of him to push for such honours, and sometimes outstanding teenagers –Cronulla’s Wade Graham being a prime example –have to bide their time before they are recognised by the men who hand out the rep jerseys.

It is also worth noting that, when Fittler and Folau emerged, both were blooded in dominant teams who contested consecutive grand finals.

Mata’utia has faced a far more daunting initiation. His first three full seasons in the NRL coincided withNewcastle collecting a hat-trick ofwooden spoons.

Nonetheless, while logic would suggest Sione’s best football is still ahead of him, he has reached a definingjuncture in his career.

After a series of concussions in seasons 2016 and 2017, there was genuine concern about his future.

Hence Knights officials opted to defer talks about extending his current contract, which expires at the end of this year.

It is understood negotiations have since resumed, although his manager might be facinga tough sell if he is hoping to secure a long-termdeal.

The Wests Group board of directors would be entitled to have formed the view that, given his history of head knocks, re-signing Mata’utia carries an element of risk.

Moreover, even if he suffers no further recurrence, another factor has emerged that Knights management will be no doubt weighing up –Mata’utia’s defensive lapses.

In Newcastle’s past two games, he has missed one-on-one tackles against Latrell Mitchell and Euan Aitken that have conceded tries.

This is not a recent issue. Sincehis first full NRL season, 2015, Mata’utia has struggled with the man-on-man marking requirements of playing in the centres, which is perhaps one of the reasons Knights coach Nathan Brown switched him to the back row almost two years ago.

This season, he has made 82 tackles and missed 12. That’s more than five times more tackles than Tautau Moga (15) made on Newcastle’s opposite edge.

In other words, it would appear opposition teams are targeting Newcastle’s right-side defence, in particular Mata’utia and five-eighth Brock Lamb.

As Mata’utia’s wingman Shaun Kenny-Dowall admitted after last week’s 30-12 loss to the Dragons:“They’d be silly not to. If we’re letting tries in, of course they’re going to go where we’re most weak. It’s definitely an area we have to clean up.”

It’s a tough school. Centres have the most unforgiving defensive gig in the NRL, trying to contain the fastest, most agile opponents, who regularlyreceive the ball in set plays and are obscured by decoy runners.

There is certainly no lack of commitment or courage on Sione’s behalf. He puts his body on the line each week.

But rival teams are going to keep coming at him and if he is to reach his potential, if he is to become the player he wants to be, he has to be better at stopping them.

He is, of course, only 21, with time on his side. Where there’s a will, there’s a way.

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