How prison helped shape Eels duo
THEY'RE a series of texts he'll never forget.
With a young son and partner to provide for, Manu Ma'u was out of prison but he still wasn't truly a free man.
It was 2012 and the back-rower was playing for the Warriors' reserve-grade side, the Vulcans, but thanks to his criminal record, he could only play the games in New Zealand.
So after a strong game at home the week before, Ma'u found himself at home while his teammates were in Sydney.
Sitting at home and down on his luck, that's when he felt his phone vibrate.
It was a text from Suaia Matagi.
It read: "One day we'll crack the NRL and get a contract."
It was the message he needed to see but it's a text he himself had sent Matagi before.
Why? Because Matagi couldn't leave the country either.
It was just yet another thing these great friends had in common.
"We were texting each other, trying to motivate each other," Ma'u told foxsports.com.au of his friendship with Matagi.
"He'd text me saying 'just keep training hard and one day we'll crack the NRL and get a contract'.
"It was disappointing we couldn't fly to Sydney to play (due to our criminal records) so we just had to play the home games and do our best."
To truly appreciate how remarkable the narrative is we have to go back to 2009 when the pair first met playing park footy after Ma'u was released from prison.
He was desperate to live a better life. He knew he couldn't change his past but he could his future and that's what he'd set out to do.
So like fate often does, it brought the duo together and they instantly clicked.
Matagi had already gained a reputation among the rugby league community as a player to watch. You know, one of the guys who had all the talent to make it regardless of his age or his past. Ma'u wanted to be one of those blokes too.
"(Matagi and I) both played park footy back in NZ in premiers. I met him playing for the Auckland team in the local league," Ma'u said.
"I was 22 or 23 and we clicked straight away. I heard about his story and he told me he was an ex-con and it motivated me because he was one of the best players in Auckland at the time and he couldn't travel.
"From there we got the call up to the NSW Cup and me and him were just playing the home games in NZ."
Before they became friends, Ma'u had heard Matagi's story. It's the same story that prompted Phil Gould to sign Matagi to Penrith last year, but that's a tale you've heard before.
You've heard Ma'u's too.
You know about his teenage years caught up in gang life and how he was sentenced to three years for his part in a frenzied brawl at a house party.
It was behind bars he would watch the Warriors on a tiny television, workout to pass the time and play a version of league in which burly men belted the snot out of each other on concrete.
Those days are behind him. He was "Xx" but he doesn't like talking about that life any more.
So it's 2013 and Matagi had picked up an NRL deal with the Warriors but Ma'u hadn't heard from any clubs. That changed a few months later when his manager Tyran Smith called to say Parramatta wanted to throw him a lifeline.
After fighting for almost 12 months to land a visa, he moved to Australia and the rest is history.
"I was happy for him. I texted him and then a couple of months later I got a phone call from my manager saying that Parramatta was interested in me," he said.
"He had already started training with the Warriors and I came over (to the Eels) the following year."
Now, behind the tattoos that cover his neck, arms and hands is a man who accepts his position as a role model.
He's a role model to the fans and most importantly his two young boys, Melino, 5, and Levi, 3.
No longer a hell-raiser walking the streets of central Auckland, Ma'u is now mentoring the Polynesians at the Eels.
It's something he enjoys doing. It comes naturally. Brad Arthur has built a culture that's inclusive.
At the Eels everyone is welcomed regardless of their past. It's cliche but they're a family. That's why when Ma'u's old mate Matagi called him to get a feel for the blue and golds after his contract with the Panthers expired, Ma'u told him straight.
"He rung me and asked me what Parra was like and I was like 'why are you asking?'," he explained.
"He said he saw the coach and he was keen to have him over and I was like 'come, that's us'.
"He said he'd try and sort it out and I was (in England) on the Four Nations (tour) when I found out he'd signed with us.
"He's a really great guy."