Ben Matulino, having once knocked back overtures to rejoin Ivan Cleary in Sydney, couldn’t bring himself to do it again.
Matulino is one of Wests Tigers’ big-name recruits for 2018, continuing an association with Cleary that began at the Warriors. The Kiwis prop first flirted with a move to Sydney in his teens, but his dream of one day becoming an All Black ultimately resulted in him turning down the Newcastle Knights. The harder decision was knocking back Cleary when his former Warriors mentor tried to bring him to the foot of the mountains.
“In 2014 Ivan was head coach at Penrith and I was probably a day away from signing with Penrith,” Matulino revealed.
"I was close to signing with them, but ended up staying at the Warriors. Then Ivan came knocking again and I couldn’t refuse the offer.
"He’s the one that gave me my debut and brought me up to full-time training at the Warriors.
“I have a lot of respect for him and he’s shown me a lot of faith.”
The Tigers have been the most active team in the player market. Their new faces include Josh Reynolds, Russell Packer, Chris McQueen, Robbie Rochow, Corey Thompson, Mahe Fonua, Taane Milne and Benji Marshall.
In Matulino’s case, the chance to play under Cleary again was a huge attraction.
“I just know how he works and goes about his business,” Matulino said.
"I came to the Warriors at a time when a lot of players were leaving and new players were coming in. He did that with Penrith as well and at the Tigers and I wanted to come in on the back of that.
"Just his approach to coaching stood out for me. He’s pretty simple in what he wants, he doesn’t say much, but gets his message across really well. You don’t want to upset him in any way, so you want to play for him.
“That’s what I remember of Ivan when he was head coach at the Warriors and I’m really looking forward to that. He’s already shown signs of it.”
Another motivator was playing up front again with Packer. The front-rowers have known each other since they were teens and their bond was further strengthened during campaigns for the Warriors and Kiwis.
“Part of the decision to come over, I gave him a call and – if you’ve ever met Russell – you’d know he is straight up,” Matulino said.
"He goes, ‘all the Australian teams don’t think you’ll leave home’.
"I told him I was pretty serious about it this time. We got talking and he goes, ‘If you end up signing with the Tigers, I might come with you, because I’m meeting Ivan a couple of days after you’.
"The next phone call, I told him I’d signed and he said ‘sweet’. It made his decision easier.
“It will be good to link up. He’s had a massive season for St George and he’s playing some good footy for the Kiwis at the moment.”
The addition of Matulino to the Tigers will help offset the loss of Aaron Woods to the Bulldogs. The move provides the 28-year-old, rated by some pundits as the game’s top prop just a few years ago, a fresh start after an injury-interrupted season.
“That was the biggest down point in my career – I pride myself on being durable throughout the season,” Matulino said of a season curtailed due to knee surgery.
"Having to sit out the first eight weeks of the competition was pretty tough and pushed my recovery a bit too much; I came back too early.
"The main reason I came over to Australia was for a fresh start.
“The timing was perfect when Ivan got the job at the Tigers – he approached me after that. It all worked in smoothly.”